A town-hall meeting kicking off National Small Business Week 2012 in Washington, D.C., and Small Business Administration administrator Karen Mills opened the meeting with a discussion about how small businesses help create a healthy economy—both in the short term, by hiring and enlivening local economies, and the long term, by growing into sustainable companies.
"Last year was a record year for SBA," she said, adding that the agency guaranteed $30 billion [in loans] to small business in 2011: "That is more money into the hands of small business for SBA loan guarantees than ever before in the history of this agency."
And it's a big improvement from two years ago, when small business lending suffered a hard blow from the housing market crash and the recession, said Dr. Corey Brimacombe, the co-owner of First Impressions, a pediatric dentistry and orthodontics practice based in Wisconsin.
"It was difficult to go to the bank, unless you had basically impeccable credit, just to get them to talk to you." But now small business owners say things are looking up, although improvements still need to be made, he said. "It's starting to get better—but it's still fairly difficult."
Most business owners, who had traveled from across the United States, seemed optimistic—but cautiously so. That was readily apparent when entrepreneurs took to the open microphone, following the speech by Karen Mills. Their sustaining economic worries flowed forth.
And in dozens of subsequent interviews with entrepreneurs at Small Business Week, the sentiment that small businesses are still suffering from the sunken economy, and want the government to do more to help, became crystal clear.
Biggest Concern: Access to Capital
Despite it being a record year for the SBA, and despite the additional capital the administration has made available, entrepreneurs say tight lending conditions still put strain on their business.
Upon being asked if entrepreneurs had enough access to capital, Holly Bohn, founder of See Jane Work, a style and organization retailer, gave a blunt—but far from rare—response: "Absolutely not. And i think they don't have enough access to information."
Certainly, SBA loans have helped a lot of the businesses honored at Small Business Week get their jump-starts in the past.
"I couldn't have gotten my business off the ground without an SBA guaranteed loan," said Al Youngwerth, founder and of Rekluse Motor Sports. "I needed money to buy equipment and to expand, and I was not going to get financing without an SBA guarantee, even though I'd had several other successful businesses."
Although aid from the SBA is quite welcome, it also costs small business owners. "SBA is more expensive," Youngwerth says. "It prices its loans a couple of points higher to take in account for the risk."
Fortunately for Rekluse, which was named the National Small Business Exporter of the Year, Youngwerth says his SBA loan was "worth every penny."
Regardless of the increased amount and number of loans the SBA made this year, small business owners say a priority needs to be placed on education surrounding access to capital—ensuring entrepreneurs understand the large responsibility of loans and know reliable places to find additional funding.
"I think with loans comes a lot of responsibilities that a lot of small businesses really don't know about," Bohn, of See Jane Work, says. Bohn proposed different ideas for beefing up education for entrepreneurs looking for funding, such as thorough three-day workshops or requirements to meet with a SCORE mentor. Part of the education would also address the best places to access capital. "I still think entrepreneurs are taken advantage of by the capital market," Bohn says.
She stresses that entrepreneurs should be cautious about where they put their money, time, and faith. She warned against workshops that charge people money to pitch angel investors, stressing the need to research such resources. "It was a business where they were charging people money to present," Bohn says, "and you find out later that very few businesses were ever funded, or they might be funded very minimally."
Other entrepreneurs said they wanted to know what the SBA would do to keep the ball moving forward after the recent increase in loan availability. Concern was also voiced for the gender divide in funding.
"Access to capital is a tremendous issue to women entrepreneurs," says Jacqueline Baptist, president of The Baptist Group. "Three percent of VC money goes to women—out of 100%, and 15% of angel dollars goes to women—that's really small."
Another Substantial Worry: Financing Employee Health Care
Throughout Small Business Week, several entrepreneurs separately voiced their concerns about health care—and the woes seemed to extend from the smallest start-ups to established companies.
"I don’t care if you have five employees to 215 employees, you're nervous about what the health care bill is going to bring for small business," Brimacombe, the co-owner of First Impressions, says.
Health care isn't only a financial stress for business owners, but it can be a source of tension that disrupts employee confidence—which can harm a company from the inside. "We're going into 2013 and 2014 uncertain about what's going to happen—which brings down confidence and makes us nervous," Brimacombe says.
With small business owners being concerned about keeping the business afloat and saving for their families and retirement, and employees worrying about having the health care they need, the large impact of the health care issues are apparent. “When we’re nervous our employees are nervous because it affects us all,” Turner says.
Though health care is an issue on entrepreneur's minds at National Small Business Week, Youngwerth, of Rekluse Motor Sports, says he believes things are getting better, at least for his company.
"I don't know how much it has to do with the overall healthcare system, our size and our growing group size, or the pieces of the health care bill that have already implemented," he says. "But I would say it’s much better than it was several years ago."
Despite these worry lines, small business owners are optimistic about the economic future and are keeping things in perspective. "One of the jokes that was made in the back area amongst a lot of the winners wasn't so much congratulations on the award, but congratulations on surviving the last three years," Turner says. "And that says a lot, because we're starting to see a turn around for a lot of small businesses. We're starting to see banks loan more money out and looking for it but it's still the angst of moving forward a little bit."