SPECIAL REPORT: SMALL BUSINESS
How Charlotte supports small business
By Sam Boykin
Lindsey Haaser’s family thought she was crazy. It was November 2008, and as the country was tumbling into economic collapse, she decided to quit her relatively secure job as a rehabilitation counselor with the N.C. Department of Vocational Rehabilitation and start her own company.
“I was 25. I had a dream and a credit card, and I was determined to make it work,” Haaser says.
Her dream was Advocations, a disability-specific staffing firm designed to help companies think strategically about disability inclusion. It was certainly a noble aspiration, but there was just one problem: Haaser knew nothing about how to start or run a business.
She forged ahead and launched the company in January 2009.
During the company’s early stages, Haaser won a scholarship from the city of Charlotte’s Business INClusion Program, which helps promote small, minority- and women-owned firms. The scholarship enabled Haaser to attend courses at Central Piedmont Community College’s Small Business Center, which provides classes, networking events, seminars and counseling.
“The course helped me define my core business practices, and as a result I was able to build and implement systems and hire more staff to run the day-to-day operations so I could focus on growing my company,” she says.
While there was plenty of trial and error and “some tough times,” Haaser persevered, and today Advocations has seven employees and has increased revenue by 110%. Moreover, Autism Speaks, a leading autism science and advocacy organization, recently awarded Advocations a grant that Haaser says will enable her to focus more on the company’s local disability inclusion efforts, including assembling a task force to help improve employment and entrepreneurship outcomes for people with disabilities.
Next month, the company will move into a new office in South End, which Haaser says will give the company some much-needed space and the flexibility to host workshops. “When I was starting my company I needed smart business people to help me figure out how it all worked, and CPCC was an invaluable resource,” Haaser says.
Other SBC success stories include Anita and Ramona Staton. They founded the Charlotte-based Miles Freight Solutions in 2013. The company specializes in providing diversified general freight, transportation management and back office administrative solutions nationwide, focusing on safety/risk management and cost reductions. Company owner Anita Staton says she benefitted greatly from the SBC, where she attended multiple seminars about owning and operating a business. She also says the center’s partnership with the Charlotte School of Law allowed her to obtain free legal advice and other valuable legal documentation.
The SBC started in the early 1980s, and today it’s part of the Small Business Center Network, which is comprised of 58 community colleges across the state. “The network is put together so that it’s less than a 30-minute drive for anyone in the state to come to a center and receive services about how to start or grow a business,” says executive director Renee Hode. CPCC’s center, like the others, focuses on mom-and-pop “lifestyle” ventures, ranging from food trucks to financial consulting. “It’s your Main Street businesses that add character to the city and help attract larger companies,” Hode says.
CPCC’s center assists about 2,500 startup entrepreneurs and small-business owners each year through its various programs and services, including about 500 hours of counseling and 150 events and seminars. “We provide basic foundational skills that business owners can build upon to get their doors open and secure their first customer,” Hode says.
CPCC also used to be home to the BizHub Network, a small-business resource center that operated for about three years before closing in 2007. The BizHub grew partly out of the Charlotte Chamber’s Advantage Carolina program, launched in 1998 to make the area more entrepreneur-friendly. Hode says BizHub, which was a separate nonprofit funded through the city of Charlotte, Mecklenburg County and CPCC, duplicated many of the services already available at CPCC’s Small Business Center. In the end, BizHub’s board decided to dissolve the organization, which operated out of a 1,500-square-foot office and served about 35 people per month.
While BizHub is gone, Hode says Charlotte still has a great support system for small business, including Charlotte Business Resources. Operated by the city of Charlotte, the online portal represents a community-wide collaborative effort by organizations and partners, including CPCC, that is designed to help people start and grow a business. Resources include training and development, site selection, networking, financing and contracting. There are also programs such as Charlotte Business Inclusion, which works with minority- and women-owned small-business enterprises that are interested in doing business with the city of Charlotte.
“Charlotte Business Resources wasn’t meant to replace BizHub, but certainly the objective of it is to address the same issues, which is to provide support for small businesses and direct them to where they can find resources,” says Pat Mumford, director of the city’s Neighborhood and Business Services, which oversees economic development and small business and entrepreneurial support. Mumford said the website, which went through a complete overhaul last year, had nearly 50,000 visitors in 2015, an 18% increase from 2014.
While the number of new startups in both Charlotte and the nation started to plummet in 2009, that trend reversed itself in 2014, and there’s been slow and steady growth ever since. Hode points to the Kauffman Foundation’s new report, which ranks North Carolina No. 8 on its Index of Startup Activity among the country’s 25 largest states. In looking at local, small-business activity, the Charlotte metro region ranks 30th on Kauffman’s Main Street Entrepreneurship Metropolitan index. Based on the number of established small businesses per 100,000 resident population, the Charlotte metro increased from 870.3 in 2014 to 884.8 last year, according to the Kauffman report.
Hode says she continues to see encouraging signs of small-business growth in the Charlotte area, but challenges remain for entrepreneurs, including gaining access to capital. “In looking at Main Street lifestyle businesses, it is always going to be difficult to secure funding,” she says. “That’s why entrepreneurs need to put together a solid business plan to show that their idea is viable and can offer a good return on investment. They also need to have collateral to secure a loan. There are no venture capitalists or angel investors interested in the coin operated laundry down the street.”
While it focused more on innovation-driven companies as opposed to mom-and-pop operations, the Charlotte Entrepreneur Growth Report released earlier this year also indicated a lack of available funds for local entrepreneurs. Only $8 million of venture capital was invested in Charlotte metro companies between 2011 and 2014, according to the report. By comparison, $391 million was invested in Atlanta-based companies and $607 million in Austin startups during the same period.
Hode says CPCC’s Small Business Center continues to adapt and improve access to its services. The center now offers more training online. The center has also made business counseling services available virtually using online tools to have live meetings. The Small Business Center Network recently recognized CPCC’s efforts when it awarded the Center the 2015 Excellence Award in Innovative Programs and Services.
Hode stresses that CPCC is not alone in helping serve local entrepreneurs and benefits from many local and regional partners, including Charlotte Business Resources. “One of our strengths is that there aren’t a lot of silos. Everyone in the small-business ecosystem is connected, whether that’s referring one another to clients or offering joint counseling and training programs or events. We’re a very coordinated resource. There are no wrong doors.”