Service Slices: A Look at the City of Austin’s Small Business Program
This is part of an ongoing research project that aims to understand how people navigate the City of Austin’s Small Business Program services and how they get value from the system. Our research began with PeopleFund, a community lender, and expanded in its scope as we learned more about the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Preliminary themes from our research can be found here.
In our research so far, my classmate Vickie and I have interviewed nine aspiring business owners and nine counselors who work for the City of Austin and its partner organizations who provide educational and financial assistance to small business owners. We have also attended four workshops hosted by the city to further understand some of the educational programming that is available.
One such workshop is the BizAid Orientation class. If you search for “small business help Austin” on Google, this is one of the first things that pops up. It is the recommended first step in the city’s educational offerings, and attendance is required if you want to receive one-on-one coaching assistance from the city.
BizAid Orientation is offered in-person and online. I took the brief 20-minute online class, and then signed up for the in-person one, which is 90 minutes long, in hopes that I would get more guidance and direction from it.
The online class is basically a list of programs, classes, and services. It turns out the in-person class is very much the same. After taking my seat among a handful of other attendees, class began. The instructor, who we’ll call Bobby, introduced himself. He asked if we were aware there was an online course.
“There’s also an online version. Did y’all see that?” he asked. “I don’t know where you’re coming from, [but] you have to battle the traffic to come here.” Indeed.
Class is structured so that Bobby would present information, and we would follow along on a screen at the front of the room. Sometimes the information Bobby shared matched the screen, and sometimes it didn’t. There was also information shared via whiteboard and via materials that some of us had gathered from the back of the room. I was unaware of them and had not. The different sources of information led to confusion at times about what programs were being discussed. A model of the competing flows of information is pictured below.
We sped through the presentation, skipping entire programs and services listed on the screen. Ample time was spent answering questions, which sometimes were a result of confusion but were mostly a reflection of the complexity of the programs and business requirements. A visual representation of the information shared with us would look something like this:
The diagram is non-hierarchical and ambiguous, which reflects the way that it was presented. Exclamation points represent programs or services that appeared on screen but were not mentioned or were otherwise unclear. For example, there is an entire category called Small Business Resources that exists inside the city’s catalog of small business resources. Small business resources all the way down.
These are just the offerings from the city’s Small Business Program. After going through this information, Bobby jumped online to share additional resources, including non-city organizations that help small business owners. Many of these programs offer the same types of help – “We do a lot of the same stuff, everybody, whether it’s us, PeopleFund, Big Austin,” Bobby said. It was not clear if any were better than the others, but one attendee, Kate, told us that the city classes were her favorites.
We spoke with Bethany after class to get her thoughts. “I did not think that there was really any content in the class other than an overview of what’s available,” she told us. “I think that they could restructure the class in a way that it would be better and more effective, more helpful for people.”
Everyone we spoke with was glad that there were so many resources out there, but navigating them can be challenging. Kate told us after class that she had already taken more than six courses offered in tandem by the city and The University of Texas at Austin – the number of courses required to get a Business Skills Certificate. But she hadn’t yet taken the orientation.
“It didn’t sound that important to me,” she told us. “I want to learn what I want to learn – why do I need to take this introductory class?” She only signed up after she learned that you need to take it to get connected to a personal coach.
“Yeah, it was all done backwards,” she said.
A small business owner’s journey map, if they were to take advantage of all of these resources, might look something like this:
The path could go on forever. The ambiguity of the process and not knowing what you don’t know leads to uncertainty and a lack of confidence, which can prevent people from actually starting their business.
“I don’t know the middle process, exactly. And that’s what really makes me nervous,” Kate told us. Consequently, she continues to take classes, waiting for the moment when she feels like she’s ready. But for the moment, she told us, “I’m gonna quit, just for a while, to concentrate on actually doing the business.”
Esteban is a successful business owner we have spoken with, who has launched his own companies. He used city resources when he was starting out. As he explains it, “It’s so easy to talk about doing things versus actually doing them…Entrepreneurs need to have the ability to get shit done.”
As we continue in our research, we plan to continue exploring the following ideas:
- How do people build the confidence they need to take action?
- Why is personalized attention so important?
- Are there unmet needs that resources do not address?
These questions explore the themes we’ve seen emerge as we’ve spoken with various small business owners, and we believe they will prove fertile ground for learning more about how people interact with the city’s services.