Western Illinois University is an economic driver in the region by employing hundreds of people and bringing in thousands of students to the campuses in Macomb and the Quad Cities. The University also strives to grow the local economy by lending a helping hand to entrepreneurs and small business owners through its Small Business Development Center.
The Center has an office on the Macomb campus. But you’re not likely to find Director Jim Boyd there unless you have an appointment.
Instead, Boyd spends most of his time driving around the 12 county region the Center serves, meeting one-on-one with small business owners and anyone else who is interested in learning more about how to start their own business.
He said a small business is defined as any company that has fewer than 500 employees and brings in less than $7 million in profit a year. He said most businesses in this region meet those specifications.
Boyd said he meets with all different kinds of businesses. He said the most popular idea he comes across is someone wanting to open a restaurant, which he said is one of the highest risk industries out there.
Boyd said he counseled 100 entrepreneurs about starting a business last year. 25 of them went on to seek financing, and 10 of them actually went through with their idea.
Boyd helps entrepreneurs craft a business plan, identify financial sources, market their business, and he even does basic bookkeeping to assess profits and losses. The counseling is confidential and free.
The Small Business Development Center is mostly financed through grant funding and Western’s partnership with the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs. Recently, WIU and the IIRA were awarded a $300,000 grant to add a center on Western's riverfront campus in the Quad Cities.
Boyd said the expansion will increase the region he serves from 12 to 22 counties. He said the funding will allow the center to hire two more counselors to service the Quad Cities.
Boyd said he’s looking forward to the collaboration possibilities that will come from counseling small business owners in rural towns and also a big city. “They’re a marriage, a collaboration that can be done to help both," he said.
He said business owners in smaller towns know their potential customers really well. “When you walk down the street in Rushville, for instance, you probably know 80% of all the people so you can do face-to-face marketing really well and outreach because you know where to go,” Boyd said.
But much of that is lost in larger cities, and Boyd said it could really help those business owners to understand that, “Your neighbor is actually really one of your clients, your potential customers.”
He said he also hopes the new center helps build connections with the WIU campus community. He says the University has many resources it could offer to entrepreneurs that aren’t currently readily available.
“If we can keep one or two graduates from going to Chicago or Springfield or Indianapolis or wherever, that may benefit the whole economy,” Boyd said.
The decision to open a Quad Cities location comes after the only other small business development center in the Quad Cities closed up shop. It was not affiliated with the University, and Western administrators said they wanted to fill the need in the community for small business advising.