Collaboration can fill in gaps for startups

Patti Dunn could only dream of fancy marketing, a prominent Web site and hiring consultants when she and her business partner started Fit In 20, an online and telephone fitness-counseling service, six months ago.

"We knew exactly what we wanted to do, but we just didn't know how to get it out there," Dunn said.

Dunn and her partner, Michele Kulbel, were so focused on what they were selling that they devoted little time or money to the other crucial elements of a successful business.

They are not alone. Small-business owners often neglect components such as marketing, finances and business plans and end up failing.

Bettina Carey, founder of the networking group Women in Small Biz, created a contest to help business owners work together and to show them the importance of sharing resources.

"They have a passion for what it is they want to do, but they may not be as passionate about sales and marketing or the whole process of networking," said Carey, 46, a former registered nurse who paired health-care businesses while working as a nursing consultant. "Starting a business takes a lot less financial resources when you're sharing."

Dunn and Kulbel lucked out and won the contest, giving them $20,000 worth of products and services donated by about 15 companies.

Many of the companies that donated services had worked with Carey on other projects and liked the idea of helping other businesses.

"I wanted to help people because that in turn helps you more in the long run," said graphic designer Aileen Yost of Inspiring Design Group in Kent who offered to provide a logo, marketing materials and brochures for a startup. "There's definitely exposure as part of it. Also, by supporting others, you support yourself."

Audrey Godwin, a certified public accountant, donated $5,500 worth of business planning.

Her Renton-based company, The Godwin Group, helps entrepreneurs determine their company's core values, target market and what makes their product or service essential.

"I'm an outsourced chief financial officer," she said.

Many small-business owners start companies that don't grow and never turn a profit.

"A lot of people just hit the ground running and do everything themselves," Godwin said. "They look at the business 10 years later and realize they just created another job for themselves."

Dunn and Kulbel, for example, knew plenty about fitness, but they had little knowledge of marketing or how to improve their Web site.

"It's not something that we would have initially put money into," Dunn said.

Fit In 20 offers phone and on-line fitness plans and nutrition advice for people too busy or too shy to go to a gym. It has about 15 clients who each pay program fees of $75 to $100 a week.

"We see that we have a really great product to sell, now getting it out there is the next step," Dunn said.

The inspiration for the business makeovers came from Carey's experiences as a consultant, when she noticed that many small-business owners don't think about building relationships and marketing. She started Women in Small Biz as an informal networking group about seven years ago but launched it as a business last year. She charges $100 to $150 an hour for her services.

The makeover contest is also a business venture: She hopes to turn it into a reality TV show.

She has been filming the eight-week program since the Prosperity Trade Show on Aug. 26 at the Women's University Club in Seattle. The trade show drew about 50 vendors and 120 participants.

Carey assembled the main-prize package before the show but conducted an impromptu version at the event.

"I definitely want to share it with the world ... the idea that when you're matched up with what you need, you can take it to the next level," she said.

Along with Fit In 20, Carey selected Noni Cavalier, owner of C2G Media Productions, to receive $10,000 worth of business products and services donated by 10 companies.

"It was so powerful to see the amount of support," Carey said.

Most small-business owners won't be subjects of a makeover, but Carey said they should still ask for help.

"You have to visualize what's it going to take to get you where you want to go, even if it seems impossible," Carey said. "Then just start asking people around you for what it is you need and want. People are more willing to help you than you would realize."

Blanca Torres: 206-515-5066 or btorres@seattletimes.com