From tax advice to government contracting, the SBA and other agencies as well as advocacy groups are increasing outreach efforts online
Government resources for small business owners have long existed, but they are often poorly understood and underutilized. Several outreach efforts currently under way, some public and some privately funded, aim to change that.
One of the new programs is the community forum quietly opened last week by the U.S. Small Business Administration's Business Gateway Program. Hosted on Business.gov, the community forum, is believed to be the first government-sponsored online community built specifically for small business owners, says Nancy Sternberg, program manger of the Business Gateway site.
It combines discussion threads, blogs, and resource articles and is designed to encourage interaction between business owners and government employees. A press release and formal launch of the community forum is in the works, she says. Her staff is working on getting the word out through social media such as Twitter and Facebook and notifying the 10,000 individuals who get regular e-mails when the Business.gov site is updated.
An Obama Initiative
Discussions about adding an interactive forum to Business.gov (founded in October 2006) were under way last year, Sternberg says, but they accelerated after Barack Obama won the Presidency. "After the election, we put the plans into high gear, and we're very excited to launch it and support President Obama's directions about visibility in government," she says.
The goal for the SBA and the 21 additional federal agencies that co-sponsor the site is to open up a dialogue with the public, leverage the expertise that exists in both the public and private sectors, and help government better serve entrepreneurs. "We will benefit greatly by learning what's on the mind of small business owners. We can prioritize the information on the site based on the questions being asked on the forum," Sternberg says. "We don't want that reputation of sitting in a building and not being in touch with our customers."
So far, a handful of discussions have sprung up on topics such as taxes, starting a business, and home-based businesses. "There's just a lot of confusion about the tax code. We're getting a lot of questions on the home-based business deductions. People either don't take deductions because they're afraid to, or they take deductions they probably shouldn't. We're already seeing places where we can partner with the IRS to make issues clearer and write up checklists for the Web site," Sternberg says.
She and her staff moderate the discussions, providing expertise and links to information on the Business.gov site and other federal Web sites. They also encourage savvy entrepreneurs to jump in with their own experiences. "People who've learned things the hard way offer their fellow business owners great information because people inherently want others to succeed," she says.
Government Volunteers for Discussions?
Sternberg hopes to recruit government employees from other federal agencies to take part in the discussions and even moderate the forums and blog on the site, although she acknowledges that it isn't easy asking people to take on added responsibilities. She hopes to convince her colleagues that answering questions at the forum will help reduce the amount of time many of them spend answering telephone calls from frustrated business owners.
Although the SBA has aggregated federal, state, and local business regulations at the site, Sternberg says, they found that entrepreneurs often had questions about compliance that needed personal responses. "People have nuanced situations, like they're doing business in one state and trying to sell in another. We found we were leaving some business owners high and dry," she says.
Another government area that is the focus of increased interest from small business is federal contracting, particularly with the stimulus money set to flood into state and local governments over the next several months. A few of the resources aimed at connecting entrepreneurs with government contracts follow:
The National Association of Small Business Contractors and the U.S. Women's Chamber of Commerce are sponsors of National Small Business Federal Contracting Week in Washington, D.C., in March. The conference, which aims to help small companies connect with government contractors, will be held Mar. 3-5. Regional events focusing on various areas of government work are held throughout the country several times annually.
Women Impacting Public Policy, an advocacy organization for female and minority small business owners, offers a program designed to help small business owners get involved in the federal contracting process. Podcasts about the basics of federal contracting are available at the group's Web site along with a schedule of training Webinars. A guide to navigating the federal contracting landscape can be downloaded as a .pdf file here.