Small Business Majority Blog

Small Business Matters

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What happens when you put more than 100 small business owners in a room together to discuss the biggest issues facing small businesses today? That’s what we found out during our inaugural Small Business Leadership Summit, a three-day event of education, collaboration and action that took place May 11-13 in our nation’s capitol.

The event provided a select group of talented small business owners, representing 25 states and an array of business industries, with the chance of a lifetime: actual interaction with policymakers and experts who can help institute the change small businesses need in order to thrive.

The goal was simple: to discuss topline issues impacting our nation’s small businesses. These issues included accessing capital and ensuring small businesses can obtain the credit they need to grow, adapting to new technologies, creating tax policies that spur growth while leveling the playing field for small businesses and critical workforces issues like healthcare, retirement saving, minimum wage and opportunity youth hiring.

During our full-day conference at the National Press Club, small business owners discussed those issues, and many more, during panels, Q&As with issue experts and breakout sessions. They shared personal anecdotes with each other about their own business struggles, like having difficulty acquiring capital or finding skilled workers, and they discussed solutions they’d like to see from lawmakers.

Between those breakout sessions were speeches from a group of Washington superstars. First, attendees heard from Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who discussed workforce issues, innovation and immigration reform. Next, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York discussed the importance of women entrepreneurship and educated our attendees on family medical leave policies. Finally, Maria Contreras-Sweet, head of the Small Business Administration, talked about alleviating the process of acquiring capital and creating more opportunities for entrepreneurs to obtain it.

That night, our attendees gathered at Google’s D.C. headquarters for a reception and an awards ceremony that honored some of the best and brightest of the bunch. The following day, Summit attendees headed to the White House where they met with senior members of the Obama Administration to discuss important policy issues impacting small businesses. Some of the officials on-hand included Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett and Jason Furman, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors. It was an unparalleled opportunity for these small business owners to talk shop with high-ranking policymakers inside the walls of the White House.

Following policy presentations at the White House, small business owners participated in a technology training session with experts at Google. With that, our three-day Summit came to a close. Since then, our small business owners have been reflecting on their experiences and all they learned during the event.

“This year’s Summit allowed me a unique opportunity to discuss important issues facing my small business and other entrepreneurs today,” said Harland Henry, President of SunBiz Showcase Alliance in Tampa, Florida. “The Summit was not only invigorating, but informative and engaging. I met so many kindred spirits in the small business advocacy world that I no longer feel like a lonely fish swimming with the sharks. I am extremely proud to have been part of the entire Summit.”

Harland Henry wasn’t the only one who expressed sentiments like these – many of our small business owners took their voices and experiences to social media and created a storm of social conversation using the hashtag #SmallBizLeaders, which was used more than 600 times throughout the Summit and in the days leading up to it. Meanwhile, our own social media posts around the Summit received a whopping 1.5 million audience impressions.

But don’t just take our word for it; let the small business owners speak for themselves! The following Storify illustrates an inside look at our Leadership Summit from the perspective of the small business owners in attendance. Through the power of social media, they captured how awe-inspiring their experiences, and the Summit, truly was.

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For a professional baker, nothing could be worse than discovering the thing you love the most is detrimental to your health. But that’s what bake lover Michelle Retik began to realize when she was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis.

While researching her condition, Retik learned grain, sugar and dairy could be inflammatory to her immune system – a living nightmare for a baker who relies on these staples everyday. Rather than let her condition set back her health and her career, Retik set out to tweak her lifestyle so she could still bake with the best of them and open a business that would help others facing her condition.

The Squirrel & The Bee, a grain-less bake shop based in Short Hills, NJ, is Retik’s defiant stance against the baking ingredients that have done her, and many like her, wrong. After an immediate turnaround in health from removing grain, refined sugar and dairy from her diet, Retik returned to her “happy place” in the kitchen and got cooking.

“I went back into the kitchen determined to make new foods that I loved and were also good for me, “ Retik recalled. “I knew I could create a place that would provide delicious, healthy and safe foods for all of us.”

As a former baker at a top-tier bakery in New York City and a pastry chef in New Jersey, Retik had ample baking chops to lead a bakery of her own. Without typical baking ingredients at her disposal, Retik fell back on nuts and local honey for her baked goods and used them as inspiration for her shop’s namesake. Still, The Squirrel & The Bee is a bit of a hard sell as a bakery.

“Because we are not a typical bakery, I knew from the beginning that we would have to work very hard to explain to customers what we are all about and why they should want to eat what we are offering,” she said.

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Retik trains each of her employees about the different diets her business supports and which ingredients can and can’t be used. This allows every employee to educate new customers that come in to the shop.

“I like to think of the baristas as ambassadors for a healthier way of eating and living,” she said.

That education is a huge part of Retik’s overall goal in helping others with her condition.

“I want to bring my products to people in need, but I equally want to introduce a better, healthier way of eating to everyone. I am thrilled that we currently have a large customer base who is not in “need” but come by choice.”

Despite no grain, dairy or sugar, Retik manages to concoct delicious offerings that ensure people choose The Squirrel & The Bee. Though she’s been open just nine months, Retik estimates she’s already sold more than 30,000 blueberry muffins—the clear morning-time winner. But it’s the Belgian waffles, served only on Sundays, that have people lining up all day.

It’s not just the opportunity to help people and work everyday doing something she loves that Retik relishes as a business owner – it’s the reward of providing jobs for other people as well.

“I am humbled at the thought that I have created a business that helps not only the people who come to eat, but also provides jobs for people who need them. I am now up to 21 employees and I consider each of them to be a part of my family.”

The Squirrel & The Bee is the clear breadwinner for Retik and all she seeks to serve.

 

Small Business Majority CEO John Arensmeyer

Small Business Majority CEO John Arensmeyer

Originally published on The Huffington Post

By all accounts, our economy is continuing on a path of recovery in the aftermath of the recession. And while this should signal good times ahead for our nation’s small businesses, entrepreneurs are still struggling to get what they need most to grow and thrive: access to traditional loans and more reasonable terms on alternative lending.

That’s why we addressed this problem head-on during our access to capital panel on May 12 at our Small Business Leadership Summit–an event that’s brought more than 100 small business owners from around the country to D.C. to speak directly to policymakers, issue experts and members of the Administration about the top issues facing small businesses, including the shortage of lending for entrepreneurs.

Discussions like these are important because while small business confidence is on the rise and entrepreneurs are ready to expand their businesses, very few are getting the credit they need to do so. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, lending for big businesses reached record levels last year, but small business lending still hasn’t caught up with pre-recession levels.

That’s because many traditional lenders see start-ups as risky ventures, or they don’t offer loans that meet the needs of small businesses.

In the absence of traditional bank loans, many small business owners are turning to alternative sources of lending. While these options can help open up opportunities for short-term loans and cash advances, this new breed of lending brings with it its own set of problems–unscrupulous actors who would take advantage of small business owners solely to pad their own pocketbooks.

Catarah Coleman, co-owner of Southern Girl Desserts in Los Angeles, knows firsthand how difficult it can be to dig out from under one of these short-term loans.

Coleman started Southern Girl Desserts out of her home in 2007. After some initial success, Coleman and her business partner, Shoneji Robinson, were invited to open up a shop in their local mall. Unfortunately, Southern Girl Desserts couldn’t get a traditional loan from any of their local banks to cover their start-up costs.

“When we were approached by a broker who said he could get us a loan of $30,000 in three days with limited collateral, we jumped at the chance,” said Coleman.

Coleman and Robinson were able to pay that initial loan off in six months; meanwhile, numerous other loan offers started flowing in. They were still struggling with cash flow issues, so they took out some merchant cash advances, not realizing they were being charged up to 56 percent interest on each of those advances.

“We fell into a terrible financial cycle trying to pay off those cash advances,” said Coleman. “We were living paycheck to paycheck, constantly worried about paying off the advances while making payroll and paying off our other regular bills. I felt like we would never get out from under the debt from those advances.”

Stories like this are unfortunately becoming all too common, and many small businesses can’t keep up with both their bills and their repayments.

Luckily for Coleman, her story has a positive ending. Southern Girl Desserts secured a microloan through Opportunity Fund, a California-based microfinance organization, and they were able to pay off their merchant cash advances. And Opportunity Fund is only charging them 8 percent interest on their loan.

The development of online lending and alternative financing options hold the potential to get needed capital to entrepreneurs like Coleman and to communities that have long been underserved, but it needs to be done fairly and responsibly. As Coleman’s story shows, we need more transparency and oversight in the alternative lending space.

Policymakers should take note and consider regulations that will protect small business owners from being taken advantage of, but it’s equally important that regulations don’t become so stringent that they stifle innovation.

Small business owners are our biggest job creators. And like all businesses, they need credit in order to expand their ventures or turn their business ideas into a reality. It’s time to take steps to protect small businesses from unscrupulous lenders while getting them the capital they need to grow and succeed.

Sometimes you have to get down and dirty in order to create something beautiful, and that’s the driving philosophy behind one of the leading landscape architecture firms in the Midwest.

Big Muddy Workshop, based in Omaha, NE, was founded by John Royster, a third generation small business owner inspired by design and a passion for sustainability. Having come from a family of business owners, Royster decided early on he should merge his personal interests with his family’s entrepreneurial spirit.

“Both of my grandfathers, my father and several uncles were small business owners,” Royster said. “So it seemed natural to me to start a business when I identified an opportunity that would be emotionally, intellectually and hopefully financially fulfilling.”

Since the summer of 1990, Royster has slowly but surely built Big Muddy Workshop into a widely renowned landscape architecture firm. When it comes to his business’s success, Royster notes the true mark of a competent landscape architect is making people think that the work they’ve done just occurred naturally, but that also can prove to be a bit problematic on the business front.

“One of the challenges is educating people about what landscape architecture is,” he noted. “In many cases, when a landscape architect does [their] job well, the public will never realize that a landscape was designed.”

Put simply, landscape architects design spaces around buildings, open spaces, park systems and trails. With a hand in crafting these outdoor spaces and manipulating the land, environmental issues are especially important to Royster. Take, for instance, trees. Royster encourages his clients to plant trees that can weather changes in climate, survive with less water and resist pests and disease.

Every design decision has an impact and could pose a potential risk to the surrounding environment and climate. Royster sees this, however, as a chance to educate.

“[It’s a] great opportunity when clients and the public can be educated and shown that by using green design solutions, project costs can often be reduced and the designs will be more environmentally successful.”

Those innovative and sustainable solutions serve as the main goal for any project Big Muddy Workshop gets its hands dirty on. Royster set out to make his business a leader in protecting natural areas while restoring deteriorated landscapes and preserving historic and cultural resources.

“We felt we could have the most impact by working with clients focused on serving the public. We are unique because of our long-term emphasis on sustainable design.”

With a business mantra of “any day in the field is better than a day in the office,” Big Muddy Workshop is always looking to break new ground, literally.

“We plan to keep pushing for design solutions that are environmentally and financially responsible, and that encourage people to relax, play and explore the outdoors.”

SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet By Maria Contreras-Sweet
Administrator, U.S. Small Business Administration

With apologies to baseball and your mother’s apple pie, nothing is more American than National Small Business Week.

Our country was founded by risk-taking pioneers in search of new horizons. More than two centuries later, what sets America apart in the world is the willingness of our entrepreneurs to take risks. Small businesses allow Americans to be their own boss and improve their lot in life through hard work – a core American value.

Every year since 1963, the President of the United States has issued a proclamation declaring National Small Business Week to recognize the critical contributions of America’s entrepreneurs, who create nearly two out of every three net, new U.S. jobs each year. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said it was our small businesses that powered our recovery after the Great Recession.

National Small Business Week, themed “SBA: Dream Big, Start Small,” will be held May 4-8. Special events will take place in Miami/Boca Raton, Los Angeles, San Antonio, New York, and Washington. D.C.

Tune in all week for live-streaming, beginning at 1 p.m. ET Monday with a panel discussion on small business financing followed by a conversation with Joyce Rosenberg of the Associated Press. Or join me @MCS4Biz at #DreamSmallBiz. I promise you’ll learn a lot.

America is one of the few countries that give entrepreneurs a seat at the President’s cabinet table. This allows the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) to speak with one voice on behalf of 28 million small businesses with divergent interests.

The SBA also offers an extensive national network of small business lenders and counselors that’s unmatched anywhere in the world. Many entrepreneurs with great ideas and great potential do not begin with great wealth, so they need a great government partner to support their success.

The SBA offers the “three Cs” to help the best and brightest start or grow a business, secure capital, and commercialize their ideas to benefit society:

  • Capital: SBA fill gaps in the commercial lending marketplace so success in the small business sector is based on merit, not family wealth. To inquire about a small business loan, click here.
  • Counseling: SBA provides free consultation and advice to help businesses on Main Street succeed. To find a small business counselor near you, click here.
  • Contracts: SBA levels the playing field with big business by helping small businesses capture new revenue and new customers by winning government contracts, joining corporate supply chains, and exporting beyond our borders. To learn about contracting opportunities, click here.

This year, during National Small Business Week, we recommit ourselves to those fearless entrepreneurs who plan well, work hard, and dream big. Every business starts small. Nike, Apple, FedEx, Ben & Jerry’s, Under Armour and Outback Steakhouse were all once small businesses, until they found an SBA lender or investor to work with them.

I came to this country as a 5-year old immigrant who didn’t speak a word of English. Today, I serve in the cabinet of the President of the United States. My story is possible only because of the entrepreneurial spirit.

Success in business comes one small step at a time. So dream big, but take that next small step today, because the next great American success story could be staring back at you in the mirror.

SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet started three businesses in Los Angeles, including a community bank, before joining President Obama’s cabinet in April 2014.