The government has ramped up its free resources online and in-person for small business owners at any stage. Here's how to find all the information and services you need right now.
With an outpouring of expansion plans and online endeavors, the United States Small Business Administration has undergone a facelift in recent years. Its latest installment comes this December as it unveils a new website, consolidating the agency's free training courses, counseling materials, and tools.
"Our concern is getting those resources and technical assistance to entrepreneurs and would be entrepreneurs in the best way possible," says Penny Pickett, the SBA's associate administrator for entrepreneurial development.
Especially during this period of economic uncertainty, when businesses lean on the government for everything from starting up to acquiring loans to finding opportunities for growth, Pickett admits that delivering all of that information in an intuitive and concise manner is no small task. Here's how to sift through the resources most useful to small businesses.
Using the Government's Free Tools: Online Resources
The SBA's ongoing transformation is made markedly apparent by the significant strides it has made in the Web community. The agency now offers around 30 virtual training courses, partners with Google to provide marketing tips and strategies, and hosts Facebook and Twitter pages with regular news updates. As these resources continue to grow in both scope and relevance (its Twitter page currently tops 3,600 followers), the SBA hopes to become a more viable partner for small business owners at any stage of growth. Here are some to take advantage of right now.
In addition, the SBTN produces original videos, mostly broadcasted through YouTube, that feature news and interviews with top business leaders. Pickett believes these resources act as a primer for early entrepreneurs to become familiar with terminologies and practices prior to visiting one of the SBA's business development centers. "It helps people decide which direction they want to head," she says.
Using the Government's Free Tools: In-person Planning Assistance
Of course, the full reach of the SBA's resources doesn't only extend to the Web. The administration maintains 900 business development centers throughout the country, along with 350 SCORE chapters and 110 women entrepreneur centers. Once you get your feet wet with online training and advice, it's a good idea to meet with a specialist who can guide you through the subsequent steps. Experts are typically available free of charge or at very little cost, and they use their local knowledge to offer advice on starting up or in a particular area of expertise. "If you are in telecom, for instance, and need help with marketing, you can search the SCORE site to be matched with someone who can help you," Pickett says.
On top of its free help at development centers, the SBA has instituted programs like e200 to spur emerging leaders in city centers throughout the country. The program includes a free six-month training series where business owners from around the area collaborate to learn and help each other succeed. Scott Carlson participated in the Des Moines, Iowa e200 initiative in 2007, which helped him to focus his vision.
"A lot of people have that passion and energy and great idea for a product, but don't have the business acumen to grow," says Carlson, who owns and manages Court Avenue Brewing Company, a restaurant in Des Moines. He says that this plays a huge role in the reason why so many businesses fail—not having the tools or knowledge to plan for the future. Programs like the e200 turn around the statistics so that more participants succeed rather than fail in their ventures.
While its geared more towards experienced business with at least a year under their belts, the e200 addresses two crucial issues many companies face down the road: preservation and growth. The area's ultimate goal of economic vitality hinges in large part upon the ability of these small business to stay in business. "We have to think in that survival mode—am I going to be in here six months or even next week?" Carlson asked. "If people take the time to embrace class, it forces you to slow down and put that growth plan together and think about where you are going to be in five years."