The Bottom LineThe Bottom Line

Small Business Support Hits the Streets in Philadelphia

The new Biz on Wheels van brings office services and free tax, loan and marketing consultation to the city's commercial corridors.

Biz on Wheels in Philadelphia (Photo courtesy of The Enterprise Center)

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Throughout the pandemic, as The Enterprise Center helped Philadelphia small business owners with their PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans, there was a recurring challenge: Many hadn’t scanned their paperwork, meaning they didn’t have an extra copy to share with The Enterprise Center.

As the pandemic dragged on, the organization had an idea: What if we brought comprehensive support directly to the businesses, providing them with tools and resources at their door? The result is Biz on Wheels, a vehicle designed to provide services such as onboard scanning, faxing and printing, and free consultation from volunteers on issues like taxes, loans and marketing.

“On our commercial corridors, a lot of small businesses are owned by solo entrepreneurs, so they can’t just close the store down to come and get the help they need,” says Iola Harper, senior executive vice president of The Enterprise Center. She envisions support for any retail establishment along high-density commercial corridors that need it, with a focus on minority- and immigrant-owned businesses. “This is going to give store owners a chance to sit down with someone and have their specific needs addressed.”

The idea for Biz on Wheels came together last year, in an application for the U.S. Department of Commerce Minority Business Development Agency’s Community Navigator Pilot. Beyond the challenges of scanning documents, The Enterprise Center knew the virtual events the organization had held over the last two years were inaccessible to some small business owners, due to lack of staff support or even internet access. They pitched a van that could show up at businesses’ front doors, reducing the scheduling burden and bringing digital tools and resources to those who might not have access to them.

Though The Enterprise Center didn’t win the pilot grant, there was enough momentum and interest to do private fundraising. The organization raised money from Spark Therapeutics, the Minority Business Development Agency, Comcast and Wells Fargo, bought a van, and spent about nine months retrofitting it.

The Enterprise Center worked with a custom outfitter to transform the van into a business services hub: There’s a small conference table, a screen for viewing presentations, and a printer, scanner and copier station.

“The vehicle has a window on the side, so when it gets warm outside you’ll be able to get help from the window, and won’t even have to come inside the vehicle,” says Harper. (While the van can fit about four people, due to COVID-19, The Enterprise Center will only serve one person inside the van at a time.) The service window has a retractable awning to ensure services can be provided whatever the weather.

Just as important as the van design was the community outreach. Biz on Wheels launched in partnership with local business support groups, including Mt. Airy, USA, the African American Chamber of Commerce, Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Asian American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia, and Beech Companies.

Biz on Wheels has a printer, scanner and copier station. (Photo courtesy of The Enterprise Center)

The Enterprise Center also mapped Philly’s business districts to start neighborhood-based outreach. “We’ve got 19 corridors that we’re going to start with, and all of them have different needs,” Harper says. They’ll work with the city’s commercial corridor managers to get the word out about Biz on Wheels and distribute an application to business owners asking them about their needs. “We’re going to look at the issues on each corridor that are beyond the general issues,” she says.

The next step is recruiting and onboarding enough volunteers to maintain regular service. (The only paid staff will be the van’s driver, with volunteers assisting with the actual consultations depending on expertise.) “We’ve got legal, accounting, marketing and social media experts who will be on the vehicle and able to address the corridor or the business’ needs,” Harper says.

Support will depend on the volunteers — if a lawyer is available, for example, Biz on Wheels can invite small business owners to have their lease reviewed. With a social media specialist, they could get their online branding refreshed. Organizations like the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Asian American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia will also provide translation services at the vehicle as needed.

Karen Fegely, deputy commerce director for Neighborhood Business Services at the City of Philadelphia, says the city will also use Biz on Wheels to provide support. “We’ll partner with Enterprise Center so we can be on the van … along with a business coach there will be one of our business services folks,” Fegely says. “We can also do some of the groundwork to let the businesses know it’s coming.”

The launch ceremony for Biz on Wheels was held in early February and it’s now in its first weeks of service. The Enterprise Center will publicize its travel schedule on its Facebook and Twitter, with amplification from its partner organizations and the city. “The intention is to build name recognition alongside trusted community partners and community development corporations,” a press rep for The Enterprise Center tells Next City.

The goal is to expand in the region, including to South Jersey and Delaware, and serve as a model for on-the-go, at-your-doorstep business support. “Using the vehicle,” Parker says, “this is something that someone could really utilize, and provide assistance for, across a large geography.”

Next City is one of more than 20 news outlets in the Broke in Philly collaborative, a reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. Follow us on Twitter @BrokeInPhilly.

This article is part of The Bottom Line, a series exploring scalable solutions for problems related to affordability, inclusive economic growth and access to capital. Click here to subscribe to our Bottom Line newsletter.

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Emily Nonko is a social justice and solutions-oriented reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers a range of topics for Next City, including arts and culture, housing, movement building and transit. 

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Tags: philadelphiasmall businesscovid-19retail

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