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Entrepreneurs, Policy Makers Discuss What's Working and Share Advice

The Atlantic's 2014 Small Business Forum

By Martin Feeney


From within the ultra modern, concrete-exposed confines of Washington's 1776, a startup incubator, The Atlantic Magazine hosted its annual Small Business Forum.  Representative Judy Chu (D-CA) kicked off the morning's session with a bang. The recently passed defense authorization bill included sole source authority for the Women-Owned Small Business (WOSB) Procurement Program.  This is a major victory for all women business owners and is something we've been advocating for many years. According to Rep. Chu, other changes for small businesses included in the defense bill are limitations on reverse auctions, changes to subcontracting, and review of contract bundling.


When the new Congress convenes in January, Rep. Chu shared her plans to introduce a bill to restart the refinance section under the SBA's 504 commercial real-estate loan program.  It allowed small businesses to cut costs by refinance existing commercial property loans at today's low interest rates, but it expired in 2012.  We look forward to working with her next year to make this a reality.


Many of the morning's panelists, including SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet, the National Journal's Fawn Johnson, 1776 Co-Founder Evan Burfield, and the founders of two of DC's favorite establishments, Ben's Chili Bowl's Nazim Ali and Port City Brewing Company's Bill Butcher, all agreed that access to capital remains the major obstacle for startups.  Port City's Bill Butcher recalled his attempts to get a loan to start Washington's first brewery since prohibition.  Despite success in the winemaking industry and having his personal finances in order, he heard the all-too-familiar refrain from the first ten banks he tried: "sorry, we only lend to businesses that are at least 24 months old."  His advice: "keep trying," he said, "and learn from your failures and mistakes."  Luckily for beer lovers, Port City was able to obtain an SBA loan with some business counseling. 


With respect to what the government is doing, the SBA's Maria Contreras-Sweet highlighted initiatives specifically designed for small businesses.  On lending, she noted that the SBA waived fees on 7(a) loans below $150,000 last year and has committed to continuing through September 2015.  According to her, this has resulted in increased loans to the smallest businesses, including those run by women and minorities.  To boost the number of microloans (loans up to $50,000), the SBA plans to enter into an agreement with credit unions, which will increase the program's reach into more communities across the country. 


On technology and how the SBA is innovating, Administrator Contreras-Sweet also announced SBA One. The online platform will automate the application and approval process for almost all SBA loans.  She likened the idea to what TurboTax did for filing taxes by making the entire process online and automated.  No more paperwork or headaches?  Sounds like a great idea me.  SBA One is expected to launch in the second quarter of 2015. 


From the private sector's perspective, Bank of America's chief small business lender, Robb Hilson, shared a couple of statistics about generational approaches to entrepreneurship.  Not surprisingly, millennials are the most confident when it comes to taking the leap and starting a business.  But they're also the most dependent on technology, with 44% saying they wouldn't be able to survive without a smartphone.  Surprisingly, on the other end of the spectrum, encore entrepreneurs (those aged 50+), often considered the luddites of the entrepreneurial world, is in fact the age group most likely to do so following the millennial generation.


At the end of each panel, each participant was asked for the one piece of advice each would give an aspiring entrepreneur.  I think Ben's Mr. Ali framed it perfectly: "know your community, know your neighbors, and know what they want."  He credited this advice, passed down from his father who founded Ben's Chili Bowl almost 60 years ago, with the famed restaurant's continued success.  They've been able to succeed in their community because they're a part of it and know their needs and desires. 


So here's my piece of advice: If you're ever in Washington and haven't already, make sure to support these local entrepreneurs...legends by grabbing a Ben's Half-Smoke and a pint of Port City's IPA. You won't regret it.


All told, the forum offered a wide range of perspectives, including experiences, lessons learned, opportunities, and thoughts on the state of small business in general.  I encourage you to watch the webcast if you haven't had the chance to do so yet.   


How does your business "Size Up?"

4:04 PM March 11, 2013

By John Stanford


It's a question that every business owner asks, "Who is my competition?" Or even, "Where am I compared to my competition?" For small businesses, answering these questions can be much harder than it is for larger companies with big marketing departments, and often more critical. Fortunately, the Small Business Administration (SBA) has a new tool to level the playing field.


Aptly named "SizeUp," this new widget can determine your competition, as well as identify potentially untapped consumer bases. In today's global marketplace, the field of data analytics has become a standard market resource - bringing this power to the small business community is an important step.


"Tools like SizeUp deliver data right to the fingertips of business owners to help make smart decisions and have the greatest opportunity to start, grow, compete and succeed," said SBA Administrator Karen Mills. "In today's challenging economic environment where small businesses create nearly all the net new jobs in the U.S., help for small businesses is more important than ever before."


What you can do:

  • Compare your business to competitors by revenue, salaries, and time in business
  • Use mapping feature to see where customers and suppliers are located
  • Find underserved markets for your product


The service is entirely free of charge, but you must register for total access. You can also access the information directly through SizeUp at


Please click here for an example of the tool ( I have used the example of florists in Kansas City, MO).


By entering your revenue, establishment date, or average employee salary you can see how you compare to competitors in your industry and area. You can go further by identifying zip codes that may be unrealized potential for your business, and even scope out the competition's success.


As an example, I entered my florist shop revenue of $500,000 - and it seems I am doing pretty well compared to the rest of the country, but only average in my area. Who knew florists in Kansas City were so successful?


Go ahead - play around with it. Logon and find out how your business really sizes up.





Partnership for Employment

1:40 PM October 30, 2012

Thousands of federal government employees suffer work-related injuries each year, most of who recover and return to their pre-injury jobs. There are however, a small percentage of employees who are unable to return to their pre-injury jobs due to long-term physical restrictions. Although placement with a federal agency is optimal, it is not always possible, especially at a time when government jobs are being eliminated. This leaves a significant number of individuals with transferable skills, unemployed and heading down a path towards a life of unnecessary long-term disability.


Small businesses are one of the biggest drivers of employment, having generated more than 67% of new jobs in the past 17 years. However, small businesses often have difficulty finding access to capital to support growth and create jobs. Cash flow problems make it difficult to fund recruitment and training.


"Partnership for Employment" is an exciting new "Pilot" public/private initiative between Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP), the Department of Labor's Office of Workers' Compensation Programs (OWCP) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) dedicated to matching these skilled Federal Employees with available positions at small companies.


The purpose of this initiative is to assist federal workers in finding alternative work opportunities and to assist small businesses with the cost of recruiting, training and hiring these individuals through the existing Assisted Reemployment Program.


Through the Assisted Reemployment program, private employers who hire federal civilian employees who are currently receiving workers compensation benefits may be eligible for a salary subsidy of up to 75% of wages paid. To find out more information on Assisted Reemployment, please see Assisted Reemployment Overview.


For more information, or to post an available position on a job  board for viewing by Federal Agencies, please see Partnership for Employment.

By Presidential Proclamation, October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

The past 4 years, employment challenges have affected many American families; for people with disabilities it has been a most diffcult time. Partnership for Employment, is an exciting new public/private initiative between WIPP, the Department of Labor's Office of Worker's Compensation and the Department of Homeland Security. The purpose of this initiative is to assist federal workers in finding alternative work opportunities, and to assist small businesses with the cost of recruiting, training and hiring these individuals through an existing government program, "Assisted Reemployment". Under this program, private employers who hire federal civilian employees who are currently receiving workers compensation benefits, may be eligible for a salary subsidy of up to 75% of wages paid (the exact amount and duration of the subsidy will depend on several factors, including the wage for the job and the amount of compensation benefit the employee is now receiving and training needs). To find out more, and to post your position, go to Partnership for Employment at the WIPP website.

While some small business advocates have made repealing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act their main focus, there are others, like Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP), who wonder what the alternative will be.

What the small business committees in Congress should be doing now, is drafting such alternatives!   If the law is stricken, then what?  If we don't get to participate in an exchange, what will we get - the same system we have now?

The health care system currently in place is inefficient - nearly impossible for small businesses to navigate and incredibly costly.   Health insurance premiums have gone up over 130 per cent over the last decade, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.   As small firms we don't have power in numbers on our side and have fought to be able to form large pools so that we have increased market clout. The creation of state exchanges and multi-state compacts would give small employers and individual purchasers more market clout, provide more insurance choices and create a more simplified enrollment process.  Exchanges, which had their roots in Association Health Plans and Small Business Health Plans, were a bipartisan effort that spanned over a decade of work.  Interestingly enough, support for health care exchanges evolved into an "either/or" category, either one supports the whole health care law or opposes it in its entirety.   No comprehensive overhaul is ever "all or nothing", and this reform effort is no exception. States are at a critical juncture to establish the rules of their state exchange programs which will go into effect in 2014 and are feeling the consequences of uncertainty.

The question is simple:  if the Supreme Court strikes down the new health care law (commonly referred to as the ACA), how will Washington go about reforming our health care system so that we, as small business owners, can offer health care to our employees without drowning in debt?

Small businesses are the trailblazers to recovery and create nearly 7 of every 10 new jobs.  Over half of the private sector is employed by small businesses and since over 60% cannot afford to provide insurance, millions of Americans are without health care.

America's leading job creators and the nation's workforce are holding their breath for substantive health care reform; if it is not the ACA, we need a feasible alternative. 

We encourage Washington to think beyond the health care reform law to address the problem that small firms will continue to face - attaining affordable and accessible health care.   Without the ability to pool, small businesses will be right back where they started.  Congress needs to be prepared to devise a path to a health care system that does not leave us with the same broken system we have in place right now, but lays a foundation we can build on to allow small businesses to provide half of the nation's workforce with the health care coverage they need.




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