Imagine going to the bridal registry at Bloomingdale's and choosing a closet makeover as a gift. Smart idea, right?
Such marketing savvy is partly the creativity of Janet Valenza with an assist from Score NYC, the Service Corps of Retired Executives, a group that works with the U.S. Small Business Administration.
"I didn't need financial help to get up and going," said Valenza, a 51-year-old Upper East Sider who launched her home-organizing business, Closet Revolution, in 2007 with her savings.
"What I needed was advice on strategy, positioning, marketing and sales techniques," she said.
Every other month, Valenza meets with Elliot Merberg, a former food industry executive who's chairman of Score NYC. He pointed out to Valenza early on that there had to be a more productive way to promote her service rather than coupons.
Last year, more than 10,000 entrepreneurs in the metro area took advantage of Score NYC's free, one-on-one counseling services, according to former retailing exec Martin Lehman, one of Score NYC's volunteer counselors and the organization's marketing director.
"They don't come in for one session and say 'Hurray, I'm a success,'" Lehman said. "They come back as many times as necessary, and even after they are in business."
In addition to helping create business plans, Score NYC works with clients to decide on the legal structure of their business, better understand day-to-day business operations, and build marketing and sales strategies. The organization has 70 counselors at eight offices citywide. As part of its partnership with the SBA, the agency guarantees loans for borrowers who qualify.
Valenza credits Score NYC with helping her develop a different, more upscale business model than most rival companies.
Unlike many would-be entrepreneurs who come to Score NYC, Valenza - a former chief financial officer of a subsidiary of advertising giant Young & Rubicam - didn't need financial advice.
"It's almost like having your own board of directors," Valenza said. "To say it's all about expense management is a very narrow view of what Score has to offer people."
Many people who seek advice from Score NYC have just started a businesses - or are thinking of starting one - and need advice on reaching the next stage.
A native of Guinea in West Africa, Karim Diabate immigrated to the U.S. in 2001, supporting himself producing TV shows and video documentaries on African culture, environmental issues and social events.
Four years ago, Diabate, 43, of West Harlem, started a newspaper, New York Griot, based in Harlem. He left the paper in June 2009 to launch Afro Market, a free quarterly business magazine aimed at New York's African-American and Caribbean-American population.
"I went to Score because many people in our community want to go into business and need advice on how to set up a business," said Diabate, who attended several Score NYC seminars in Harlem.
"I didn't do it for myself necessarily," he said. "I went to get advice for my readers. They advised me on the different steps on starting a business, getting a bank loan and how to weigh all the risks involved," said Diabate, who's featured interviews with Score NYC counselors in his magazine.
Diabate printed 5,000 copies each of two issues of Afro Market, and plans a larger issue shortly. He has a few advertisers, but his costs outstrip ad sales.
He hopes to build slowly. "My goal is to produce 50,000 copies in five years and 100,000 copies in 10 years," he said.
Jyl Ferris said the social media and viral marketing techniques learned at Score NYC proved invaluable in helping her market her online video show, "Cooking for Bachelors."
"I started giving cooking classes and, from dating guys, saw how little they had in their refrigerators and decided to build a show around that audience," said Ferris, 43, who lives in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn.
After starting out in June 2009 with a $2,500 investment, she's corralled her first group of sponsors, mostly including local food, cookware, liquor and beverage companies. She creates a menu around their brand and uses their products on the show.
She shoots a whole season of cooking videos at once to minimize expenses, and charges sponsors in increments of $2,500 for video exposure, viral marketing and social media.
To keep expenses in check, her support staff - a producer, director, publicist and Web master - work on a freelance basis.
"The social media and viral marketing training has definitely helped get exposure for my show," Ferris said. "We now have about 150,000 viewers across the world, and our videos can be seen on 40 sites across the Internet."