There are several angles from which to look at the start of a new business. There’s the legal perspective, there’s the funding perspective and there’s the general, “are you committed enough to this idea to stick with it?” perspective.

Representatives from the array of entrepreneurial resources in Central Pennsylvania offer some pointers on taking your venture to the next level, when you’re not sure where to go or what to do to get your startup off the ground.

Sharon D. Barney
Lawyer at Leech Tishman

Q: What is your role at Leech Tishman, and what qualifies you and your colleagues to speak on entrepreneurship?

A: Primarily, I do immigration and family law work. I was a solo practitioner prior to joining the firm, so I know what it’s like to start your own business. Leech Tishman is well-suited to talk about entrepreneurship because we are a well-rounded firm that provides business-formation, IP and immigration advice all at the same place. We are unique.

Q: What are the main legal issues entrepreneurs may not consider when first thinking of starting a business?

A: Financing is always a big issue. One thing we do is try provide advice beyond just statutes and the law. We have connections, working primarily out of Pittsburgh, although we also have our State College office, to try to meet a client’s needs beyond just direct legal services by helping them connect. I think the other piece of it is hiring and employment practices. We have an employment practice group that helps when a business is growing. I can uniquely help entrepreneurs and startups discuss what it’s like to have a diverse and dynamic workforce while navigating ever-changing immigration laws.

Q: What type of connections do you help entrepreneurs form?

A: We work with accountants, independent companies and investors specifically, but also other financial folks who provide services to entrepreneurs. We also have deep roots in Pittsburgh and some of the universities there, and we are trying to grow in State College and central Pennsylvania.

Q: In what particular areas do most entrepreneurs need help when they are first starting

A: We have a lot of current, ongoing changes besides immigration in the employment realm. Changes in how certain wage and hour issues are being interpreted, even the idea of who counts as an unpaid intern is something that has changed recently. These are all things that are
important when looking to grow to make sure that you’re complying with current laws and seeing if there’s additional flexibility.

Q: As far as trends entrepreneurs need to understand as they start their business, what trends are most people following correctly, and what trends are they not?

A: I just attended a recent panel — actually it was a full conference tailored for entrepreneurs — and one of the key things it was missing was a discussion about legal services. We only hear about legal issues after a major situation, right? Sometimes an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. And that’s what we hope to be able to offer to entrepreneurs. We have a service — a flat-fee sort of package — that includes a number of different services such as discussion and nondisclosure agreements, an initial consultation and discussions about board-meeting minutes — some things to help an entrepreneur get in the right state of mind.

Q: Do you find there are separate issues facing female entrepreneurs versus those facing men?

A: As far as my own experience, I was treated well because I knew how to navigate certain systems, and I reached out to mentors who could walk me through some of these processes. Finding a mentor, whether you’re a man or a woman, is really important, although sometimes it is hard to find another female mentor in a similar business as you. It’s still a male-dominated business world, although, hopefully, that’s changing.

Q: Are there certain businesses you find Leech Tishman works with more than others when advising entrepreneurs?

A: We’ve been seeing a lot of work with startups primarily, especially in technology fields, and I think that’s following a national trend. But we
also work with manufacturing businesses, because sometimes they have different challenges.

Q: At what stage should entrepreneurs begin seeking legal advice?

A: If they already have a plan for moving forward, the key step is deciding what sort of entity they want to form, and whether that
form can help protect them from possible future liability issues or be beneficial for tax purposes. Talking to us before you’ve formed a business entity can be helpful in finding the best option.

Q: What can entrepreneurs do on their own to avoid legal issues regarding employees and employment issues?

A: Again, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you have a question, and you have a lawyer you trust who has been working with you for a while, ask, even if it takes a little time, rather than making a decision that could have costly consequences. Recently, someone asked me about appropriate language for a job- hiring situation. I talked to them about it before they even went forward with the process of posting a job post. Some things that really don’t take too long for an attorney to get back to you on could really help down the line as you’re trying to grow your business.

Q: Is there any final advice for getting in contact with advisors so entrepreneurs can start on the right foot?

A: Reach out to a mentor. Talking to your connections and asking them who they recommend in terms of a bank, an accountant or a lawyer can all be helpful. You don’t know who knows who, right? So getting out there and talking about your business and taking advice from people who have been there is really helpful. We have a new service that mentors startups called Launch Pad. Entrepreneurs can go to the website or contact me to learn about the service to see if it’s something they are interested in.

Linda Feltman
Small Business Development Center student entrepreneurship consultant and Global Entrepreneurship Week coordinator

Q: How would you describe your role at the SBDC?

A: I primarily work with students and community members who walk in to Launchbox.

Q: At what stage or for what reasons should an entrepreneur come to the SBDC?

A: For community members, it just depends on where they’re at. There’s not really one answer. It very much depends on needs: are they starting, are they expanding, are they exiting, what are they doing?

Q: What is the biggest part of the business plan that people usually get wrong or are incorrect in their assumptions with?

A: The numbers. We see an awful lot of people come in with hockey stick numbers…For the most part, usually, they’re just a little too optimistic, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — you want to be optimistic, you don’t want to go into this thinking you’re going to fail. But on the other side of it, try to be a little cautious about it. If you’re going to fail, get in there, do it fast, get it over with and start again. The optimism can be very helpful, but hopefully it’s tempered with some kind of knowledge related to it — have you done your research, have you reached out to mentors, have you asked for help? You’re not an island, especially at Penn State. There are tons of resources, more so now than ever before.

Q: What is usually your piece of advice or wisdom to entrepreneurs who are just starting

A: You have to gauge your passion — is this something you want to live with? Because if you’re doing it just for the money, it’s going to get tiring really fast. People often don’t realize, when starting a business, it’s like having a child — it’s just always there. They don’t go away. You have to really love [it].

Bob Dornich
Director of the TechCelerator at Ben Franklin Technology Partners

Q: How does Ben Franklin Technology Partners help entrepreneurs, and what is your role in accomplishing that?

A: Ben Franklin has what we call transformation services, which are marketing, human resources, market research, accounting and finance, bookkeeping, strategy and mentoring services, and we have a variety of experts in all those different fields that will work one-on-one with companies and help them to get up and running, or once they’re up and running, to help them continue their growth. We also have funding where we do investments anywhere from $10,000 up to $100,000 at a time for small businesses, and cumulatively up to a half a million dollars in investments over the course of three to five years per company.

Q: What is the biggest mistake you see tech companies making?

A: I think the biggest mistake I’ve seen, and I’ve been in and out of business for 40 years, is companies creating a solution in search of a problem. In other words, they don’t know what their customers need…Lots of products and apps have died on the shelf because customers didn’t demand them, including apps and widgets from Amazon, Google, Apple and Microsoft. I think that’s really key. It’s one of the things we stress the most — It’s all about customer discovery and development. You have to understand what their needs are, what they’re willing to pay for, what your competitors are doing and how you can do it better, faster or cheaper.

Q: What is your biggest piece of advice for an entrepreneur who is
just starting out?

A: Don’t give up. Of all the things that I say to people, that is one of the main reasons that I had success and a lot of my colleagues had success. Just don’t give up. Owning a business is really, really hard. If it was easy, everybody would do it.