Fear not, LI entrepreneur: You are not alone
When Angela Kovler decided to start her own landscaping business, she had a head start.

A man who’d already built a successful landscaping company agreed to work for her. Not only would he potentially bring in hundreds of customers, but AOK Landscaping and Design Corp. could immediately boast clients close to one another, rather than a patchwork of here-and-there lawns.

But Kovler had no experience running a company and wondered if she was biting off more than she could chew, so she headed over to the Small Business Development Center at Farmingdale State University for a little “business 101.” When she arrived, all she had was a company name; when she left, she had the necessary documents to incorporate, advice on obtaining a company tax identification number and numerous other business tips.

“It helped me to get organized,” Kovler said. “It showed me things I can do myself.”

Entrepreneurs need not embark on a journey into the unknown all alone. There are 21 small business development centers statewide, including one in Farmingdale and one at Stony Brook University, standing by with oodles of free services.

That’s the good news. The bad news: 86 percent of all small businesses fail within three years, according to Lucille Wesnofske, director of the Farmingdale center, which services about 1,200 people annually.

Centers like hers are meant to provide not only help but encouragement, Wesnofske said, especially in the face of such daunting numbers. “Divorce is … high,” she noted. “We don’t tell people not to get married.”

Those saying “I do” to business are more likely to succeed if they turn to business development centers, which function under the auspices of the U.S. Small Business Administration. Farmingdale Small Business Development Center advisor John A. Narciso said entrepreneurs who spend at least 10 hours with his school’s SBDC have a 75 percent chance of besting the three-year mark.

“Our philosophy is we never discourage you,” Narciso said. “We always encourage you. But we always tell you the steps to a successful business.”

In addition to startups, seasoned business veterans sometimes turn to these centers for help. Leon Shapiro, president of Ronkonkoma-based LWS Inc. and a Vietnam veteran who considers himself “an overnight success that took 20 years,” came to the Farmingdale center two decades after starting up.

Shapiro is trying to buy a building, which is akin to “walking through a minefield,” he said – and the business development center has already “seen the minefields.”

Although these centers do largely low-profile work, thinking small sometimes pays huge. Since its inception in 1985 as the first downstate business development center, the Farmingdale center claims to have helped launch 19,877 businesses and obtain $209 million in investments, and to have had a hand in saving or creating more than 10,000 jobs.

Its business advisors ask tough questions as they help the industrious obtain loans and craft business plans. Sometimes, their blunt advice to the entrepreneur is to hang it up, although entrepreneurs with unusual plans sometimes beat the odds. Mark Buford and the founders of Blue Point Brewery convinced Wesnofske they could create a microbrewery; against her advice, they proved successful.

But when the advisors tell entrepreneurs their dog won’t hunt, they’re usually right. Wesnofske warned investors seeking to open a gym their plan was flawed, but they went ahead anyway.

“Within six months,” she said, “they were closed.”

Wesnofske once advised a teacher who wanted to open a liquor shop to try working at one first, to better know the business; and she never hesitates to tell chefs who want to open restaurants that good food does not equal a good business plan.

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