Taking Wing

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By Sarah Sekula, published in FirstMonday magazine

Like any entrepreneur’s, Lorenzo Zayas’ work life seriously invades his home life. Not only is the around-the-clock businessman surrounded by the ubiquitous paperwork and paperclips, but he’s also encircled by 25 species of brightly colored insects, which happen to be his main source of income.

Thanks to his 15-year-old business — Nature’s Way Butterfly Gardens — Zayas’ South Orlando abode is a giant terrarium of sorts packed with swallowtails, monarchs and zebra longwings, all at different stages of development.

Of course, the critters need to feel at home; that explains the wild mustard plants and passion flowers on the kitchen counter and under the beds. And for easy transport, plastic cups shaped like McDonald’s ice cream sundae containers are scattered about. Then there’s the fridge — not stocked with Diet Cokes and leftovers — but jam packed with caterpillar treats — sweet gum leaves, milkweed and magnolia leaves.

It’s not the most feng shui setup, but everything this “Butterfly Man” needs is just a few steps away.

After moving from Camaguey, a small province in Cuba, to Orlando in 1980, Zayas found freedom in many forms — the freedom to start a business (which he did in full force in 1993), and the freedom to fall flat on his face (which he didn’t, thanks to the Hispanic Business Initiative Fund). The nonprofit economic development organization provides assistance to Hispanic entrepreneurs looking to establish a business or launch an expansion.

Several years after opening his business, Zayas was looking for a jump start, a renewal of sorts. HBIF counselors gave him new chops through QuickBooks training, tips for marketing his delicate creatures and for creating a meaningful Web presence.

“I had counselors available when I had legal or accounting questions,” Zayas recalls. “I met with them a few hours each week.” But here’s the kicker: Much of this assistance was free.

From Zayas’ days behind a microscope studying ants and termites as curator of the Cuban Academy of Science’s massive insect collection to his startup of his own butterfly business, his zeal for multilegged creatures is as apparent as the freckles dotting his cheeks. He admits, however, he’s much more science than he is sales. That’s where the HBIF comes in. The agency has taught him to promote his business and, with notable clients and partners like Orange County Public Schools, the city of Orlando and Leu Gardens, it’s all paying off.

Small Business Mecca

The HBIF is just one of a slew of partners housed in the Disney Entrepreneur Center, a 22,000-square-foot facility in downtown Orlando, which also includes the Black Business Investment Fund, Florida First Capital Finance Corp. and the Minority/Women Business Enterprise Alliance, among others.

Budding entrepreneurs walk in with a dream (well thought out or not) and walk out with the reality of pursuing it along with a new team of supporters behind them. (Read: Walt Disney World executives, members of the Florida High Tech Corridor Council and representatives from three private-sector banks.)

Businesspeople who “have been there and done that” walk in with problems to discuss, such as mortgage issues, marketing woes or human resource nightmares, and walk out with new ideas and a fresh perspective.

Unlike most entrepreneur centers across the nation, the DEC offers a tremendous number of coordinated resources under one roof. “It’s the community’s cooperation here that is unique,” says Jerry Ross, executive director of the DEC. “To have our county mayor working with the city mayor — you don’t find that in a lot of communities.”

The DEC is so unusual, in fact, that Ross recently got a call from the city of Los Angeles inquiring about how they could mimic his center. And on an international scale, Ross has hosted 40 representatives from 40 foreign countries over the past year. From Russia to Israel, they all want to know the DEC’s secret.

Not coincidentally, with all the hoopla surrounding the center, small business owners within driving distance flock to the shiny office building overlooking Lake Eola. There, they can attend a “How to Start a Business” seminar offered by the Orlando SCORE chapter, and they’re likely to meet rosy-cheeked, high-spirited Bob Shephard, a retired oceanographer who, along with 50 other business pros, volunteers several days a week for SCORE. The nonprofit organization of expert retired business gurus offers counsel to small businesses in Central Florida and across the nation. As the district director for SCORE’s Central and North Florida division, Shephard lends his lifetime of experience through free one-on-one business counseling, low-cost seminars and on-site business evaluations.

Mama Mia! We Need Money

His knowledge of engineering, marketing, management and home-based businesses, combined with the wisdom of250 other counselors throughout the Central/North district, is what prompted Sylvia and Bob Morse to seek help from SCORE’s Lake County chapter.

The ambitious couple — with Emilianna’s, their successful Italian catering business in full swing — were ready to move

into a retail location on Tavares’ Main Street. Their plans for an Old-World, music-playing bistro with a larger kitchen to cook specialty take-out meals, including bakery-cut pastas, a smorgasbord of soups and homemade sausage made from a recipe dating back 10 generations, required greater marketing, manpower and funding.

Fortunately, SCORE, in conjunction with the Lake Sumter Community College Business Resource Center, assists businesses with microloans. New and existing businesses can receive $5,000 to $10,000, with payback periods ranging from six to 60 months.

To gain approval of their anticipated $5,000 five-year loan, the Morses needed to revamp their business plan, which had aged, but not nearly like a fine Italian Sauvignon Blanc. SCORE counselors, including Bryce Norwood, a retired Darden Restaurants executive, walked the couple through the process. They locked in the loan and were able to squash the mounting surprise expenses, such as extra equipment and inventory; even their electric bill was nearly three times the expected cost.

“I was thinking we were going to be the first business to go out of business before we even opened,” says Sylvia Morse. “There were so many factors that we weren’t thinking about. Because we weren’t open yet, I think if we had not gone through the microloan program, we would not have made it.”

Business Buddy

All of DEC’s 11 service providers offer counselors. And when Danielle Evans, owner of Winter Park–based Dream Design and Florist Inc. & Wedding Boutique, talks up her counselor, you’d swear they were buddies since childhood rather than business associates.

Two years ago, after browsing the SCORE Web site, the floral fanatic was linked up with the Small Business Development Center at the University of Central Florida. She was ready to open a storefront and SBDC counselor Jill Kaufman — a certified business analyst, MBA holder and former owner of her family’s British Virgin Islands hotel — became her new sidekick.

“Jill has the background of owning a business,” says Evans. “She also has the experience of working with her mom. I wanted to have my mom in the shop with me, and we discussed the pros and cons. It’s almost like a sit-down therapy session.”

The first step was getting Evans’ finances and operating budget in order, something she normally did in a not-so-structured manner. “I recommended she develop a cash flow projection to ensure that her business could support the new overhead,” says Kaufman. “I provided her with a template for a cash flow projection, and analyzed her cash flow and the effect of seasonality on her business.”

Plus, the “fairy godmother–like” help didn’t end there. Kaufman gave Evans access to SBDC’s financial analysis software ProfitCents and urged her to input the preceding three years’ worth of financial statements in order to compare her wedding boutique/floral shop to the industry average in terms of debt, liquidity and sales.

Another major push: Evans’ marketing and business development efforts. For marketing, the main thrust had been direct mail campaigns, developing her Web site with e-commerce capabilities and e-mail efforts.

“I encouraged her to track and measure the results of various marketing initiatives to ensure they are cost effective,” says Kaufman. “I also recommended Danielle form strategic alliances with complementary businesses in order to attract more business referrals.”

“Jill was a vote of confidence,” says Evans. “She believes in my energy so much that it’s kind of contagious. We actually kind of propel each other.”

Beyond the boost of enthusiasm, Kaufman is also helping Evans search for a qualified intern through UCF’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management.

In Evans’ case, and for any small business, careful attention to finances is obviously crucial. In fact, Ross says that it’s poor budgeting, lack of research and poor inventory control that end up forcing businesses to close their doors.

Consider this: One million new businesses start up each year. And 33 percent of those businesses close within the first two years. What’s more, 50 percent close within four years.

Yet, take heart. Help is available. Just ask the Butterfly Man, the pasta maker in Tavares or the Winter Park florist with a dream.