Starting a small business or expanding an existing one can be quite a trial. You have to find your way through a labyrinth of government red tape and permitting hurdles in the face of what can seem like bureaucratic indifference. And that’s only the beginning. Competing with the big boys means investment in technology, and that can soon spiral well beyond any conceived budget limits.
Fortunately, there are resources around to help the small business avoid these pitfalls. In fact, there are actually people out there whose job it is to help small businesses succeed. And technology doesn’t have to be pricy if you know where to look.
5 Resources for Small Business Success
1. Consult the SBA
The obvious place to start is with the small business administration (SBA), yet many small business owners don’t even know it exists. Visit your local small business development center and take advantage of a host of free advice and tips. Talk to the people in economic development when scoping out a given project. They can help you vet your preferred location, suggest alternatives, give you access to hard-to-find incentives, and open the door to plenty of other opportunities.
2. Slash Government Red Tape
Many small business owners spend a few minutes on the SBA site and think they're ready for action. But a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Some people read a couple of pages of website FAQs and think they know it all. They then charge up to a government office to see a desk clerk to file all the necessary permits.
But the attitudes of these clerks can range from extremely helpful to indifferent to downright hostile. Regardless of their attitude, their job is to process a large volume of applications, not to help a clueless small business person dot the i’s and cross all the t’s on a 40-page form. And if you took the time to look at things from their perspective, you would understand how many lose their smiley face after years of dealing with an endless procession of people who filled out Form P43-17b incorrectly.
The trick is to enter the system at the correct point. A company known as OpenCounter provides an online interface to permitting at City hall that helps entrepreneurs get businesses up and running quickly and without hassle. The OpenCounter site asks the right questions in the right order, so business owners see the requirements, fees, and processing time that apply to their planned use and location. This makes it easier to get started, while also helping cities foster economic development and job creation.
Figure 1: OpenCounter helps small business cut through government red tape.
In his former life in local government, Peter Koht, co-founder of OpenCounter, realized that most small business owners who interface with government have fewer than 100 full time employees (FTEs). In fact, most have only a handful of staff—if any at all.
"They just don’t understand the language that’s used or how to deal with government, so they don’t know how to prepare for such things as obtaining planning permission," said Koht.
His company took mapping data and married it with zoning databases so they know the details for every parcel of land in a given town. As a result, a zoning inquiry can be done in a couple of seconds, not in a week. That can save weeks or even months when it comes to permitting.
Here’s a good example: two businesses apply for alcohol licenses in the same city. One planned correctly, and opened within 90 days without any significant barriers in zoning, permitting or licensing. The other company, however, tried to open in an industrial district. This incurred $75,000 in development impact fees due to a rule about increasing the traffic in that area calling for the applicant to fund upgrades such as crosswalks and stop signs. It cost the owner time as well as money; the entire process took six long months.
OpenCounter aims to eliminate the latter outcome and facilitate the former. It offers its services free to any small business owner. Those who register receive contacts for the right people at city hall. Almost every city has an economic development person whose job it is to encourage new businesses or to bring about expansion. That person is the key to a host of free resources. OpenCounter helps you reach that person first. And that person is far more likely to have a smiley face.
"These are the people in government that really want to help SMBs, and the cities want the revenue that they know thriving small businesses can generate," said Koht.