There are thousands of government-run small business support programs in North America but figuring out how to take advantage of these programs can be overwhelming. Here are five ways government can help your small business succeed:
1. Target services available for your small business
Every city, province or state has a small business office or economic development department. Staff there can refer you to local business incubators, networking events and financing programs. Often, these offices offer free business consulting services; they will also help you to navigate complex government regulations. Are you investing in research and development or building a new facility? Do you want to participate in an International Trade Mission? Tell the small business office about your expansion plans and they will direct you to the appropriate assistance that you need. Find your local small business office in Canada or in the U.S.
2. Provide free advice
Intermediaries cost money. Government officials, on the other hand, are responsible for advising business owners on their programs and services. For example, the staff members of the Canadian Intellectual Property Office or the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office are experts in protecting intellectual property. Whether you need advice on export regulations, tax incentive programs or research and development grants, the administrators of these programs will be glad to help!
3. Facilitate customer and market research
Government agencies like Statistics Canada and the U.S. Census Bureau are invaluable resources for market researchers. If you're looking for information about a new geographic market, household spending patterns, or a particular market segment, start with the free research available from these organizations. One Canadian resource I use all the time is Industry Canada's SME Benchmarking Tool which offers industry-specific income statement and balance sheet data for small and medium sized businesses. This data is invaluable for anyone writing their first business plan or for seasoned business owners who want to know how their numbers compare.
4. Find a new market for your product or service
Governments purchase billions of dollars worth of goods and services every year: everything from construction materials to office supplies, food, and consulting services. Your small business may be exactly the new supplier your local government needs! Before making a sales pitch, it's a good idea to learn about government procurement practices – where upcoming tenders are posted, proposal requirements and rules governing conflict of interest. The websites of your federal, provincial, state or municipal governments will all have purchasing department links that provide this information for prospective vendors. For online listings of government contracts try Merx in Canada or the U.S. Small Business Administration in the US. Tip: Take advantage of government programs that require purchasing from a database of registered small businesses.
5. Build your public profile
Get media attention when you invite a local politician to attend your store opening or business event. Alternatively, participate on a government advisory committee or contribute when asked for input on policy issues that will have an impact on your business. These are great ways to have input into government decisions; they can also lead to public recognition for you and your small business.
Finally, when dealing with government officials be realistic. Governments will not endorse your business to the detriment of others, and governments do not give out grants to everyone with a business idea. We sincerely understand the enormous economic contributions made by small business owners every day and we love helping you to succeed!
Katherine Roos is the Manager of Enterprise Toronto and Small Business Manager with the City of Toronto, Economic Development & Culture Division. Every year, Enterprise Toronto serves more than 35,000 entrepreneurs, business owners and prospective business owners.