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

posted Dec 8, 2014, 11:34 AM by Ann Sullivan   [ updated Dec 8, 2014, 11:42 AM ]
Recapping 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. 

Photo source: www.theatlantic.com.

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