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Nonprofit business assistance group based in Montevideo, Minn., needs help of its own with funding

Emily Sumner launched her downtown Montevideo business Petalpark with lots of experience in floral design. She credits the Entrepreneur's Assistance Network with providing her with the technical assistance that helped her get the business off to a successful start. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)1 / 2
The Entrepreneur's Assistance Network relies on volunteers. Ruth Ann Lee, left, and Lou Anne Kling are the regular volunteers in the office currently. They are also co-founders of the organization. Vern Lein, right, chairman of the board of directors and a business owner in Boyd, said the organization is committed to finding funds to keep up its efforts to assist startup businesses. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)2 / 2

MONTEVIDEO -- Roughly one-half of all new businesses fail within the first five years, according to the Small Business Administration.

A nonprofit organization that has been helping startup businesses in area communities beat those odds could soon fall victim as well.

The Entrepreneur's Assistance Network, based in Montevideo, is looking for support from local governments, agencies and the entrepreneurs it assists as it copes with funding needs. Since July of 2009, it has been staffed by volunteers Lou Anne Kling and Ruth Ann Lee, two of the original co-founders.

They remain as dedicated as ever, but they were hoping to obtain grant funds to hire a director again and to meet operating expenses. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development grant they had hoped to obtain was not awarded.

"It's almost defeating,'' said Lee.

The organization is committed to finding funds and keeping up its work, according to Vern Lein, chairman of the board of directors and business owner in the rural community of Boyd. "It's really important to Main Street,'' he said of the assistance network's work.

That's apparent right on Main Street Montevideo, where the network shares office space with the Chamber of Commerce.

Downtown business owner Emily Sumner is celebrating her sixth year as her own boss at Petalpark, a floral and design studio. Sumner said she was following a dream when she opened the retail business six years ago. She had lots of experience in the floral industry and design, and plenty of enthusiasm to boot. What she didn't have was experience in the myriad sorts of issues that small business owners face: Everything from how to develop a business plan to assembling a financing package.

"There is no one, main place you can go to (for that help) either,'' she said. Sumner said the technical assistance offered by the Entrepreneur's Assistance Network was very helpful. They kept her on top of a sharp learning curve, and she added, "were very supportive.''

The Entrepreneur's Assistance Network provides technical assistance to entrepreneurs. It does not provide financial assistance.

It does help entrepreneurs put together applications for financing. In many instances, local lending institutions refer would-be entrepreneurs to the network.

Last year the network helped 30 entrepreneurs start businesses, said Kling.

The Entrepreneur's Assistance Network was founded in 2004. It was originally geared to assist startups in Chippewa, Lac qui Parle and Yellow Medicine counties. It does not turn down requests for help from outside those counties and has worked with entrepreneurs from Ortonville to Willmar.

There's a picture board in the office showing its many success stories over the years. Lein said he never ceases to be impressed by the ideas and entrepreneurial spirit that abounds in the region.

Help is tailored to the individual's needs, said Kling. She's had one entrepreneur come in and announce: "I've been thinking about this for 35 years and I think I'm ready.''

Another came in with a great idea, but nothing more. "She had no idea where to start.''

Kling wants entrepreneurs to know that the best place to start is the Entrepreneur's Assistance Network office. Its founders vow it will remain that way if the needed funding can be found.

"They have the dream and passion,'' said Kling of the entrepreneurs she helps. "We help them make the decisions.''

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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