There’s an idea I’ve had for months now: wouldn’t it be great to run a combination pet store and singles bar? Customers could play with gerbils while sipping their favorite microbrew. But like many would-be entrepreneurs, I’m short on confidence, cash, and a clue about what to do next. Luckily, the knowledgeable staff at Women’s Economic Ventures (WEV) can help with all three.

WEV is a local nonprofit that provides tools for both women and men to realize their entrepreneurial goals, whether it be launching a venture or expanding an existing business. Consulting, coaching services, and even startup loans are available, but at the core of the organization are two courses that shepherd participants through the process of writing a business plan: the Self-Employment Training (SET) program, and the Business Plan Intensive (BPI) program. The two are essentially the same, although BPI is a serious undertaking, as it distills the 14-week SET curriculum into a vertigo-inducing six weeks.

“We try and make it clear that it really will be a lot of work,” said Katie Walters, SET instructor and owner of Circa Vintage Modern, a mid-century furniture and accessories boutique in Arroyo Grande. She spoke at a recent orientation session, mandatory for anyone thinking about taking the SET or BPI programs. These sessions give potential entrepreneurs an overview of the program, as well as a sense of what they’re in for, both in the class and as business owners.

Walter’s path to small business ownership came when she first taught the SET class at WEV and decided to take the course along with her students. She described how students come together to support and energize each other, holding one another accountable and creating a network that retains its value long after the course has finished.

A recent graduate of the SET program, Karen Czuleger agreed. “We’re still connected,” she said of her fellow students, crediting that connection with helping her to stay motivated. Although she only finished the course in December 2011, Czuleger has already launched her business, Painted Sea Star Studio, where she turns her watercolor paintings of the Santa Barbara coastline into eco-friendly greeting cards and a 2012 calendar. Her designs have sold at the Santa Barbara Farmer’s Market and Chaucer’s Books in Santa Barbara.

Following the business strategy she outlined with the help of WEV, Czuleger has plans to expand sales in the coming year. “They told us during the program, you have to take it one step at a time,” she said. “And at the end you have this notebook that keeps you focused, from day to month to year.” Like many who contemplate starting a business, Czuleger explained how frightening it was. But the exercise of writing a business plan was invaluable. “I finished 1,000 times more confident than when I started.”

The confidence boost is perhaps most valuable when contemplating starting a business in a struggling economy. “The classic [put down] people hear is, ‘Who do you think you are? Don’t you know it’s a bad economy?’” said Walters. But for many people, that’s exactly when working for yourself becomes a necessity. WEV was conceived by founder Marsha Bailey during a recession. She wanted to provide people, women in particular, with employment opportunities. And WEV is good at it — a 2009 survey found that 12 to 18 months after taking the course, 63 percent of former students were operating a business. Owners of existing businesses who took the SET course reported an average sales increase of 73 percent over the same time frame.

So would Walters endorse my kitty litter and margaritas idea? “I don’t ever tell anybody not to do something, but I ask a lot of questions,” she said. “I’m there to be a sounding-board and also the voice of reason, to a certain extent.” It’s not uncommon for people to enter the SET program with one idea, and finish with one that’s very different. At WEV they won’t talk you out of anything, but they will help you put together your business plan and decide for yourself.

SET runs twice a year, with the next program starting in February. Attend an orientation to find out if you’re ready. Here’s a list of upcoming orientations (more information available online):

– Monday, January 30th in Santa Barbara (6–7 p.m.)

– Tuesday, January 31st in Buellton (6–7 p.m.)

– Tuesday, January 31st in Thousand Oaks (6–7 p.m.)

– Thursday, February 2nd in Ventura (12–1 p.m.)


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