Community Business Launch (CBL) is a place based entrepreneurial development strategy designed to fill a critical mass of vacant storefronts with expansion or start-up ventures. Local CBL programs provide a six – eight week curriculum for entrepreneurs, creatives, and small business owners in business planning best practices. This training culminates in business plans and a group of finalists pitching their ideas to a panel of judges, with winners receiving grant funding and support services from the community to kick-start their new venture. While a limited number of participants can win the business competitions, the CBL gives rise to many budding entrepreneurs that are prepared to create or expand successful businesses.
First, determine your project footprint. CBL is a program designed to fill vacancies within a defined geography, thereby creating a critical mass of new businesses and renewed energy in a commercial district. Starting with a property survey and honing in on the area with the highest concentration of vacancies and move-in ready storefronts, as well as connectivity and walkability, identifies the area with the greatest opportunity. Most often this is a historic commercial or central business district and is one reason that the program pairs well with a Main Street effort.
Second, know your market. Are you a tourist destination? What kind of tourist – outdoor recreation or agritourism or family friendly activities? Do you have a major employer in or near your commercial district that needs businesses catering to employees? Are you about to see an influx of residential development in or near the target district? Reviewing ESRI, or similar, data showing leakages and pairing that with a community needs survey can be illuminating and knowing what the gaps are can create a more targeted, more impactful and successful program focused on meeting those needs.
Third, build your team. You will need a project manager, someone to be laser focused on coordinating activities, building partnerships, and conducting outreach. Other partners should include:
- Existing business leaders to act as mentors and/or instructors
- Colleges and universities, especially those with business schools or entrepreneurship centers
- Small Business Development Centers are a great source of instructors and curriculum
- Chamber of Commerce to get the buy-in and potential financial support of the local business community
- Local Government, think Planning and Development, Zoning, and Economic Development – all have a part to play!
- Financial Institutions are not only a great source of cash match for the grant but the newly minted businesses will need access to capital to grow their enterprise
- Media to help get the word out to the community and entrepreneurs, as well as promoting the pitch and award nights and new business openings
- Trade groups such as Merchants or Restaurant Associations
Fourth, fundraising the cash and in-kind match. Putting a CBL program together is a great opportunity to have conversations and create partnerships with all of the players in your entrepreneurial ecosystem. Major employers, financial institutions, and utility companies all have a stake in the health of the local economy and are potential donors. See the upcoming “The Magic of the Match” blog for more details on how to put together a holistic and effective package of wrap around services for new businesses and entrepreneurs.
Fifth, determine your curriculum. Many communities work with their local SBDC, University’s entrepreneurship centers, or nationally recognized curriculums such as CoStarters to deliver the training. Make sure that whatever provider you choose that they cover the essentials – book keeping, legal structures, e-commerce, and marketing are just a few of the topics that new and
expanding businesses need.
Sixth, outreach and marketing. Find those entrepreneurs! Farmers and makers markets, pop-up shops, food trucks, and even Etsy are all great places to start. But don’t leave out high schools, community colleges, trade schools, and colleges and universities. Civic associations, trade groups, and social clubs can also be great places to tap into your community’s next coffee
roaster, catering business, or even child care provider. Many CBL communities have seen entrepreneurs who completed the program go on to open their businesses even if they didn’t win grant funding so filling the seats with potential entrepreneurs can yield benefits beyond award night.
Finally, provide follow up services. The first two years in the life of a new business are particularly tenuous and require mentorship from successful entrepreneurs and businesses, access to flexible sources of capital, and technical assistance to work through the growing pains. Ribbon cuttings are amazing, but anniversary parties are better and the need is not only establish new businesses to help them grow in a resilient and sustainable way. With the appropriate follow up CBL businesses can and do become job creators, building the local economy in the process.
FY 2024 Community Business Launch grants will open on March 1 – stay tuned and start planning now!