Scott Seltzer of Blue Plate Specials is ecstatic. Only a matter of months ago, he was a stay-at-home dad burnt out by the sales industry. Now he runs his own alternative advertisement company that designs placemats and take-out menus for local restaurants.

What makes Blue Plate Specials “special” is that these placemats and menus are printed at no cost to the restaurant. Through cross-promotion with area businesses, advertisements on the mats and menus pay for the production fee.

“It’s the natural link of the business community helping the restaurant community and vice versa,” Seltzer says. “I’d really like to look at myself as giving an excellent alternative to traditional advertising.”

After just five months, Seltzer has more demand for his business than he is able to commit to. What began as an idea, a flitting thought in the back of Seltzer’s brain, has now come to life as a successful small business. And like many entrepreneurs, Seltzer has had some help to guide him along the way.

Seltzer has been involved in a new multi-phased Windham Adult Education program designed to help people through the process of starting a small business. This past fall, Adult Ed taught Phase I of the training program for Lakes Region entrepreneurs that helped shape the students’ business ideas and determine the feasibility of those ideas in the real world. This spring, the second training course, Phase II, is showing students how to translate those ideas into reality.

Eva Giles, workforce education coordinator for Windham Adult Education, is the developer of this new program.

“We began with Phase I as a training opportunity for Lakes Region entrepreneurs,” Giles said. “Then after working with our students in the fall, we realized that there was more training that we wanted to do and started looking at it as a Phase I, Phase II, Phase III program, to go from the business idea to getting the business operational and to take a currently working business and help it transition and grow.”

The program is conducted in a series of seminars hosted by training instructors and local business owners.

“We bring in trainers from a number of different programs to speak about their area of expertise,” Giles said. “We also invite in local business owners to come and share their stories and their experiences.”

These instructors taught students certain aspects of the business process so as to test the weight of their business ideas, covering such topics as market research, quality service, financing and e-commerce (Internet sales and marketing). Phase II then takes the students’ business ideas and leads them through the steps to becoming a full-fledged small business.

“In Phase II, we’re hoping to help folks take it to the next level,” Giles said. “We were looking for students who had gone through the process and had decided that yes – they did have a feasible business idea – and now were looking to get the business operational.”

Phase II teaches students about the fundamentals of business law, how to register a business, record keeping, marketing and promotion, the actual steps of obtaining financing and establishing the template for a business plan. At the end of Phase II, local bankers will sit down with the students to evaluate their business plans.

Before potential students are accepted into the program, Giles interviews each one to see where they are in the development process so as to determine which program would be best suited for the individual.

Jane McGrady and Kristina Sobel, sisters, are interested in starting their own spiritual bookstore. McGrady and Sobel enrolled in the Phase II program so as to learn more specifics about starting a small business. Though they didn’t participate in Phase I, they were far enough along in the process to enroll in Phase II.

Grady, who works in a bookstore at Unity Church in Windham, had thought long about running a spiritual bookstore of her own in the past. However, it wasn’t until her sister gave her a book called “This Time I Dance,” about a Harvard lawyer who traded her law career for a career in writing, that she felt “called” to the endeavor.

“The intention behind the bookstore is to help people connect with their own spirituality,” McGrady said. “Adult Ed has helped us put things on paper and see what we’re missing. Having the idea is great, but you have to know the ‘know-how.'”

The sisters are now searching for retail space for their soon-to-be incorporated business. The bookstore, modeled after Illuminations Bookstore in Westford, Mass, will offer inspirational books, gift items and tools to help people on their spiritual path. They also plan to offer massage and yoga classes.

“We are taking it one step at a time and when we are ready we’ll open,” Grady said.

Other students in the Phase II program have aspirations that range from conducting home inspiration seminars and property management companies to selling frozen organic beef.

As for Seltzer, he has just finished work on Thatcher’s take-out menu and is hard at work on other projects for Mr. Bagel in Falmouth and a new restaurant in Ogunquit. Seltzer says the Adult Ed program helped him “build confidence” by teaching him the “nuts and bolts” of the business process.

“I did have the idea before I got into the class, but I was stuck. I was moving forward with it, but I wasn’t quite sure if there was a need in the marketplace.” Seltzer said. “Through the Adult Ed program, I saw that there is room for all of us if you provide a good product.”

Though not everyone who goes through the entrepreneur program decides to go forward with their business idea, Giles sees both the decision for and against starting a new business as successes because the program allows students to test their business ideas before investing money in the upstart. Windham Adult Ed plans to teach another Phase I this fall and another Phase II next spring. Giles hopes to develop a future Phase III course to help established small business owners grow.

John Entwistle of Maine Small Business Development Center teaches aspiring entrepreneurs about the formulation of a business plan. These students (from left, Janice Bancroft, Elaine Pollock, Skip Sheen, Scott Seltzer, Kristina Sobel, Jane Grady, Danielle Dellisola) are part of a new training program for Lakes Region entrepreneurs hosted by Windham Adult Education.

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