Thursday, April 22, 2010

4 Concerns about Austin's Recent Small Business Summit

I would like to congratulate Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell and the City Council for holding its first Small Business Summit in March.

Forty of us were invited to give our thoughts on the major ways the City could address business owners concerns. The Summit was limited to two hours. Pretty short and sweet.

We had been asked to prepare to discuss three questions:
1. What steps could the City take to better assist small local business owners with planning and development?
2. What steps could the City take to help create a better overall environment for small local business owners to succeed?
3. What are some specific obstacles you have encountered in interacting with the City, and how do you believe these could be addressed?

After we determined the issues for our table, we were given three minutes to present those to the whole group. A total of about sixteen different items were presented as needing City attention with several "dittoes" as time got shorter and other tables came up with similar issues.

By an odd quirk of fate, this very "public" meeting had not been posted in advance. This meant that the Mayor and Council had to rotate in and out of the room so they would not violate the Open Meetings ruling.

My Concerns

Without taking anything away from the Summit or the report that is being assembled by Rosie Jalifi and the City's Small Business Development Program staff, I want to mention four concerns I have.

1. No context.

We did not hear the discussion at the other tables and were only presented with the issue as part of a list. That made it hard to understand the context. It was hard to tell if some of the concerns people listed were universal or more industry specific for instance, home owners vs. music venues; certain kinds of permitting; the power of the Neighborhood Associations.

Since each Council member heard even less of the discussion, I believe their perception is even more compromised. How these are presented in the report is going to be very interesting and a real challenge for staff.

2. Size considerations.

Small is a relative term. Are we talking less than 500 employees (federal definition), less than 100 (State definition) or an even smaller firm, a "micro business", one with less than 20 employees? In the Austin area, over 80% of our small businesses are really micro businesses where the owner is the owner/investor, manager, and employee. Looking around the room, I saw micro businesses.

Again, it would be useful for Council and staff to know what the issues were by size or complexity of the business. It does make a difference when it comes to deciding where the City can or should make changes. As one of these "micro" businesses and as someone who works exclusively with owners of enterprises of this size, I can guarantee you we look at life and work differently than Yellow Cab, one of the other Summit participants.

3. Not enough clarity. Not enough time.

The Summit could have focused on identifying problems or recommending solutions. I think it tried to do too much in too little time. As a result, what I heard from the three-minute presentations from the other tables was a mixture of both. I am not sure what conclusions I would draw if I were either staff or Council.

There is a pattern to draw on. For many years in the 90's, Texas regularly held the Governor's Conference on Small Business. Business owners from all over the state gathered to talk about problems and issues and propose solutions. Then we went to work to get it done. It was great brainstorming and strong networking. This ended in about 2000 and NFIB (National Federation of Independent Business) and other groups started to hold Small Business Legislative Day. Not as good but better than nothing.

As a former delegate to the Governor's and White House Conference and Congressional Summit on Small Business, I have seen real change come from this kind of event but it takes more time than two hours on one day in March.

4. The beginning or the end.

This is my biggest concern.

The Austin City Council has started something with this Small Business Summit. It could really be of major assistance to the City's desire to remain a great place to start and run a business. Or it could be just a "two-hour trick pony", a false start leading nowhere. My hope that is that this gets more attention and resources and that it continues.

Austin has made some efforts. For years, we have had City Commissions for minority and women-owned business. Good work has been done but not enough has been accomplished. In addition, this has left out other businesses (non-minorities) and divided the small business community into two camps. The economic pie is too small for that to continue.

I believe it's time that Austin find ways to support a united small business community while recognizing that we do have some unique concerns because of our size and industry differences.

Recommendation to Other Owners

If you own a business, I encourage you to get involved. Pay attention to what is happening. What happens in Washington is important but a long way away from here. What happens in Austin, happens to you and works either for you or against you.

I am also interested in what are your concerns and issues. Please post a comment or contact me directly at I look forward to continuing this effort and this discussion.

Here's to your success!

Jan Triplett
Business Success Center

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