Another strategy for ensuring the success of new businesses to your downtown district is to connect them with established mentors. Especially in small towns, word travels quickly, and you only have one chance to make a first impression. Connecting businesses with mentors that can help them understand the local market, capitalize on or prepare for seasonal changes or major events, and most effectively market to key customer groups can substantially increase their chance of success. Additionally, connecting new businesses with existing business helps forge close relationships within the business community, further enhancing the benefit of local ownership.
Such mentorship programs might take place before a business even opens, as is the case with the Rhinelander Downtown Works startup mentorship program. This program pairs a potential downtown tenant with relevant professional service providers in the community to provide limited free advice prior to the business signing a lease or purchasing property downtown. These meetings may identify critical flaws in a business’s financial or marketing plan before they become fatal. Once open, a business can choose to pursue additional services from participating companies at a discount for a period of time, encouraging new businesses to continue to evolve while fostering local business connections.
Other business support programs are designed to reach businesses even earlier in the process. West Allis’s Starting a Business guide is a detailed, step-by-step book intended to prepare aspiring business owners for the various permitting timelines and costs associated with various types of business operations in the city. Since these costs and processes can vary widely by municipality and include items that most would-be entrepreneurs have never considered—such as sign permits or fire inspections, the availability of clear guidelines for who to call, when to start the process, and how much to budget—having this information could make the difference between startup success and failure. The availability of this information online is equally important, since more than two-thirds of businesses start their planning process with online research.
Lastly, some types of support are best provided once a business is open. Despite the best of intentions, there will always be questions and issues that arise once a business is operating that can create a significant disruption in operations if not promptly addressed. Spending hours tracking down the right contact to address unfortunate occurrences such as vandalism or shoplifting, or to report broken or non-functioning streetlights or parking meters, can take an owner away from their business. In these instances, tools such as Janesville’s Downtown Owner’s Manual save time and headaches by connecting businesses with the appropriate individual or department with one call or click.
If you’re not sure where to begin with a local business support program, it makes sense to start by interviewing the local business community, especially owners of businesses that have opened in the past few years. Understanding their experience what went poorly, what they wish they had known, and what they would have done differently provides relevant insights into areas for improvement. Using this information to create a customized local toolkit is a smart strategy for supporting the unique and dedicated small businesses that make our downtowns special.