Starting and maintaining a successful small business is challenging at best for anyone. But it's especially difficult for people who live in emerging markets such as Africa, India and Brazil or for under-served constituencies in the United States, such as Blacks, Asians, Hispanics and women. These groups have historically lacked the resources, skills and access to information that running a sustainable business requires.
The SmallBusiness Toolkit -- a collaborative project of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) an arm of the World Bank, and IBM is a free, online resource for these emerging-market and under-served small businesses around the world. The Toolkit helps entrepreneurs and small business owners apply sound business-management practices to drive growth and success.
The IFC first launched the ToolKit in 2002. IBM joined the project in 2006 and has revamped the online aspect of the ToolKit making it more user-friendly and easier to expand. According to Robin Willner, IBM's vice president of global community relations, IBM has invested more than $1.6 million to rebuild the site using an open source platform complete with Web 2.0 features and community tools such as:
- Online conferencing
- Blog capability
- Group calendars
- Survey and quiz builders
- Live chat
- Business directories
In addition to the online resources, the IFC partners with local partners around the world and within the U.S. in order to provide hands-on business training in community-based workshops. In the U.S., an Advisory Council made up of national organizations fills this role. "The local branches of the Council's organizations help select the most appropriate content, training and customization for specific constituents," said Willner. The council is comprised of the following organizations:
- Asian American Business Development Center
- Black Enterprise magazine
- Council of Better Business Bureau
- Latinos in Information, Sciences and Technology
- Native American Business Alliance
- Native American Chamber of Commerce
- NY African American Chamber of Commerce
- U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Foundation
- Women Presidents' Organization
- Womens Business Enterprise National Council
- US Small Business Administration
- US Pan Asian-American Chamber of Commerce
The ToolKit in Action
Fletcher White, owner and gym director of The Little Gym of Clinton, Md. first heard about the SmallBusiness ToolKit from a former professor of his at Southwestern University. White recently opened a franchise that specializes in gymnastics for children aged four months to 12 years, and while the franchise provides the major materials to get the business up and running, the new owner provides smaller, but necessary pieces.
In White's case, he needed to write an offer letter for a prospective employee and an employee's handbook outlining sick leave, vacation days, bonuses and other benefits. "We went over this in school," said White, "but it was all hypothetical." He found a template for the offer letter along with other information -- under the ToolKit's HR section. "I didn't know what other companies were offering in terms of benefits. The ToolKit helped me come up with a document and be competitive."
White turned to the ToolKit again as he prepared to represent his business at the Prince George's County Fair. "I have a background in printing, so coming up with the graphics was easy for me," said White. "But I needed help figuring out how to properly staff the booth." White said he initially thought he could handle it alone, but the ToolKit helped him readjust his planning.
"There's a section on participating in a tradeshow that was a real eye opener," he said. "Turns out you base your booth staffing on the square footage of the entire show. I realized I'd need four people during the day and another four at night. It really helped, because otherwise I could not have handled the volume of people and would have had potential customers walking away."
Taren Coleman, president and CEO of Coleman Financial Group LLC, was one of the U.S. ToolKit's first testers. Coleman said she found the site "chock full of information I've piecemealed together for years. This is going to be great, especially for people just starting out, because there's such a breadth of information available."Even though Coleman's business is not new, she said she uses the site as a reference guide. "I always need information, and I can't always remember everything. If I'm meeting a client who wants to form a business and isn't sure if it should be an LLC or an S-Corp, for example, I can quickly refresh my memory on the details and offer better counsel," she said.