City Government and Small Business: An Award-Winning Combo in Austin
Small businesses don’t often feel like they get much support from government. That’s not the case in Austin. In fact, Harvard University gave the city a prestigious award for its above-and-beyond efforts to help small businesses out during a tough economy. Last October, Harvard’s Harvard University’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation gave one of its inaugural “Bright Ideas Program” awards to Austin’s “Meet the Lender” program, a free business fair held every summer to match small business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs with local, small business-friendly lenders in order to get commercial loans. The seventh annual “Meet the Lender” fair, held last August, drew more than 700 attendees.
“This event has won several awards, but this one is the most prestigious we’ve gotten to date, says Joy Miller, the business information coordinator for the City of Austin’s Small Business Development Program (SBDP). “Accessing capital is one of the primary things entrepreneurs struggle with, and ‘Meet the Lender’ is an informal meeting place that is one way to ease the process.”
Another unique-to-Austin event is coming up on April 7. The fourth “Getting Connected” event is a business information fair where small business owners can meet with nonprofits, government agencies, and area chambers of commerce that have free or inexpensive programs to offer, such as getting free bike racks installed in front of retail storefronts, or receiving free energy audits.
Austin is known much for its technology and music scene, but Miller says there’s no small business that SBDP doesn’t help out, including non-profits. For example, Ed Harke, whose landscaping business was hit hard by the recession, teamed up with a SBDP business coach to create Prosparity Gardens, an organic garden installation and maintenance business. When Lauri Turner wanted to expand her custom hat-making store, Hatbox, across Texas, she also met with an SBDB business coach to get hands-on advice about financing and growth.
Besides the annual “Meet the Lender and “Get Connected” events, Austin offers small businesses multiple services year round, including:
- BizAid, a 90-minute program held weekly that offers information about small business resources available free of charge from various entities and programs. “We talk about options you should consider, and questions to ask about required processes, like the steps you need to take to register your business with local and state government,” says Miller.
- BizOpen is a similar program, but it’s focused on small business owners who need physical locations, like retail storefronts, to serve customers. Here’s where you can understand Austin’s zoning, permitting, and development processes, so you know the right resource to go to for specific help with your business.
- SBDP partners up with the University of Texas’s Professional Development Center to offer Small Business Success Skills classes. Topics range from using social media for marketing to hiring the right person. The class fees are low, from $35 for a two-hour course on the essentials of writing a business plan to $85 for a full-day class on learning QuickBooks.
- SBDP’s Business Solutions Center is an open-to-everyone office where entrepreneurs can take advantage of a plethora of small-business tools, free of charge, including demographics information, government contract opportunities, and more than 14,000 business templates, from employee handbooks to copyright documents.
But like other local governments, the City of Austin needs to watch its finances more carefully these days. What does that mean for the SBDP? Miller says she doesn’t have a specific answer, as the City is in the middle of its fiscal year. But more than 97 percent of business establishments in Austin employ fewer than 100 people, and annual sales at those businesses amount to nearly $40 billion. “Those small businesses continue to increase their total market share year over year, which is why the City funds this program. Small business is key to Austin.”
Photo ©iStockphoto.com/David Sucsy.