What the Heck Will the SBA Do Now?
A bit over a year ago, President Obama was talking about what might have been a great government entrepreneurship mash-up.
He announced a plan to combine the Small Business Administration with four other government bureaucracies, weeding out inefficiencies and creating a giant, cabinet-level super-agency that would oversee how the government helps new ventures.
Thirteen months later, the SBA is still the SBA, and the head of the agency, Karen Mills, has announced she plans to step down.
So, what should the next iteration of the SBA look like? And, who should Pres. Obama pick to lead it? Here are four keys to creating a better SBA, and finding someone great to lead it.
1. Pick an inspiring entrepreneur as boss.
Last week, the president named Sally Jewell his pick to lead the Department of Interior. A lot of avid outdoor adventurers I know were excited. As president and CEO of the sporting goods cooperative REI, Jewell brings an understanding that's a lot different from a politician or a more traditional pick.
Wouldn't it be great to see someone whose nomination would make the same kind of impact at the SBA?
I hesitate to name names, but I'm thinking of the kinds of people who've launched true start-ups, overcome great challenges, and built them into giant, national brands. Granted, these are the kinds of people who have no shortage of opportunities. But as the saying goes, when the president asks you to serve, you have to say yes.
2. Get a better name.
It has survived for six decades. But, the SBA's name represents one of the worst Washington branding decisions since President Nixon's campaign called itself the Committee for the Re-Election of the President ("CREEP," for short).
I've been harping on this one for a while. Sure, the agency's mission is to help smaller businesses, but that's not exactly an inspiring moniker. I've spent a lot of time studying and interviewing entrepreneurs. I've met some amazing people who've worked in just about every field imaginable. The one thing they all have in common is that they don't "think small."
Granted, the "small" in "SBA" is supposed to refer to a business's number of employees or total revenue. But tell me, what inspiring entrepreneur ever talked about how he or she wanted to launch a "small business?" Wouldn't it send a message to rename the entire agency something more inspirational? Back-of-the-envelope, I'd vote for the Office of Entrepreneurial Opportunity. (Got another idea? I'd like to hear it in the comments.)
3. Consolidate and prune.
This one goes for any government agency, but it seems especially relevant to the SBA. Most entrepreneurs are on a never-ending quest for more efficient ways of doing things. You're not going to have two people doing the job of one--at least not for long, if you want to succeed.
Not so in government. In a study two years ago, the Government Accountability Office identified a total of 52 separate overlapping entrepreneurship programs at the SBA and three other government agencies (the U.S. Departments of Commerce, Housing & Urban Development, and Agriculture).
"Many of those offices were small and seemed entirely duplicative," The Washington Post reported at the time. "Twenty-one of the programs, for instance, targeted the same geographic regions."
Okay, so I've never heard of a government official actively working to shrink his or her department. But the more the government can do to shrink and consolidate programs, the more faith people might have in the SBA.
4. Break free of bureaucracy.
A few years back, I interviewed to work in the SBA's communications office in Washington. I took myself out of the running after the interview.
Why? Well, I realized I liked running my own business too much. But I was also struck by how strange it was that the government's effort to help small, dynamic businesses was funneled through a giant, decades-old bureaucracy.
I've known some really dynamic people at the SBA. But often, they commiserated with me about how thick the bureaucracy can be. And with a budget of $569 million and more than 2,100 employees. the SBA is always going to be constricted by all kinds of governmental hiring, firing, and decision-making restrictions.
As the saying goes, it's hard to turn a battleship. But, whatever steps the SBA can take--even symbolic ones--to demonstrate that it's different, and that it "gets" independent businesses, could mean a lot.
BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist
Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.