September 4, 2012

State of Alabama
Press Release: Alabama Department of Commerce

10 Questions for Shannon Drake: How to Overcome Hurdles to Start Your Own Successful Business

September 2, 2012

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Shannon Drake is the Small Business Administration's program director at the Women's Business Center of North Alabama.

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- Shannon Drake, the Small Business Administration's program director at the Women's Business Center of North Alabama, has a passion for owning a variety of businesses. She currently owns and operates Drako Engineering with her husband, James. She started the company in 2005 as a mechanical engineering firm specializing in aerospace.

As a second love for advertising and marketing, Drake established Drako Communications, an employee-owned and operated creative enterprise specializing in all areas of advertising and marketing design.

If that's not enough to keep her busy, she and her husband are weekend cattle farmers and have expanded their engineering business to include barn designs and farm equipment.

A native of Huntsville and a graduate of Birmingham-Southern College, Drake has a diverse range of experience from her technical background at Intergraph and Adtran as a project manager.

She is a member of the Women's Economic Development Council, the Women's Business Council and Women in Defense.

The economy is beginning to show some signs of improvement. How has Huntsville weathered the last few years in terms of small business start-ups and are there advantages to starting a new woman-owned business here?

Yes, there may be sectors showing signs of improvement but we still have a ways to go. Huntsville has been able to weather the storm better than most municipalities around the nation due to its strong government-sector presence. We have seen an increase in small business start-ups during this slow economy. That's because many women and men have been downsized or right-sized and are looking for job. When they can't find a job, they start a business to create a job for themselves.

There are definitely advantages for a woman to start a business in our community, primarily because of the excellent resources that are available to her. The Women's Business Center of North Alabama, one of those resources, offers a variety of services to support and educate, as well as numerous opportunities to match aspiring entrepreneurs with established business owners. Other resources include the Women's Economic Development Council, and the Women's Business Council of the Huntsville-Madison County Chamber of Commerce.

What is the biggest challenge a new business owner faces during these unsettled economic times?

Funding! It doesn't matter if you are in the commercial realm wanting a bank loan or in the government world attempting to land a contract and needing a line of credit. Lending has slowed down and we're seeing more small businesses having to boot-strap their new business. Developing a business plan and testing the feasibility of the business idea on paper - instead of out of one's wallet - is more important than ever. They need to think about the business from the beginning to the end, fine-tuning their business model - how they're going to make money - before they get started. We see too many people lose their life savings, their homes, and sometimes even their marriages over a failed small business. Developing a business plan upfront can significantly improve your chance of survival.

What is the most important thing to consider before starting a business?

Identifying who your customers will be. Many clients have fantastic business ideas, but after discussing them with our coaches, they come to the conclusion that that haven't done their market research and truly identified their target market. Market research is one of the topics we cover in our 10-week comprehensive entrepreneurial program. Using the Huntsville/Madison County Library is another resource for this type of research.

What do people starting a business often overlook before launching out on their own?

I see numerous individuals who start their own business without doing their homework or developing a business plan. Many have a preconceived idea that if they launch a business, revenue will start rolling in immediately. "Build it and they will come" is just a myth. It's our job to make sure the client understands the process of starting a business, the importance of marketing, and the fact that it takes time to build a customer base. Most entrepreneurs who do plan often over-estimate how much revenues will be realized in the early years and under-estimate how much it is going to cost to get started and to sustain the business.

What steps should an entrepreneur take to attract outside investors?

A good business plan is key. Not one full of marketing fluff, but one that accurately defines and describes what the business is and what it will produce. A potential investor is looking for a return on their investment and they are looking for realistic numbers. Investors want management teams that can demonstrate that they understand the market, know who their potential customers are, and who are dedicated to making the business succeed.

How can the Women's Business Center of North Alabama help people who are thinking about starting a business?

You would be amazed at the services we offer to assist those who are aspiring to start a business. Our most popular service is our free business coaching. This includes one-on-one sessions with experienced business owners who will assess where they are, where they want to go, and come up with a customized action plan for them to get there.

We also offer business training that covers a myriad topics such as marketing, accounting, and doing business with the government, just to name a few. If an existing business owner is ready to grow their business to the next level, we can assist them as well by establishing a Board of Advisers. This is a very cost-effective strategy for small businesses that are serious about growing their businesses.

Do you have to be a woman to take advantage of the WBCNA's services?

Our mission is to assist women and men as they start and grow a business. While our focus is on women, our services are available to everyone.

How important is networking for new business owners and what tips can you give for someone looking to get connected?

Networking is one of the first items we place on a client's customized action plan. You have probably heard the old saying, "People do business with people they know." And it's not just who you know, but who knows you. Networking is vital to any kind of business. The WBCNA offers training on networking and our partner, the Huntsville-Madison County Chamber of Commerce, offers many networking events.

Are there successful business leaders who are willing to mentor new business owners? How is the best way to find a mentor?

 Yes, and they are always willing to step up and help. Contact the Women's Business Center of North Alabama. We have a process that we go through before even reaching out to potential mentors. We want to make sure it's a good fit for both the client and mentor.

You've owned and operated your own business - Drako Engineering & Communications - for several years. How have your experiences helped you in helping to advise women and others who consider starting their own businesses?

Loaded question! We did everything backwards when we started Drako Engineering & Communications. I was your typical individual that just used the Internet to find out how to start a business. It wasn't until we were introduced to Joanne Randolph and persuaded to take the FastTrac New Venture course, the WBCNA's flagship program, that we fully understood that there was a lot more to it. This was the beginning of my passion and belief in the program. I am passionate about this organization and truly believe what it can help a business accomplish.

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