Small Businesses Take the NextStep Into Growth

February 2018

Small Businesses Take the NextStep Into Growth

Launching a small business and navigating the daunting start-up phase is an intimidating challenge even for serial entrepreneurs. Successful start-up founders take advantage of countless support networks and resources designed to help small businesses become established. But what happens next for these businesses? The skills necessary for launching a business are not necessarily the same as those needed to sustain it. That’s why University Circle Inc. (UCI) developed the NextStep program, an innovative program designed to help CEOs learn about growing a small business and scale their operations by developing their skills and a network of peers and advisors.

Launched in 2014 with support from KeyBank, NextStep’s CEO courses have equipped dozens of business owners with the tools necessary to grow within their respective marketplaces. Over the course of seven months, participants enhance their business knowledge and management skills through an interactive, instructor-facilitated training curriculum designed by Interise , a Boston-based non-profit organization focused on accelerating small business growth. Those who complete the program come away with a new support network, and a customized, three-year strategic growth action plan.

The results for graduates are a strong testament to the program’s effectiveness. UCI’s most recent data shows a cumulative 173 jobs retained or created and $8 million in contracts secured by NextStep graduates.

Alex Pesta of City Architecture says NextStep came at a pivotal time for his business. Under leadership from its founding partner, City Architecture had operated successfully for 25 years focusing on city planning, urban design and architecture in and around Cleveland. When the firm transitioned to a partnership, Pesta and his partners found themselves unsure of how to take it to the next level of growth.

“The change of ownership made clear that we didn’t know what we didn’t know as far as running a business,” said Pesta. “The three of us are architects. We went to school to draw pictures…not balance sheets and P&L statements. We were working with our accountants but we didn’t speak the language of finance. NextStep provided us a way to ask better questions and identify the best information for making business decisions.”

Pesta says NextStep helped City Architecture create a stronger internal reporting system to track work and profitability, allowing the firm’s leadership to make more informed decisions. At the same time, the program’s marketing and sales component enabled the firm to prioritize the focus and efforts of City Architecture’s leadership.

“We refocused our marketing efforts to stick to clients and work that fit our vision and values instead of always chasing the next big thing or project,” says Pesta. “It’s not uncommon for us to have four, five, up to a dozen projects with the same client because we’ve established a relationship based on similar priorities and perspectives.”

NextStep class sizes are capped at 15, which ensures an intimate setting for participants to share detail about their businesses and learn from one another. Participants quickly learn that while markets and details differ from organization to organization, small business owners often share a common set of challenges and opportunities.

“Every small business owner thinks what they do is absolutely unique, and that nobody else understands it or does it the way they do it,” said Pesta. “But when it comes down to it, everybody is doing the same thing. Learning that took some of the mystique away.”

NextStep graduate Jen Brunkow agrees that the program has a remarkable way of illustrating common challenges among different businesses, especially within the small group mentoring sessions.

“We were carefully matched to learn from one another,” said Brunkow. “My group included a body shop, insurance brokerage and a fresh food market. It was extremely diverse, but our businesses had three times as many things in common as things that were different. We were all dealing with the same issues and challenges.”

Brunkow co-founded CGB Tech, a full-service computer sales and service company, and grew it into a successful venture without a business background, but NextStep helped her reach new heights.

“NextStep gave me additional knowledge and a whole new level of confidence in what I was doing,” said Brunkow. “Just because you can handle the day-to-day grind doesn’t mean you know how to chart a pattern for growth.”

Brunkow’s business has tripled in revenue since she completed NextStep, and has more than doubled its employee count from six to 14. Brunkow says the sales training helped the most.

“Just like anyone with some personality who can talk to people thinks they have sales skills, I thought I had sales skills, but I definitely did not,” said Brunkow. “Thanks to NextStep, my meetings went from chatty but unproductive to chatty and very productive in pretty short order. Developing an elevator pitch and learning how to build out a structure changed everything for me.”

Robert Klann, AIA an architect who in March 2016 became one of three co-owners of Robert P. Madison International after working at the firm for the past 23 years also found the CEO courses in sales and marketing from NextStep particularly useful.

“The three of us had spent a long time together doing the work, but not necessarily networking and winning the work,” said Klann. “We realized that that load had been carried by our founder for 60 years and now it was time for us to do it.”

Robert P. Madison International has built a significant portfolio of work over six decades including work with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District and Karamu House. Klann says taking the firm into new markets and service areas such as design-build is an initiative NextStep helped build into its strategic growth plan.

“NextStep helped us recognize you can’t just live and die on the architecture, you have to expand offerings,” says Klann. “UCI helped us integrate this into our growth plan and our operational goals.”

Klann says insights from the marketing component of the program has already benefitted the firm dramatically. Not only has Robert P. Madison International grown from eight employees to 14, it also has expanded operations with significant new contracts with the Elyria City School District and a multi-million-dollar housing contract in Detroit.

Fellow NextStep grad James Barnes, who founded the Immaculate Cleaning Company in 2011, also points to the program’s marketing components as a strong offering.

“When we first started, I worked primarily with residential customers, but I quickly switched our focus to commercial,” says Barnes. “NextStep helped me recognize that we have a niche in the education community, which means we can be smarter about targeting our growth.”

Since completing the course, Immaculate Cleaning has more than doubled its employee count. The company increased revenue by 400 percent in the year following Barnes’ participation in NextStep.

Without exception, NextStep graduates point to the networking and community elements of the program as invaluable.

“I still talk to a lot of my classmates, and the facilitators stay invested in our success,” says Barnes. “As our businesses develop and grow, we have a network to continue learning and working on different ideas.”

To be eligible for NextStep, businesses must achieve $250,000 - $10 million in annual revenue, have at least one full-time employee besides the owner, and have been in business for more than three years.

To apply to NextStep, visit