Thinker prides itself on being able to help companies at many stages, in different disciplines in dozens of industries. If you’d like to talk to us about starting, growing, investing in or transitioning out of a business, contact us or stop in at 317 W. Jefferson St. We enjoy meeting new people and showing off our space. It has an interesting history.

Being a business-development company, we get many visits or calls from people who want help but don’t entirely know what they need. Fortunately, Thinker works with a number of organizations in northern Illinois that can help when we can’t. Here are some questions we commonly field, what we can do to help and other possible solutions.

How do I start a business?

About 20 percent of Thinker’s work is with startups. We’re somewhat rare because many startups struggle with funding, which causes many business consultants to shy away. We can help refine your idea, do market research, develop a business plan, find funding, and develop your marketing plan. There are other entities to help as well:

Illinois Small Business Development Center-Rockford Chamber of Commerce: SBDCs are partially funded by the state, so their services are usually free. An SBDC can help you:

  • With one-on-one business advice and management assistance.
  • Develop a business plan.
  • Develop a marketing plan.
  • With business education and training opportunities.

The Northwest Illinois Development Alliance helps startups in Stephenson County through its Small Business Collaborative. It provides free one-on-one counseling on how to start and structure a business, develop a business and marketing plan, and how to find funding. The head of the Small Business Collaborative though just left and county officials are deciding on a new structure.

Thames Management Resources is run by Brian McIntyre, who directed the SBDC when it was part of Rock Valley College. He doesn’t do a lot of private startup work anymore, but he may be an option if you have the budget above the free SBDC and would like to work with someone who can focus more on you individually.

McIntyre does most of his startup consulting through the Tri-County Economic Development Alliance. He runs TCEDA’s Build It-Grow It and Kauffman FastTrac programs for businesses in Jo Daviess, Carroll or Whiteside counties.

I have a product idea but don’t know how to make it. Who can help me design it and find the companies to build it?

Thinker doesn’t get involved in the nuts and bolts of manufacturing. Fortunately, the Rock River Valley is blessed to have Northern Illinois University’s EIGERlab in Rockford. EIGERlab’s Center for Product Development (C4PD) offers commercialization and engineering support. Its 3D printing can transform your scribblings on a napkin into a computer model and then into a physical model.

NIU can take the process one step further. Northern Illinois remains one of the top manufacturing hubs in the United States, and EIGERlab has the connections with the companies that can build your product.

I’ve done my research and believe the business is viable. Where can I get seed money to get going?

Your No. 1 option when you need cold, hard cash to launch an enterprise is the three Fs: family, friends and fools. Then there’s Option 2: Rockford Local Development Corp., an outstanding organization that manages a micro-loan fund for Winnebago and Boone counties. Its loan sizes mostly range from $10,000 to $100,000, but it can do loans as small as $5,000.

My company is up and running. Where can I find investors or funding to get to the next level?

Thinker has an investors network. If you’d like to work with us or browse our network, click here to join. There are other local and regional options:

The Stateline Angels is a group of local investors that occasionally invests primarily in tech ideas. It’s a selective group. It was founded in 2006 and has made investments in 10 companies ranging from $100,000 to $3 million.

Gener8tor of Milwaukee is a nationally-ranked accelerator that invests in high-growth startups. The organization invests in 15 companies (up to $140,000), then puts them through a 12-week program before taking them on an investment tour with corporate partners, angel investors and venture capitalists.

Gener8tor has a free program, gBETA, for companies that it runs out of IronTek in Beloit, Wis. Companies accepted into it spend seven weeks working on a complete investor pitch before putting entrepreneurs in front of its investors network.

I’m a startup or contractor, where can I find inexpensive space for meetings or to be my headquarters?

The demand for co-working space continues to rise as people take advantage of freelancing or contracting and tech startups seek to invest in technology rather than office space. Labor-market analysts estimate that 40 percent of the work force will be made up of independent contractors, freelancers and on-demand workers by 2020.

Winnebago County now has three options, all depending on where you are coming from:

  • NIU-EIGERlab’s LaunchPad is located conveniently just off Interstate 90 and has a range of options, from social memberships ($30 a month) all the way up to a private office ($800 to $1,500 a month). LaunchPad members receive access to business coaching and professional service providers.
  • Rockton is home to the RockTek Workspace, a former tech company headquarters reimagined into a pretty cool place to get started. The “hotdesk,” or basic, membership is $100 a month. A “cubey baby” is $200 a month and a private office is $300 a month. All members enjoy high-speed Internet, a club lounge, and free or discounted conference room time.
  • New to the crew will be Flexdesk. Rockford’s Urban Equities is remodeling a former law office into a modern co-working space on West State Street — in the middle of Rockford’s downtown renaissance. It isn’t open yet, but it will be excellent option for startups and contractors who like to be near the burgeoning restaurant district. Thinker will be working with UE to provide the programming that will help advance your business.

How do I sell to the government?

Rockford used to have the Illinois Procurement Technical Assistance Center. We lost it in the last recession. The closest PTAC is at the College of DuPage Center for Entrepreneurship. A PTAC helps you get registered and certified to sell to the government, researches open bids and helps prepare proposals.

How do I sell overseas?

The U.S. Export Assistance Center at 327 S. Church St., Suite 1600, is one of three such offices in Illinois charged with giving export counseling and advice, plus information on markets about international partner contacts. Unfortunately, it is empty at this time and it’s unclear whether it’s going to be filled. The closest operating office now is in Chicago and can be reached at 312-353-8040.

Zethmayr is a private resource for those looking to break into new international markets. This company is run by Carrie Zethmayr, who spent eight years at the Rockford Area Economic Development Council heading a number of international initiatives. Her experience is extensive. Click here to read her credentials.

How do I use social media to sell or just market on the web in general?

In 2017, Digital marketing surpassed TV in terms of money spent on advertising for the first time. For many business owners, digital media is the only method they use to get the word out about their product or service. If you are going to spend the time and money, you want to make sure you are getting a good return on that investment.

Thinker can manage your Google Adwords or Facebook advertising campaigns. We also can generate posts, boost posts and advertise your business on the appropriate social media platforms. Just about everyone needs to be on Facebook. For some businesses, it makes more sense to be on Pinterest or Instagram rather than Twitter. We can help you make those decisions.

We can analyze and optimize the pages on your site so they can be found easier by the search engines, which always are hungry for fresh content. Thinker also has a writing staff that can generate consistent, unique content for your site to make sure it continues to be relevant in the search algorithms.

Finally, Thinker is a Google Partner and we host several Google Partner Connects during the year. Here you can learn from Google itself how best to use their tools to push your business forward.

EIGERlab is another option. The staff there can help you create and maintain your existing social media efforts, including Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram.

I’m ready to retire or sell. How do I do that?

Experts expect more than $10 trillion worth of businesses to be put up for sale over the next decade, but only 20 to 30 percent will end up in a successful transaction. The main reason? A lack of planning.

Locally, Thames Management Resources specializes in the lengthy steps necessary for you to sell your business at a maximum gain. The company is run by Brian McIntyre, who has decades of experience in the financial management of companies and business valuations. To sell at a maximum profit, you need to build a team and you need a quarterback. Thames can be that quarterback.

We’ve outgrown our location. I’m looking to expand. How do I get the best deal?

Zethmayr is run by Carrie Zethmayr, who worked for the state of Illinois administering its tax credit program. Carrie is the local expert when it comes to identifying the best site for your company if you’re looking to move or build new and in negotiating the best incentives package for your company.

Rockford Local Development Corp. is a gap funder for businesses that are working on expansions through lenders but need another partner. RLDC uses SBA 504 loans. These loans typically range from $50,000 to $5.5 million but may not exceed 40 percent of the project size.