Insights into 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 and our service slice evaluation can be found here.

Photo with Mayor

Recipients show off their certificates for completing six Small Business Program classes offered by the City of Austin.

 

The City of Austin’s Small Business Program helps people learn how to start a business. It provides personalized coaching and classes on marketing, accounting, business plans, and other topics. The program has proven helpful to many people who’ve used it, but it can be difficult to navigate.

Classes are offered a la carte and provided without a clear hierarchy of importance. Courses and coaching are also provided by various partner organizations, including the Austin Public Library, PeopleFund, BiGAUSTIN, SCORE, and others. The city works to connect people to these organizations, but overlapping services can lead to redundant effort and frustration.

“If the library also offers classes, are those different?” someone asked during a BizAid Orientation class I sat in on.

“Different divisions, different departments,” responded the program facilitator. “We do a lot of the same stuff, everybody, whether it’s us, PeopleFund, BiGAUSTIN.”

Austin Public Library workshop

A course offered by the Austin Public Library in conjunction with the City of Austin.

 

It is difficult for participants to determine what to do, where to go, and who to see. This leads people to forge a path the best they can, taking courses, attending networking events, and trying to build the confidence they need to successfully launch their businesses and obtain clients.

I spoke with Kate after attending the BizAid Orientation class. Kate is looking to create a catalog of local goods for school fundraisers. She’s attended nine classes offered by the City of Austin, as well as classes offered by SCORE and the Austin Public Library. She attended the BizAid Orientation class late in the process. “It didn’t sound that important to me,” she said. “It was all done backwards.”

Kate only took the class when she realized that doing so would grant her access to personalized coaching from the city. Although she’s taken many classes and received mentoring from SCORE, she still feels she needs help.

Kate

Kate is an aspiring business owner. Kate has taken nine courses from the City of Austin’s Small Business Program. She hopes to launch her business soon.

 

“I don’t know the middle process, exactly,” she told me. “And that’s what really makes me nervous.”

Nobody knows the middle process, because there is no process. “I get asked the question, ‘Well, where’s my checklist?’ and I haven’t been able to figure it out, because I don’t think it’s a linear process,” I was told by Gary, a counselor with the City of Austin. This may be true, but that doesn’t mean participants wouldn’t benefit from directed guidance.

The Confidence-Building Cycle

The confidence-building cycle, as experienced by Small Business Program participants. 

 

Two themes began to emerge from my research:

  • Program metrics are used to measure outputs and not outcomes.
  • Value is measured by the quantity of resources available.

“Part of our measures are, you know, how many new businesses were started, how many jobs were created,” Gary told me. “There’s probably, certainly a lot of intangibles. Was I inspired? Did I gain confidence? Did I increase my network? We don’t have the measuring stick in place to capture all of that.”

None of the nine counselors I spoke with at the City of Austin, PeopleFund, and SCORE could speak to metrics that focused on participants’ personal development.

What they did speak to, though, is resources. Lots of them.

“There’s always a pathway for resources.”

“We have a lot of resources we’re happy to share.”

“We have an awesome resource guide that we will print out and give to people that just has a ton of resources in it.”

Resources

Resources from the City of Austin, PeopleFund, and SCORE.

 

These are just a handful of the many references to resources that I heard. The system, I realized, is structured around providing as many resources as possible, with the idea that people will eventually figure out a path to success on their own.

Insight 1: A lack of clear structure to business and course progression creates uncertainty and depresses confidence. The Small Business Program should foster confidence by implementing a clear recommended pathway from idea to business launch.”

Talking to the eight aspiring (and one accomplished) business owners I interviewed, I learned that confidence was the key factor to success. Confidence is obtained from experience, from familiarity, and from success. First-time business owners are still trying to acquire these things, and until they do, they often lack confidence. But without confidence, they may never successfully launch their business. It’s a catch-22.

Claudia

Claudia, a mindfulness coach who is starting her own business.

 

Claudia is a mindfulness coach just starting her business. She’s worked with two clients, and one was unpaid. She’s determined, but shy.

“There’s still a little bit of anxiety, any time you reach out to someone,” she explained. “It’s like, they’re too busy, or they’re gonna think this is dumb.”

This fear of networking was common among participants. Agnes, a healthy eating program coordinator, likes to put together small gatherings of people so she can avoid large crowds. “If it’s like 100 people there, I get super nervous,” she said. “I probably won’t talk to anyone.”

“It’s just easier to talk to new people in a small setting,” she said.

Networking is crucial for identifying customers, but people are afraid to do it. Building confidence is the key to overcoming this obstacle. Right now, there are few ways for participants to build confidence, short of powering through. Some take classes over and over again. Others look to tangible products to help establish their identity. This often takes the form of websites.

“I don’t want to sign up and try to apply without having some kind of website,” Kate told us, explaining why she hadn’t yet asked schools to adopt her catalog. “I think it’s a matter of me hopefully finishing my website, and then going ahead and going for it.”

“The biggest thing, I think, is marketing, and that goes back to the website,” Claudia echoed.

Neither Kate nor Claudia need a website to launch their business, but both felt that they would not be successful without one.

Two more themes then emerged from my research:

  • People need to feel safe to share their aspirations.
  • A tangible product makes their business feel real.

From these themes, I drew my second insight.

Insight 2: Confidence is necessary to succeed as a business owner, but it’s hard to feel confident without clear indicators of success. To quickly build confidence, the city should assert that confidence can be learned and focus on emphasizing and strengthening this trait.

With these two insights in mind, I’ve concluded that the Small Business Program needs to move participants quickly from a “Fear” mindset to a “Confidence” mindset. Right now people must overcome this barrier on their own, but if the city were to explicitly focus on this, people would be able to launch their businesses faster and with a higher rate of follow-through. Streamlining courses by highlighting recommended steps would provide guidance and help people feel they are moving forward toward a goal. Specific confidence-building classes and events, such as small networking opportunities for new business owners, could help people that they are developing a skill. This would prepare them to better network, find customers, and launch their businesses.

The Takeaway: Program participants must be moved quickly from a “Fear” mindset to a “Confidence” mindset. By structuring the program to specifically promote confidence and providing a recommended pathway to business and course progression, participants will feel they are making progress and gain the confidence needed to follow through with their businesses.

Fear to Confidence Graphic