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A Pittsburgh nonprofit says 99% of businesses need more support

Entrepreneurs Forever, a locally-based nonprofit, launched a new cohort of small businesses to take part in peer support groups.
Tom O'Connor
Entrepreneurs Forever, a locally-based nonprofit, launched a new cohort of small businesses to participate in peer support groups. The kickoff event took place Tuesday, Dec. 6, at the Energy Innovation Center in the Hill District.

While the number of small businesses in the U.S. has steadily grown over the last 20 years, a local nonprofit formed just three years ago to support the entrepreneurs who make up this massive, but often unlucrative, segment of the U.S. economy.

Already, Entrepreneurs Forever has served more than 500 businesses in southwestern Pennsylvania that generate less than $1 million in annual revenues, according to CEO AJ Drexler. Through her organization, business owners participate in peer support groups with about 10 other entrepreneurs, including a trained facilitator.

“Most of the businesses … that we work with, they're not going to necessarily become the unicorn business that gets to a billion dollars,” Drexler said.

She said they include a range of goods and services providers, such as hair salons, restaurants, bakeries and gyms. Entrepreneurs Forever also operates in Buffalo, New York, and the states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Drexler said the nonprofit plans to expand to new places in 2023.

Entrepreneurs Forever organizes peer support groups for small business owners. The groups meet every month for three years.
Tom O'Connor
Entrepreneurs Forever organizes peer support groups for small business owners. The groups meet every month for three years.

“We really are focused on the community businesses that want to remain community businesses over the long haul: They don't want to be purchased by private equity with the expectation that they have to sell in a certain amount of time.”

She said growth remains a priority, however, partly to ensure stability for owners but also to enable more hiring locally.

In December, Entrepreneurs Forever invited 96 more firms in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties to become members. They can join free of charge thanks to a $320,000 grant from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation, Drexler said. She estimated 50 spots remain open.

Nationally, 99.9% of businesses are considered to be small, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. While the category includes firms with up to 499 employees, 80% of them have no employees. Those ventures average less than $50,000 in annual revenues, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“That's not a sustainable economic condition,” Drexler said. “Our families and our communities can't flourish when the majority of our businesses are not generating enough revenue to support even their owners. So we all need small businesses and their owners to thrive over the long term.”

She said, after one year in Entrepreneurs Forever, business owners report an average revenue increase of 32%. Over three years, that growth jumps to 63%, she said.

The nonprofit’s members meet once a month for three years to discuss how to manage the ups and downs of running a business, along with topics such as marketing, finances and staffing.

“Most business owners start their business because they're good at or they're passionate about something,” Drexler said. “But typically, that something that got them into that business is not actually running the business. So after the startup stage, business owners need long-term skills and support to continue to grow their business."

“It’s its own skill,” Entrepreneurs Forever member Donald Robinson agreed, “and it can be hard to talk to people who don't have that same risk about things that happen, or that same level of responsibility.”

He opened a personal training studio in North Point Breeze, called Global Human Performance, in 2017. Since joining Entrepreneurs Forever in 2020, he said, his revenue has risen by 30% each year.

He said the program taught him to manage employees better and improve client experiences. His staff has grown from one to six coaches, and GHP now has about 60 clients, he noted.

He said the other members of his support group include a baker, landscaper, artist, gift package-maker, and bookkeeper. Their facilitator owns a specialty wig salon, he said.

Unlike some members in his group, Robinson doesn’t have to manage product inventories. But he said it helps to hear how they think through such challenges and “to ask the right questions and think about things a bit more outside of just my own four walls."