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Bill McRae, On Stage Music Academy

This story was originally published by Long Beach SBDC.

A classically trained musician from an early age, Bill McRae spent many years performing and composing. He played keyboards, guitar and bass. After college, he became a music business executive, then a classroom teacher. In 2014, Bill decided he wanted to open a music school. He wanted to share his love of music with students of all ages. Now open, the On Stage Music Academy offers introductory music classes, hands-on education in various instruments and genres, and experience in both recording and live performance.

Photo of Bill McRae

Bill looked at other music programs and wanted to create something different—his own unique system and school. He grew up in a family business and had worked as a sole proprietor pulling together teams of musicians to play. But opening a business with employees would be a whole new experience. Throughout his career, Bill has always found that reaching out to others for advice and assistance pays off. So he visited the Small Business Development Center hosted by Long Beach City College for help with his idea.

A hands-on team

SBDC Program Coordinator Janice Grass managed Bill’s consultations with SBDC Director Mike Daniel and Business Advisors Se’ Reed, Brad Pollak, Joseph Jackson, Laura Lara, and Vi Pham. The team at the SBDC helped Bill assess the viability of his idea, complete business and marketing plans, and research suitable locations for his startup. They also guided him to obtain the necessary licenses and permits, negotiate the legal and HR challenges of hiring employees, and learn to use QuickBooks accounting software.

“The SBDC helped me find someone to work on a logo, people I could reach out to for insurance, an architect, a contractor—so many names! There is a huge benefit to removing doubt in a venture so full of the unknown. The SBDC gave me the resources, knowledge and confidence to move forward without questioning.”

Bill had spent months trying to build a business plan. Daniel showed him how to focus on the financial planning aspect of the business plan. That way, he could immediately assess his idea’s viability. “Making sure my business model was financially viable gave me an assurance that I could move forward,” Bill says. “That was freeing, because I could start taking [action] instead of waiting until everything was perfect.”

With his business plan in place, Bill moved quickly. “The SBDC was very helpful in bouncing ideas off of,” he says. Attorney Pham answered his questions about everything from leases and contracts to business structure.

The dream takes shape

Meanwhile, Daniel connected Bill with other service providers. “He helped me find [someone] to work on a logo, people I could reach out to for insurance, an architect, a contractor—he gave me so many names,” Bill recalls. After finding an ideal location in Long Beach, Bill again turned to Daniel. He wanted to learn about getting business licenses and permits and having building plans approved.

“Mike has been a sounding board for me,” Bill says, “and every bit of information he gave me helped me move forward into the unknown with confidence.”

As a sole proprietor, Bill had done bookkeeping before. But getting hands-on help from QuickBooks expert Lara made a huge difference in his comfort level. “I had some training, but [learning from] someone who does bookkeeping day-to-day makes a big difference,” he explains.

As Bill began to move his business along, he was unsure about whether to hire contractors or employees for his new business. So he turned to Jackson for guidance. “Jackson worked with us on the HR messages that we use when communicating with employees and potential employees [to stay] within California law,” McRae says. Daniel and Pollak helped him write an employee handbook, define job descriptions, clarify expectations for employees and develop a workplace culture.

Photo of a music lesson at On Stage Music Academy

Pollak, a former music executive, provided marketing advice. “Besides being a veteran of the industry and applying his knowledge to my issues, he’s very entertaining,” says Bill. “We get a lot done in a lighthearted way.” Bill worked with Pollak to identify the best marketing channels, refine his message, and create a step-by-step marketing plan that covers everything from an elevator pitch to direct marketing to events.

Meanwhile business advisor, Se Reed helped McRae prioritize how he developed an online presence. “The focus was on developing the website so that anything else we did paid off when people visited it,” he says. McRae also avidly attended all of the marketing classes Reed taught.

Starting off on the right foot

“Bill was great to work with and pushed through the [startup] process in a six-month period,” said the SBDC Long Beach Director, Mike Daniel. Combining his musical experience with his Business Advisors’ expertise, it seems McRae already has a hit on his hands. Just months after the business launch, the school already had a strong base of students. McRae kicked off his marketing using Groupon and Amazon Local offers, which attracted customers from near and far. “A good number of them have continued as students,” he says. A successful grand opening attracted the attention of local newspapers. As word-of-mouth built in the neighborhood, Bill was able to target a more specific local clientele.

“Getting advice from people who aren’t academics, but who walk the walk, is the biggest benefit [of the SBDC],” he says. “They are so giving.”