Technology does a lot to help small businesses compete with the big boys. These five resources will help you cut through bureaucratic red tape and keep your costs down, too.
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.
More Small Business Resources
3. Improve Local Conditions
Small business owners often face problems like dealing with potholes, graffiti and other issues that might dissuade customers from visiting their establishments. It can be difficult to find the right municipal employee to call, and if you do, action is not always forthcoming.
A firm called CitySourced created a mobile app that acts as a civic engagement platform. This technology lets citizens identify issues in their communities or near their businesses and report them to the appropriate cities and counties. And it makes the process easy.
Let’s say a massive pothole opens up at the entrance to a small strip mall and inhibits traffic. In the past, you had to call a manned phone line or email the information. Someone then had to write it up, and that might result in a piece of paper lying in a pile with other similar sheets. CitySourced automatically uploads this information to the city database along with photos of the problem, its location, and a map showing all similar incidents.
"This is a smart phone app you can download in seconds," said Jason Kiesel, CEO of CitySourced. "The business owner can snap a photo of the situation, enter some data quickly and transmit it along with the exact location. That is far easier for government to understand, it lets them deal with complete data that's immediately available in their database."
4. Mobilize Your Community
Citizinvestor provides an interesting way to fund projects. The company developed a civic engagement platform that people can use to propose community improvements and have them funded. For example, say a business owner owns a piece of undeveloped land beside his or her property that acts as an eyesore. That owner (or any citizen for that matter) can propose to the city that they turn it into a park.
In many cases, the city might be interested in the concept, but lack the immediate funds due to ongoing priorities. Citizinvestor has partnerships with more than 140 municipal governments in the U.S, whereby the city green lights the project if the citizens or businesses in the area are willing to make donations to fund it. This is known as crowdfunding. All of a sudden, the $40,000 needed for the project is available, and the city can get it done.
Figure 2: Citizinvestor is a crowdsourcing platform where you can propose and raise funds for community improvements.
"Small businesses can use this service to motivate the community to help create something for the general benefit," said Jordan Raynor, co-founder of Citizinvestor. "If a pet shop owner proposes a dog park on vacant land and the people in the vicinity are keen to have it, they're often willing to make donations to cover the necessary construction and park renovations."
5. Find Affordable Technology
When it comes to cheap technology, most press coverage is on buying second-hand computers, or renting equipment temporarily. What isn’t realized, however, is that a revolution in microprocessors has made a whole lot of technology inexpensive that used to be pricey.
For instance, sensor networks used to cost a lot. You had to buy proprietary systems and set up expensive sensors around a facility. Now, however, the hardware that can be used has become so cheap that it is far more affordable today. This opens up many possibilities for small businesses.
Lorenzo Gonzalez, chief software architect at a small business startup called Valarm, provides the example of sensors that vineyards use to detect an imminent freeze. In cases of extreme cold the sensors activate the sprinkler system, which forms an ice barrier that protects the grapes. Such systems used to come with a high price tag. But Valarm provides mobile sensors using commodity hardware—old Android smartphones. They're readily—and cheaply—available because no one wants a 1- or 2-year-old smartphone.
"Using older technology reduces the price of these sensors to a tenth of what they used to cost," said Gonzalez. "You now have small vineyards that can afford to deploy these sensors when they couldn't before. You can use the same affordable approach to monitor a small fleet of vehicles and track deliveries and the drivers' current location."
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