We live in a world where cities vie, via bidding wars, for juggernaut corporations like Amazon to set up shop in their area. Local officials try their best to make their tax laws and regulations big business-friendly, while small/medium businesses (SMBs) are largely overlooked. It’s time to shift that narrative, because the key to building a strong community is a strong ecosystem of local businesses.
Small businesses and entrepreneurs are the backbones of our cities. They can buoy us in times of financial downturn by keeping a steady influx of capital flowing into the local economy. They provide jobs to residents and patronize other local businesses for their B2B needs, and they’re on the forefront of revitalizing America. So, how can we support mom-and-pop establishments and startups? How can we enter into an ecosystem of strong businesses supporting a strong community, and vice versa?
Here are five key ways to support entrepreneurs and small/medium businesses in your town:
1. Cultivate what’s already there.
It all starts with looking at what already exists in your community. Find what’s there and cultivate it through Economic Gardening. This approach focuses on growing sustainable jobs in existing small businesses, as opposed to subsidizing big businesses.
Economic Gardening is perfect for SMBs who are in Stage 2 of their development. They’re no longer in the startup phase, and while they might like a financial handout, they don’t necessarily need one. What they need more than anything is mentorship, business objectives, and a model that allows for growth. By helping existing businesses answer basic business questions to identify competitors, find expanding markets and niches, and become grounded, they’ll be able to grow and create jobs at a fraction of the cost of subsidizing a large corporation. And in turn, supporting Stage 2 businesses with Economic Gardening encourages the creation and growth of Stage 1 operations. It’s a win/win scenario.
2. Create a governmental structure that’s small business-friendly.
From zoning regulations to tax policies, there are governmental structures that can be revamped to revitalize existing small businesses, and support the formation and growth of new ones.
One of the largest complaints from small businesses around the country is that their local government seems to set up regulations to purposefully trip them up. Often, it comes down to the fact that these regulations are difficult to understand. Small business owners are crunched for time and stretched thin, so finding ways to make codes easily digestible and accessible are paramount to an SMB’s success.
This can be overcome by providing all relevant codes and regulations in one place, including auxiliary educational materials to explain why these codes are needed, and holding roundtable discussions to better understand how local governments and small businesses can work together. Centralizing small business issues in one governmental office that business owners can approach with questions is also immensely helpful.
3. Invest in new innovations and ideas.
There’s a reason the television show, Shark Tank, is so popular. People love to hear about new ideas and innovations, and investors love to take stake in the next amazing thing. A great way to bring this energy to your community is to hold a pitch competition.
Take, for example, the University of Akron’s Experiential Learning Center (EXL) and their Be the Change 10K! pitch competition. The competition is open to students from all disciplines and all education levels. Sponsored by the Akron Leadership Foundation, students' ideas can be intended for a non-profit or for-profit business, but overall, they must give back to the community in some way. The winner of the pitch competition gets $10,000 in funding, as well as mentorship from experienced business owners and faculty.
This idea isn’t strictly reserved for colleges and universities. It could easily be transferred into a community competition, and judged by local officials, board members, and other business leaders in the community. It allows for up-and-coming entrepreneurs to have a public platform, to gain experience, and to lay a solid foundation and business plan for their start-up so that, even if they don’t win, they can still move forward with their vision. And if other investors are present or are on the judging panel, they could privately invest in other small businesses and projects they deem important. Not to mention, a $10k prize pool is much less than the capital it would take to entice a large corporation to set up shop in town — and can make a much more lasting impact.
4. View your community as a platform for productivity, instead of trying to seduce big businesses.
The truth is that big manufacturers and corporations are relatively transient. They follow the money and move their plants to the cheapest places possible whenever it suits them, regardless of their employees. So when big corporations split town, either outsourcing their production overseas or by drastically cutting their workforce, our communities are the ones that pay the price. Jobs are lost, manufacturing plants are left vacant, and the leadership may be more focused on spending money to get another large corporation to fill the void as opposed to invigorating smaller businesses that need their help.
My own hometown felt that pain back in the early 2000s when our biggest employer at the time, Rubbermaid, decided to shutter its manufacturing plant. The closure meant the loss of 850 jobs, about $1 million from the public school district, nearly $304,000 in real estate taxes, and $1 million in personal property taxes. The city eventually bounced back, but not after it spent a long time licking its wounds.
Instead of viewing a community as a home for big business, we need to begin looking at our cities and towns as centers for innovation and productivity. By giving small businesses and individuals the space, resources, and opportunity to create and thrive, we engender a sense of shared investment between entrepreneurs and the communities they serve. Turn that vacant manufacturing plant into a flea and farmers market where small businesses can display their wares in pop-up-shops. Make sure your zoning laws allow for commercial activities in homes, and keep storefront rental space affordable.
5. Diversity creates a healthy, successful economy.
Just like you shouldn’t rely on one corporation to financially support your town, you also shouldn’t rely on one industry to keep your economy afloat. Support a diverse crowd of small businesses in varying industries so that, if outside forces like the global economy, trade laws, or natural disasters negatively impact one industry, your community doesn't completely crumble.
And this diversity extends beyond industry. It also extends into the business owners themselves. Cultural diversity within SMBs is a great way to promote a strong community. It promotes tourism, it encourages communication and cultural exchange, and it can put your town on the map. Take Akron's Exchange House as an example. This once vacant home was renovated and turned into an AirBnB rental, a meeting place, a market place, and an event center specifically for the refugee population in the neighborhood. It attracts visitors from all over the world and it’s self sustaining. The money made from AirBnB rentals, as well as rental fees for events, pays for the day to day operations of the house.
When small businesses flourish, so does the local economy. Nurturing ideas, making local laws friendly to SMBs, and cultivating a diverse environment goes a long way to helping people become entrepreneurs. So many people in your community have visions and drive — they just need the platform to get started. And by giving them that platform, you’re giving your city a vital lifeline by which it can sustain itself, grow, and thrive.
This essay is part of an ongoing engagement with Akron, Ohio, supported by the Knight Foundation. Learn more about it here.