So the entrepreneurial spirit has struck: You've officially conceived the next big idea for a dynamic new business. Or perhaps you already own a small business and want to take it to the next level. Do you know how?

Darla Thixtun wasn't quite sure, either. For seven years, Thixtun owned and operated a medical transcription company serving local doctors. Ready to expand her business to reach a larger market, she turned to the Manasota Chapter of SCORE (Service Corporation of Retired Executives). SCORE is a not-for-profit organization with 389 chapters nationwide and more than 11,500 volunteer retirees who are dedicated to "entrepreneur education and the formation, growth and success of small business."

SCORE offers free, one-on-one counseling by appointment or online counseling via e-mail. The Manasota chapter, which serves Sarasota and Manatee counties, is particularly active. It won first runner-up honors among all SCORE chapters nationally in 2003. "Many chapters serve larger, more urban markets, so the award was a great honor to us," says Jim Fox, a Manasota SCORE volunteer who also handles the organization's marketing efforts. "Because we have a wealth of active, successful retirees and because our area is so conducive to the small business market, we are positioned well here. We also enjoy great support from our local chambers and media, who help us reach out to the community."

In Thixtun's case, SCORE helped her draft a business plan to add equipment and technology so she could expand her transcription services to a national market. With the help of a SCORE counselor, Thixtun was able to submit the necessary paperwork to secure a small business loan that successfully funded her expansion. "Being able to purchase the upgrades I needed, my company is no longer tied to a phone line so I can provide transcription to doctors anywhere in the country," she says.

Another Sarasota company, CC Display Cases, Inc., also used SCORE both before its launch and when it reached a critical growth stage two short years later. Cheryl Clark and Christine Parlett started their business in 1999 with the idea of creating specialized wooden cases for the display of precious artifacts such as medals, flags, swords and knives. "We began with a very basic question that a lot of people probably have: 'How do we start?'" says Clark. SCORE helped them write a business plan and taught them such fundamentals of operating a business as marketing, financing and Internet commerce.

Clark and Parlett's diligence paid off when CC Display Cases was awarded a manufacturing contract by the U.S. Navy. The company now supplies internment flag cases to the U.S. Army and to Arlington National Cemetery. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Army requested 100 flag cases be delivered in one-week's time for the families of Pentagon victims.

"SCORE helped us obtain a small business loan to increase our operation. They connected us with the resources we needed, including counselors who are experienced in insurance and accounting," says Clark. CC Display Cases was awarded the Manasota Chapter 2003 Small Business of the Year Award.

Starting a small business is no small task, emphasizes Fox. "We provide the mentoring, but we don't do the work. That's up to the individual. And there are cases where we must tell our clients things they don't want to hear. The business plan they've invested months into needs reworking, or maybe their product just isn't marketable. We use our past experience and knowledge to provide honest, sometimes hard answers." Fox says watching those who are committed to making their dream a reality is gratifying. "You spend hours, weeks, sometimes years guiding them, so you can't help cheering for them when it comes together."

SCORE provides assistance with buying or selling a business, exporting goods, home businesses, franchises, licensing, publishing, business management, manufacturing, increasing profits, and just about any other business-related subject that may need addressing. Counseling services are available at seven locations in Sarasota, Bradenton, Venice and Englewood, or via e-mail score116@verizon.net. SCORE also has a user-friendly Website, www.score-suncoast.org, where visitors can read more about the organization, request counseling, find out about upcoming workshops, connect with related Websites and read about more small business success stories.

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