Building Support for Main Street Entrepreneurs
By Todd Barman, National Main Street Center | From Main Street Story of the Week | June 7, 2013 |
The process of developing new businesses is similar to the process of recruiting existing businesses to your district.
Like established businesses opening a second location, brand new businesses need technical assistance, financing, information about the district, help in finding the right location, and mentoring. The primary difference is that you will be targeting entrepreneurs and cultivating individuals who might open a new business, rather than targeting established businesses. Developing a support system for entrepreneurs is essential not only for the economic well being but also the social health of your town. More locally owned businesses, more family businesses, and more independent businesses will translate into more civic-minded businesses and reinforce your Main Street as a center of commerce, culture, and community life. Let’s look at the variety of ways your Main Street program can nurture entrepreneurial spirit and community appreciation for your business owners.
Educate the Community
An important part of your job is public education; you need to spread the word about the value and importance of homegrown, independent, entrepreneurial businesses. Send press releases to the local newspaper about new businesses or write an “Entrepreneur of the Month” column. Highlight them in your own newsletter, through social media, and on your website.
- Hold ribbon-cutting ceremonies for new business openings.
- Host open houses to showcase successful entrepreneurs and their businesses.
- Encourage entrepreneurs to make presentations to students as part of the school curriculum, perhaps combined with a field trip to the business.
In all of these activities, consciously use the term “entrepreneur” to reinforce an entrepreneurial culture and reconnect people to the idea of business ownership.
Reach out to local and regional entrepreneurs and prospects. This could be a challenge because many of these individuals may not see themselves as entrepreneurs or be a part of the mainstream business community. Make it easy for them to find you and don’t leave any groups out! Early retirees starting their own businesses is a trend on the rise, so look at major employers as a source for new business owners. Also, many non-native English speakers have been opening businesses throughout the nation. The key is to take advantage of every opportunity where entrepreneurship is being showcased and to provide your program’s contact information. Every individual who makes an inquiry should be put on the “entrepreneurship mailing list” and efforts should be made to maintain regular, meaningful contact. Other strategies include:
Team up with banks, Realtors, Small Business Development Centers (SBDC), and other institutions that are likely to come into contact with people interested in opening a business. Ask these institutions to keep an eye out for businesses that might be a good fit for your district. Set up an appointment to meet with a representative from these institutions so you can describe your district’s opportunities in greater detail, then stay in regular contact with them so that they are aware of your issues and challenges.
Team up with community colleges and other area colleges and universities. Almost all colleges and universities have active career planning and placement programs to help new graduates find jobs. Meet with the staff of the career planning offices and tell them that you are looking for prospective business owners and that you have programs in place to provide training, financing, and support.
Inventory hidden or home-based talents. Foster growth of this talent and connect people in various clubs, people with home-based businesses, and farmer’s market vendors with commercial kitchens, incubators, business assistance providers, and networking events.
Set up a Mentoring System
Foster an entrepreneurial networking and mentorship system. Connect new entrepreneurs with another new business owner and with a successful entrepreneur. It can make all the difference in the world for new business owners to be able to talk with someone who is in the same boat. In the same way, it is important them to talk with a successful business owner. Potential strategies include setting up
- Large group meetings/entrepreneur clubs;
- One-on-one meetings; and
- Online social networking, from blogs to list serves.
Draft guidelines that “set the bar” for business greatness on Main Street. They should include effective hours of operation, frequency of window display turnover, etc. As with design guidelines, if possible, you should tie business guidelines to incentives. It is in the best interest of property owners, developers, and the entrepreneurs to make adherence to business guidelines part of any lease.
Create a new business set-up checklist and welcome packet that provides contacts for local, state, and federal programs; information about Main Street and other business assistance groups; and all other information pertinent to establishing a business in your district.
Using Business Incubators
Many Main Street communities try to assist new businesses through incubators. Some help retailers sell their goods by giving them a small space where they can sell, or sometimes create, their merchandise. Others help professional businesses by providing office equipment and common space. Effective incubators will offer competitive rent or provide a lot of extra value for the rent. They will also provide business and management assistance to help entrepreneurs build capacity and “graduate” one day into their own private space. Unfortunately, many incubators end up becoming essentially mini-malls that house business owners who never seek to leave or grow.
One example of an effective incubator in a Main Street community is The Affinity Lab in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C. It started out when a web-technology entrepreneur realized that that his upper-floor office space was too big. He amended his business plan and created an incubator to share the office with non-retail business members. Instead of taking equity from the tenants, he charges a membership fee for the use of a dedicated desk, filing unit, phone and Internet service, staffed reception area, access to meeting space and a break area, as well as other office equipment. Although tenants aren’t offered business assistance, they benefit from networking and collaborating together, and graduates have been moving into their own space when the time is right.
Another successful incubator is the Hannah Grimes Center, a nonprofit business incubator in Keene, New Hampshire, which provides affordable office space, technical assistance, business resources, and workshops to small businesses in the region. The Center has two membership levels that give members either private offices or shared space as well as access to networking opportunities, resources, communications technology, and more, to help entrepreneurs get off the ground during the initital critical make-it or break-it years. The Hannah Grimes Center also features a shop with products created by local artisans, crafters, farmers, and chefs. The Center produces tons of events that feature its members and appeal to the public – all of which help this group’s motto ring true: “weaving together business, local economy, and community.”
Just keep in mind that there is no better place than the whole of downtown to serve as an incubator for new entrepreneurs. That is downtown’s heritage!
Todd Barman is a senior program officer with the National Main Street Center.
Todd Barman is a senior program officer with the National Main Street Center.