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The Equity Factor

S.F. Helps Entrepreneurs Avoid City Hall

A look at the city’s new web portal aimed at helping small business owners.

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

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Maybe you heard the drumbeat as boosters promoted neighborhood spending for “Small Business Saturday” last weekend: Local shops and businesses are economic drivers in cities. From Cleveland’s support for a new makerspace to CDFIs brainstorming about how to get more loans to minority small business owners, municipal leaders keep working to break down red-tape-covered barriers to entrepreneurship.

The city of San Francisco, where more than 95 percent of all businesses are defined as small businesses, is attempting to capsize the perception of paper-pushing government with a new resource for these entrepreneurs, the SF Business Portal. Two weeks old, the site consolidates information about starting, managing and growing a business in the city. It is a joint effort between the Mayor’s Office, Department of Technology, Office of Economic and Workforce Development, and Office of Small Business.

“When you go and engage with a government department or agency, they’ll often answer your questions, but not necessarily make you think of the questions that you need to be asking,” says Regina Dick-Endrizzi, of the Office of Small Business. “They’ll deal with it from their department’s perspective and not necessarily from a holistic perspective.”

She explains that making the entrepreneurship process more holistic has been the intent of the city’s Business Assistance Center since it opened in 2008. Since Mayor Ed Lee took office, he’s made aiding small businesses a high priority of his administration, including the formation of the Center. The SF Business Portal has been a key project.

In a press release for the site, Mayor Lee said, “This is the first step in streamlining the City’s permit process and make it easier for small business owners to do business in San Francisco.”

(Credit: SF Business Portal)

The user-friendly website, designed by local firm Tomorrow Partners, combines information about business registration, permits and licenses. Under the tab, Start a Business, entrepreneurs can find tips on creating a business plan or looking for financing. There are nitty-gritty links, too, to various city government agencies, that lead to information such as how to register a Fictitious Business Name with the Office of the County Clerk and how to adhere to San Francisco labor laws. This information is available at the Business Assistance Center, but that’s not always convenient.

“Our aspiration was to take the experience, the insight and the value-added knowledge that you would get from a business counselor experience and make it accessible to everyone,” says Todd Rufo of the Office of Economic and Workforce Development. He adds that the portal also cuts down on the opportunity cost that might be involved for a small business owner to shut down shop for a day just to make a visit to city hall.

Rufo mentions it helped that the project manager for the website, Jane Gong, was a former counselor at the Business Assistance Center. She helped to ensure the site was available in multiple languages; right now, you can read the site in English, Spanish and Chinese.

As Mayor Lee preps to make the city’s permit process less byzantine, the SF Business Portal shows off just how tech-savvy and human-centric municipal government can be.

“For the first time, it really takes all the information that a business needs to know and puts it in one place,” says Rufo, “but more importantly what it’s doing is structuring that information from the perspective of our customer. Instead of structuring it around how city government is structured, it very deliberately starts from where the user is coming from.”

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Alexis Stephens was Next City’s 2014-2015 equitable cities fellow. She’s written about housing, pop culture, global music subcultures, and more for publications like Shelterforce, Rolling Stone, SPIN, and MTV Iggy. She has a B.A. in urban studies from Barnard College and an M.S. in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania.

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Tags: small business

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