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 Program helps owners work on the business, not in the business

Business growth came rather quickly after Lori Ronca and Beth Thompson opened Home Grown Decatur, which prompted tenants and customers to offer up suggestions of things like making the store bigger and opening more locations.

But the owners of the retail artist cooperative, opened in 2010, knew their company was young and wanted to approach the idea of growth carefully.

“We experienced almost explosive growth right away,” Ronca said. “We have 1,200 square feet and went from 35 local artists to about 80 in the first two years. We have about 100 now.”

They had been working with John Ernst through the Decatur Business Association, who Ronca said has continued to provide valuable guidance. Two years later, he suggested they attend the Georgia Small Business Development Center’s GrowSmart program.

Ronca and Thompson’s experience in the class was full of those “light bulb moments,” Ronca said. They thought they had been careful planners, but the program had them going back to analyze everything from finances and marketing, to how they staffed and ran the store.

“The biggest takeaway was we learned quickly that we needed to steer the ship and not swab the decks,” she added. “I have to remind myself of that because it is easy to have your to-do list, which is always 100 miles long.”

Now two years after going through the program, Home Grown Decatur has seen 30 percent growth, Thompson said. She attributes much of that to what they learned, including how to capitalize on what artists and customers were responding to and finding those artists that would be more engaged and had items people wanted to see.

Now in its 12th year, the Georgia Small Business Development Center’s GrowSmart program has helped about 1,500 small-business owners manage their growth since 2002.

The program used to be called FastTrack, but two years ago the program underwent a redesign, and has since had about 250 business owners go through the program each year. Georgia Power Co. has sponsored the program since its fruition.

”It is designed for companies that are realizing growth and want to manage it effectively,” Sharon Macaluso, area director at The University of Georgia SBDC, said. “Many of the owners who attend the program have similar issues happen when there business is two years old, such as starting to hire employees, and that is a different dynamic and way of managing.”

The program is not for startups — there are other SBDC programs for that — but is for companies that have been in business at least two years, have $300,000 in annual revenue and at least one non-owner employee.

A goal of the program is to get owners to “work on their business and not in their business,” one of the more difficult things for owners to do. Owners work on wearing their CEO hat, giving up control in certain areas, and taking on more overseeing and managing of the growth, Macaluso said.

After the program, the SBDC gets feedback from clients, including asking them to respond to surveys on the success they saw after implementing GrowSmart techniques into their business.

Charlie Cichetti, principal of Sustainable Investment Group, a green building consultant, went through the program in 2011 and again in 2013 with two additional employees. Between 2011 and 2013, Cichetti said the company, which now has a nationwide presence, grew 300 percent.

SIG was formed in 2009 when the green building movement was getting underway. Much of the growth can be attributed to the industry, but Cichetti said the program enabled him to put together a strategic plan to manage the growth and sustain it.

In addition, it also come down to getting the financial side in order, which has given Cichetti a lot of “aha moments” where he realized he had the accounting metrics at his fingertips, but had not been using them strategically.

“The business was growing like crazy, and we wanted to make sure we could do our thing,” he said. “We were already on a good path, but now we are making smarter business decisions and having better discussions within the business.”

GrowSmart also forced Dean and Amy D’Angelo , owners of the gourmet health food producer Garlic Clove Foods, to take a look at their business and do the work that they know they needed to do.

The couple attended the program in 2011 and again in early 2012, giving them a solid foundation to build the business, Amy D’Angelo said.

Dean D’Angelo said one of his takeaways was getting in the frame of mind to “create your business so you can remove yourself from your business.”

He, Amy and their employees didn’t have job titles, but the program taught him that he needed to create them and have a structure in place so people could come in and fill those positions.

It also left them with a network of colleagues, some of whom they meet with regularly to bounce ideas off of and help each other.

Meanwhile, Ronca still keeps her GrowSmart notebook on a shelf in her office and refers to it whenever she encounters a business issue.

The D’Angelos are planning to attend the program a number of more times.

“You can never learn enough,” Dean D’Angelo said. “When you stop learning, you stop growing.”

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