Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Small Business: The Best Reality Show Ever?

By Jonathan Miller, Project Associate.

What does Donald Trump have in common with Gwinnett County, Georgia? If your answer had anything to do with hair or a failed presidential run, think again. The correct answer is that they both know the importance of supporting and vetting young entrepreneurs. Indeed, a partnership between the Gwinnett County Chamber of Commerce, the University of Georgia Small Business Development Center, and the CEO Business Centers led to a small business competition, aptly titled The Amazing Entrepreneur, which recently crowned its first winner.

The realm of television often brings viewers the thrill of entrepreneurs courting and wooing potential investors. Examples such as The Next Great Restaurant and Shark Tank bring the boardroom into living rooms, but the experience often ends there. The Amazing Entrepreneur Business Plan Competition provided small businesses in Gwinnett County the opportunity to submit business plans in hopes of winning valuable venture-related prizes.

The winning firm, SantaRomana & Associates, is a Gwinnett County management consulting firm that specifically focuses on helping small and medium enterprises. SantaRomana & Associates beat out a qualified and diverse pool of applicants. Mark Farmer, Director of Entrepreneurship & Information Services with the Gwinnett Chamber said, “The purpose of the Amazing Entrepreneur contest is to reach out to new companies and to potential entrepreneurs in Gwinnett and Metro Atlanta.” In addition to wining a Chamber membership, legal consultation, and Sage accounting software, SantaRomana & Associates will be attending the Sage Summit in Washington, D.C., courtesy of the competition.

The partnership that created the Amazing Entrepreneur and the success of attracting high-quality participants, speaks to Gwinnett County’s support for growing a culture of entrepreneurship. The importance of small and medium businesses in a local economy cannot be understated. According to a March 2010 report published by the Small Business Administration, entitled An Analysis of Small Business and Jobs (PDF), small businesses (those with less than 500 employees) employ about half of the American workforce, or 60 million people. Further, small businesses tend to employ segments of the labor market that traditionally have high rates of unemployment, such as Hispanics, those with low educational attainment, older workers, and disabled workers.

Of course, a discussion of small business is incomplete without recognizing the impacts of business lifecycles. New firms, by their very nature, create employment. However, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Statistics of U.S. Businesses, over the past 20 years, 95 percent of closures occurred in firms with less than 20 employees. Driving high rates of closure are inadequate resources, knowledge of how to run a business, and lack of external support. Using data from small businesses in New York City, Servon et al. (2010) identified five gaps that, if unaddressed, can drive  small business closure: 1) capital gap – lack of loans and microcredit opportunities, 2) asset gap – lack of available collateral, 3) transitional gap – inability to move from small/microcredit to mainstream credit sources, 4) information gap – lack of awareness of regulations and management experience, and 5) institutional capacity and service delivery gap – inability of nonprofits to adequately serve small business communities. Evident from this list is the vast community needed – banks, nonprofits, government – to grow a robust small business sector.

The value of programs like The Amazing Entrepreneur is evident as they try to address many of these gaps facing small businesses. Perhaps most importantly, the contest was an intersection of business, nonprofits, and public entities, all trying to support homegrown innovation. While I am unconvinced that The Real Housewives of Atlanta can inform an equally successful small business initiative, the partnership behind The Amazing Entrepreneur should be lauded, even though  we now know the true influence that reality television has on economic development.