Mara Keyes, a Regional Director at the Wisconsin Women in Business Corporation, shares the support services that offers including classes, coaches and loan programs.


[Koziol]: Hello, you're back with Kate Koziol and the Driftless Makers Podcast. Thanks for tuning in. Today we have Mara Keyes, who's a regional director with WWBIC, as our guest this morning to talk a little bit about the services and support networks that WWBIC offers and how you can dial into these resources as needed as you're building and growing your business. Mara, welcome. 

[Keyes]: Thank you, Kate. Thanks for having me. I really appreciate chatting with you on this sunny morning. 

[Koziol]: Mara, tell us a little bit about WWBIC. I'm not sure everybody knows about it and you really have a whole cavalcade of services that are quite valuable. 

[Keyes]: Yeah, wonderful. Always appreciate the opportunity to speak about WWBIC. We are the Wisconsin Women's Business Initiative Corporation, but we go by WWBIC for short because that is a little bit of a mouthful. We support all individuals. So while we are focused on women, we do serve men. That is a common question I get. We provide free training for individuals starting their business or maybe in business, some financial wellness, credit repair topics. Those are free trainings that exist both in the community and online as well. So there are virtual options. So you can join from your shop or from your business to learn more about utilizing resources like QuickBooks or getting your marketing up and running. And the other key piece about what because we do business lending typically when a bank will not do lending, that's when we will come in. We can do lending for startup businesses. We can do up to $350,000, so we can finance some large loans and we have some regional loan funds as well available that we're kind of able to use in unique ways. So a lot of the time, someone who might be coming to WWBIC might be facing a big leap in their business. Maybe they're going to hire their first employee. Maybe they need to move into a new space or make a big equipment purchase. Maybe they're starting their business for the first time or sometimes it's, maybe that last week they're thinking about that succession planning and handing things off. So that's kind of typically the times when people get involved with their business. But we are, I always say our doors are open, we're here whenever. A lot of the time we're typically helping those who are looking to get some financing options to expand or grow or start their business. 

[Koziol]: Well, Mara, I thank you. Now we have just lined up our next 12 hours of conversation with marvelous support. WWBIC, I think is kind of, in least in my mind, a bit of a hidden gem because you do run a scope of services that are so valuable and you know the old phrase, you don't know what you don't know. It seems to me in many cases if you come into a situation and you're either starting a business, growing a business or as you said kind of transitioning out of a business with it has so many resources and consultants and has been down that road so many times. Even just to touch base with you or one of your team is so valuable because you can uncover a lot of those, you know, surprises and you don't want to be surprises. 

[Keyes]: Yeah, absolutely. We are typically working with businesses who are in startup, and all of our loan clients have a small business consultant who works with them for the lifetime of their loan and that's a huge asset too in that first year. We know that the first 12 months are especially challenging. There's often things that come up that are surprises that we can kind of try to help navigate a little bit, you know, at least just so that individuals don't feel like they're on their own. Sometimes that can feel like you're on an Islander, it's just you running your business. There is, you know, additional support as well. So it's just a really great option for someone who maybe isn't able to access traditional ways and we always say, hey, even if you're not necessarily interested right now, check us out. Put us in your radar because it might not be today that your cooler breaks and you need that $5000 or whatever it might be, but check us out at and our local office is located in LaCrosse. We'd love to chat with you and get to know more about what businesses need are because that's a big part of our role too – is trying to fill those gaps that exist in our community. 

[Koziol]: Absolutely. And just to build on Mara’s important point about financing. A lot of times we found at my work as an economic development specialist with the Southwest Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, there has to be kind of a lasagna-financing, as some people referred to it as sort of layers of financing and tapping into WWBIC’s well-research, well-funded, well-managed loans from, as Mara was saying, $5000 to $350,000 well in conjunction with maybe there's some conventional commercial financing that's part of the deal but doesn't want to finance the entire deal. That's where Mara’s team can step in. Same thing with the Southwest Wisconsin Business Development Fund is another regional loan fund that can layer in and work right in tandem with the rest of the loan opportunities. And if you happen to be a tenant up to the Platteville business incubator, there's another loan fund there that you might be able to work into a deal so you can really tap into a lot of resources and many times finances is a challenge, whether it's just unexpected expense or you have a big dream. You don't have a big bank account that can quite finance the whole deal. So if it's a business or service that's needed in the region, then there's many people you can turn to. And I would highly recommend it because Mara, I think you really have set the tone and it's something that I've seen adopted in other areas. Is that lifetime loan consultant, right? You don't just write a check and say goodbye, see you later. Tell us a little bit more how do the consultants work in partnership with some of your loan applicants? 

[Keyes]: Yeah, well, you know, there's definitely a variety. Someone who might be in their first 12 months of business is definitely going to be someone who we probably have almost a monthly time to connect with. Christine is our local small business consultant. And you know, maybe it's just “Hey, how are we doing on the goals to getting the doors open?” because oftentimes that's you know how we're generating revenue needs to happen. So you know especially in those startup businesses, we have had some situations even with the city where maybe there were some challenges with licenses or things like that and we've been able to kind of say hey, you know, we can help provide a little bit of the picture too because we have been riding alongside this business since day one. We do know you know where the hiccups have happened because things do happen sometimes out of our control. But maybe it's hey, do we have any resources on marketing? It's also a great way for us to be able to make sure that our classes are providing information that's helpful. So a lot of the times our clients, maybe they come to us for a loan and then they start taking some of our marketing classes to up their social media game, things 

like that. So you know it's really kind of about having that goal setting, maybe just bouncing some ideas around. Sometimes you might not even like an idea off the bat. But we say, hey, you know, make a pro con list. Like let's just try to evaluate, you know, we're really just there to support. We're not gonna run the business. That's not our role, but we are there to be that person to call. Sometimes that is a moment of panic call that does happen, but having someone to call, you know that isn't. A family member, a business partner, a loved. One challenge a lot of the times is that the businesses are ingrained in, in almost every aspect of their life. So just having that kind of outside support for those items and then being able to refer to resources. So if we do learn about a program in a given area, for example, we were just kind of looking at the red letter grant that's in Eau Claire. We've had a couple clients in that area received that grant, And so we just make sure hey do all of our loan clients in that area know about this opportunity? So it really just adds to a great way to be in our sphere so that okay, you do need more. Well, maybe we can go talk to Kate and see if some of the RLF funds at the regional level could be an option or or things like that. Just again, kind of having that resource connector. It's our full time jobs. We have a staff of three of us and I still feel like we're learning about resources in our community almost every day. So how can we expect our entrepreneurs and business owners to be able to keep track of all those things and know how to navigate them while running their business? So we can kind of really walk alongside that journey and provide that support. 

[Koziol]: And having that sort of outside resource outside coach can be critical because running your own business is terrific, but it can be kind of, you know, lonely at the top. And I don't care if you're a sole proprietor and you're the only employee or if you're running, you know, know, people, there's challenges and and having someone who can bounce some ideas off of I think is is very helpful, very reassuring, even if they just act as a sounding board. But the wonderful thing about WWBIC is that you're bringing a lot to the table already. You've already walked side by side with someone who's opened a restaurant or services entity or manufacturing entity. You've already walked through that and can bring some of those key learnings to someone who's going down that path for the first time. 

[Keyes]: And I just think the importance of mentors is incredibly important. So whether it's a web consultant or using a mentor or if you're in the incubator in Platteville and you're able to use one of your mentors there. A lot of the times one of my favorite events we have is our Strong Women, Strong Coffee and our Cup of Joe. One of the questions we always ask our business owners and in those, you know, you're looking at a successful business owner. We say “hey, you know, did you have a mentor or someone that you worked with?” Almost always the answer is yes. There's very few people. There are some, there's definitely some. We've actually just had one last week with our cup of Joe. They’re like no, I kind of just did it on my own. But a lot of times having kind of someone who is providing that support, you know, is a huge asset, maybe in ways you don't always recognize in the moment, but when you look back, you can really appreciate. 

[Koziol]: Absolutely. And I think, you know, mentors appear in different points and in different ways and maybe they don't have full access to all your financials, but someone that believes in you and someone that can ask you tough questions in a way that helps you grow. I had a business mentor for 20 years. And he was just amazing. Joe Levy, he has since passed on, but very successful man. And I say that he taught me the language of business because I would go every Saturday morning and hang out with him and about 20 MBAs from Northwestern Kellogg School of Business. I'm an East Coast theater grad. So, cash flow was not something I spoke a lot about, but they were really it was just to listen and learn and hear the issues that they had. You know, I didn't have to be center stage. I could just absorb and I'd highly recommend that for anyone starting a business is to ask someone to be a mentor, someone you would admire, someone you can touch base with. It doesn't have to be like a minute to minute conversation, but it's quite valuable to be able to reach out to someone who doesn't have a financial interest in what you're doing but just has that ability to give and listen and provide that coaching. Mara, you work a lot with women and with men which is terrific to have to be able to assist everyone. And you also talked a little bit in the finance piece about financial wellness and credit repair. I think sometimes people see like they've made an early mistake in their credit past or they've, you know, gotten into a bad situation. Are there two things, perhaps, that you could suggest to someone who's listening feels like they'd like to start a business, but they feel like their credit isn't there? Where do they turn or how do they start to turn that ship? 

[Keyes]: Well, the first first thing we say, which is a challenging one. I, sometimes, I'm not always the best at following. My own advice is check your credit score. Do you know where you're at? That's often kind of the first stop. You know, maybe you know that the last time you looked it wasn't good. So you haven't looked in a while, like get a sense of where you're at. I am a believer in spreadsheets, but whatever format works, try to start keeping an eye of where money is going in and out. I know budget is almost kind of like a bad word. Just just try to observe and keep a balance sheet, even if it's something that you're not necessarily trying to cut down. Sometimes I use the example of the word “diet” as a bad word because it assumes that you need to change your behavior to be able to accommodate what you're trying to do. So I often say first try to observe. I know maybe that's not, like, the best answer but a lot of the times, you know, avoidance can be a technique that we see and and also then there's sometimes other end of the spectrum where there's people constantly tinkering with everything. So you know there's always a little bit of a balance or you know customized approach there too. But I'd say probably the number one thing I try to say is get in to get a feel for where you're at and start to just whether it's on a spreadsheet or put on a piece of paper. I'm a handwritten person often too, and write out what are your monthly expenses? What are your quarterly expenses? Do you know when your utility bill needs to be paid? That can be both. Personal capacity and in a business capacity and I'd say the times where we see individuals who are doing well in both of those areas is very uncommon. Most of the time, maybe someone is doing OK and one aspect that maybe the business is doing well, but then they personally, they, you know, don't have as much focus on because it is a lot. What I'm saying isn't necessarily an easy solution, but that's usually where we kind of say the start, then you're able to know where you're at and make adjustments. 

[Koziol]: Absolutely. And I know I've ran my own business for 17 years and I know when there were some downturns in the economy like you just you almost don't want to know. You're like I don't even want to look at it, but probably your advice of knowing your credit score, your outstanding invoices, your, you know, are you doing billing on an appropriate schedule? Are you billing what you're worth? All these things can kind of stack up against you and you have to take assessment, and it's a road map. You need to know where you are and where you want to get to in order to overcome the peaks and valleys of your financial life, both personal and professionally. You work with a lot of business owners. Is there, in either startup or grow up mode. There's like one or two mistakes that use and mistakes is such a hard word. Future lessons, let's call it that. Are there places where people kind of misstep? That you see that sort of stretch across a lot of business types or do they vary across the board and challenges. It's that they do need to grow. OK, it is time to hire an employee. That's a huge point to get to. But also it sometimes it takes being uncomfortable for us to change. Maybe we are working towards burnout because we are working our business so hard and then you try to take a day off and that means that revenue is not coming in. It can be hard to kind of be able to take that step back and put the pieces in place so that you can do that. So you know, really, I think it's hard for me to say mistakes, because I think all of our business owners would say If you get too pigeonholed in what you think your business is or unwilling to change, if you kind of have to be willing to try things, maybe change your hours. Summer is here. Maybe people are have different habits. You know, for some of our downtown businesses, you kind of have to be willing to try things I think sometimes. You know, what we have in our heads as a vision versus what ends up coming or what the people want can be different. So being flexible to focus your energy where that money is coming in and then see what you can build beyond. So we have some businesses who maybe the money they're coming in right now isn't their passion, but how can you keep that happening while you're pursuing the area of your business that you are more interested in and build that up? I don't know if I really answered your question with that one because it's tricky, I feel like for each mistake. You know it's more about how you respond and gain more resilience because there are going to be more challenges along the way. As you grow your problems grow too. Absolutely. And I agree that there are no real mistakes. There are unintended consequences sometimes or you lack the full amount of information. But I think you know I made many mistakes over the course of my business career. You know hiring the wrong person or bidding a job too low. But you always. Learn something from it, or you always at least have the opportunity to learn something from it. And sometimes mistakes can be a great redirection. When I first started my company, I thought I was a marketing communications firm. And I learned that people kind of felt that they could do brochures and flyers. And you know, this was back at the very, very start of social media, but they didn't think they could talk to the press. So I'm like, oh, I guess I don't have a marketing communications firm. I have a marketing public relations firm. All right, great. Because that's the pivot I needed to take. You know, I thought I was going down one path, but I left my eyes open and my ego on the shelf to say where is this taking me? Where is the need and how do we move forward successfully? And yeah, you and as you said earlier, you put a lot on the line and you're heart is in it and your finances are in it. So something you carry with you and it’s a joy, but it is like having another child that takes a lot of care. So your services are so valuable. What are your classes and your consulting? What does it cost? 

[Keyes]: So our classes are free, Our training, we are a nonprofit, so our classes are free. We do ask you to fill out a form. You know, we're often the first step to then maybe touching base with taking some of the marketing classes. We do have a longer series of business planning kind of boot camp that does have a fee at a sliding scale so we can provide scholarships. That's we're just one of our more specialized classes because we do pay our instructors and things like that, but really. Our classes are free, we're here to help. You might not need us today, but keep us in mind if you are reaching that point where you're like, man, I just need to be able to float my business until this job is done in August because that's when the payment comes through. You know those are the kind of cash flow challenges that can happen, may not be today, but come talk to us, know about your resources in your community because there are a lot of resources to support small businesses, you know of course, Kate being another one of those. 

[Koziol]: So and I find it really helpful working with you Mara, working with the SBDC. With all our partners across the region, I know I can call Mara. I know I can talk to others in the region to say, OK, this is what we have. Does this fit into your lineup? And that's really the point of this conversation and for the whole Driftless Makers podcast is how do we make the region be more successful? We're going to draw this conversation to a close because well, Mara's just magical, isn't she? I just love everything that WWBIC does. I also love the personality and joy and camaraderie that Mara brings and the rest of the team brings to really be supportive. So signing out for today. This is Kate Koziol with the Driftless Makers Podcast coming from the Platteville Business Incubator. Thanks for joining us Mara, and we look forward to future conversations with you. 

[Keyes}: Awesome. Thank you for having me Kate. 

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