How to Use the Government's Free Tools
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.
- Training courses and videos. The Small Business Training Network contains a wealth of virtual courses, videos, and podcasts to help entrepreneurs move up from the ground floor. Each of the 30 courses offers a 30-to-35 minute lesson in areas ranging from finance and accounting to strategic marketing to retrofitting a business. Such courses are particularly convenient for entrepreneurs, who juggle endless responsibilities throughout the day, Pickett says. She finds that the heaviest usage comes between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m., perhaps due to that. "We figure that for some of these entrepreneurs, this is the only time they have," Pickett says.
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.
- Live Web chats. Since 2005, the site has featured a live monthly question and answer session with business owners, SBA administrators, and a variety of other experts. The chats provide an open forum for aspiring entrepreneurs to ask questions that they might not have time to answer on their own or are simply hesitant to ask. "How many times do people say, 'Oh, this may be a dumb question,'" says Pickett. "They have a chance to go in privately and be much more confident about the questions they ask."
- Partnership with Google. The company teamed up with the SBA to tap its repository of expertise in areas like website navigability, free online marketing, paid advertising, and Web analytics. Small business owners can visit the site, called Tools for Online Success, to view videos with tips from entrepreneurs and Google developers on strategies they used to succeed online. The partnership illustrates the SBA's sustained emphasis on 21st century companies that build relationships through social media and employ creative Web design. In a time when customer-relations management has become increasingly important, these videos and guides are an imperative resource for businesses looking to enhance their presence online.
- Business Planner, Templates, and Success Stories. Often the best way to learn how to start or run a business is to learn from others. That's why the SBA draws on its 50-plus years worth of experience with both successful and failing businesses to equip starting entrepreneurs with the this litany of tools. The Small Business Planner offers an intensive 4-step guide all the way from planning the business to financing and through to exit strategies. Supplementing the Planner is a variety of business templates like executive summaries and cash flow statements for individuals to model and customize. It also helps businesses navigate tricky tax and legal regulations that can sometimes impede growth or success. The success stories posted online also offer a beacon of hope for small business owners struggling to stay afloat. Many of the stories convey how entrepreneurs overcame seemingly unbeatable odds and difficulties to eventually prevail. "Even though it's a story," Picket says, "people really learn a lot from how others handles particular issues or situations."
- SCORE and Other Sites. Beyond what it supplies on the SBA site, the government also hosts a number of partner sites to assist in the labors of running and growing a business. SCORE, the most comprehensive of these resources, features a bevy of tools, links, and advice for entrepreneurs. SCORE has its own gallery of business templates, workshops for assessment, quizzes, podcasts, and how-to guides. You can also find more specific success stories catered to your industry or interest area like sales, marketing, or innovation.
- Research and Data. The SBA's Office of Advocacy contains throngs of studies, statistics, and data to aid businesses in areas like banking, market research, and employee training, among other white papers. The Small Business Innovation Research program also disseminates information about what grants are available and how to apply market research in the best possible way. The SBA's pool of research and data is particularly helpful for companies looking to secure government contracts or find a lender. You can easily search the Office of Advocacy to peruse lending activity documents, for example, to find a local bank willing to lend to your business.
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."