“Small business was no business. It just wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen.” That was the reality 30-something years ago when Susan Walthall, the current Acting Chief Counsel for the Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy, first started working at the SBA.
There has been a world of change since then. Almost everyone I encountered at this week’s National Small Business Week celebrations in Washington, D.C., uttered some version of “small business is the backbone of the economy.” However, Walthall maintains that many of the challenges remain the same: “We [still] need a level playing field for small businesses,” she insists.
To no one’s surprise, the most oft-repeated complaint (or perhaps plea would be a better way to put it) was “We can’t get any money” or “Do something about those #!*# banks!” SBA Administrator Karen Mills got right to the point in her kickoff speech, announcing the SBA was focusing on the 3 C’s: “capital, contracts, and counseling.” She also announced that Congress will soon be discussing a small business jobs bill (officially called the Small Business Lending Fund Act) that will include the following:
- A $30 billion lending fund for community banks
- An extension of the SBA 90 percent guarantee and waived fees
- A temporary increase in SBA Express loans from $350,000 to $1 million
- Increased limits of 7(a) and 504 loans to $5 million and microloans to $50,000
As for the other C’s, Mills wants to make sure small businesses are awarded 23 percent of all federal contracts and encourages business owners to get help from the “field troops”: SCORE and the SBDCs. In fact, SCORE just got a grant this week from the Sam’s Club Foundation, which since January has given over $5 million to nonprofits and organizations that support small businesses. Catherine Corley, VP of membership at Sam’s, says, “Entrepreneurs are the source of jobs, economic impact, and innovation, and we need to help them be successful.”
There was a lot of buzz about remote working or going virtual. Brian Burch, director of SMB marketing at HP, predicts “the best is ahead for small businesses” because of the new, innovative tools that enable virtualization and cloud computing. Cbeyond, a communications services company, has just teamed up with Mozy to offer Secure Backup, a cloud-based online data storage and data-backup service. Steve Zimba , who heads marketing for Cbeyond, says the company’s mission is to “bring the technology big businesses have to small businesses at affordable prices.” To that end, Cbeyond has added online marketing services to its offerings, and also has programs that build and host websites, offer SEO capabilities, and help business owners monitor what’s said about them on the Web.
Similarly, Angus Thomson, VP at Intuit’s Grow Your Business division, says Intuit is offering far more than accounting and payroll solutions. The company has created a set of services designed to help small businesses consistently grow 20 percent a year. Offerings include programs for building and hosting websites; e-mail marketing services; SEO, SEM, and reputation management tools; and a free online marketing toolkit.
Positive energy was in abundance at the event. Most people seemed to think we’ve turned the corner, after what Walthall calls “a rough couple of years.” That belief can be backed up by some numbers. Intuit’s Thomson says their just-released Small Business Employment Index shows small businesses created nearly 240,000 jobs since last October (25,000 this month alone).
Several months ago President Obama announced the National Export Initiative, which is intended to double the number of exports and create two million new jobs in the small business sector. Even I was shocked when Dale Hayes, VP of UPS U.S. Marketing, told me less than one percent of American small businesses export, even though there is a global demand for “the higher quality of goods made in America.” UPS is working with various federal agencies to show entrepreneurs how “easy and seamless” it can be to start exporting.
Hayes says too many business owners are afraid of tackling exporting because they fear the unknown and are worried about language and cultural issues. But he emphasizes that finding overseas partners can often be as simple as “finding the right trade show.” A new UPS Business Monitor survey [PDF] showed that over a third of small businesses that export have “seen a significant impact on their sales.” UPS offers free booklets on doing business with specific countries.
One of the highlights of Small Business Week is meeting the state small business owners the year. This year’s Small Business Owner of the Year is Florida’s Waymon Armstrong. I don’t mean to play favorites, but I was so impressed by the 2nd runner up for the national title, Warner Cruz of Illinois, who attributes part of his success to “being blessed with good employees.” He had to lay off 19 people last year, but he’s already hired 13 of them back — and found the other six jobs with his competitors.
Obviously Small Business Week is a government-sponsored celebration and those involved believe they are here to help. Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who chairs the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, told the crowd that “with the help of the government, some grit, and your gut,” small businesses will pull us out of the recession. To help make that happen, though, she says, “We need to reward risk-taking in America, not penalize it.”
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