Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Creating a "Right Door" for Entrepreneurs

A major topic of discussion last night at the monthly meeting of HELP (Helping Entrepreneurs Learn from Peers) was the difficulties that entrepreneurs in the Pittsburgh Region have in getting assistance in growing their businesses. In most cases, the problem is not that the services don't exist; the problem is that the entrepreneur has to go from agency to agency to agency trying to sort through eligibility requirements and criteria until he or she finds an agency/service that matches their needs. That wastes time and energy which could be better put to use in actually building the business.

As noted in a previous post, the Pittsburgh Region is not alone in the need to create "no wrong door for entrepreneurs," but the importance of growing the entrepreneurial base in southwestern Pennsylvania makes it a particular priority here to do this successfully.

HELP has been trying to get funding and assistance in creating a user-friendly web portal for entrepreneurs seeking advice and assistance. The types of features that could be included:
  1. A directory of the agencies and services that are available to help entrepreneurs. (Ideally, this would be structured in a customer-friendly "types of needs we address" rather than an agency-centric "types of services we provide" format.)
  2. A search mechanism or "expert system" that would enable an entrepreneur to quickly find the subset of agencies and services most likely to be a match for them, based on the type of business, where it is located, who owns/runs it, etc.
  3. An on-line forum where entrepreneurs could pose open-ended questions and requests for advice that other entrepreneurs and service providers could respond to.
  4. A searchable directory of entrepreneurs so that other entrepreneurs, investors, service providers, etc. could find entrepreneurs providing products and services of interest to them. (One entrepreneur called this the "Entrepreneurial Yellow Pages.")
  5. A common application form that would be used by all major service providers, so that an entrepreneur could fill out one form and have it considered by multiple agencies, rather than having to fill out a different form for every agency. (The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has a Single Application Form for all of its programs, so at least the service providers the state funds could work toward the same thing.)
It was noted at the HELP meeting that a web portal for entrepreneurs wouldn't just be seen by entrepreneurs who are in the region. It could be seen by investors elsewhere who were looking for entrepreneurial firms in which to invest, and it could be seen by entrepreneurs in other parts of the country/world who are looking for a supportive environment in which to locate and grow their business.

HELP's proposal would be an easy way to accelerate regional support for entrepreneurship. What's needed to make it happen?
1. A little bit of funding (committed on a multi-year basis) to create and maintain the site.
2. Cooperation and commitment from the agencies providing services to entrepreneurs that they will provide the information for the site and use it as an entry-point to their services.
3. An organizational home for the site (maybe an entrepreneur could do it?).

Shouldn't be too hard, right? Let's do it.


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