Entrepreneurs often need key business intelligence to make decisions associated with starting or growing a company. Market and customer demographics, industry trends, competitor data and email/mailing lists are critical, yet most information of this kind is out of financial reach for young companies.
The UNI Business Concierge provides on-call and online business intelligence for free, to startups and young companies in Iowa. UNI’s Entrepreneurship Outreach team assembled existing university database resources and trained a business concierge to offer custom and timely business intelligence to entrepreneurs, then connect them with the service providers needed to move them forward. All online.
The Business Concierge is marketed by service provider partners who upload a iframed Business Concierge module into their own websites, where it is marketed as a free, local resource for small business through the city, county or regional economic development organization’s website.
Early outcomes suggest the Business Concierge is effective. Between June 2011 and December of 2012, more than 840 small companies were served by the Business Concierge, averaging 3 hours per business served. Of 127 Business Concierge survey respondents, more than one third reported opening or expanding a business. Twenty three reported starting a new business and 13 more reported launching a new product or service. Many reported hiring employees (14 FTE jobs and 48 subcontract positions).
UNI has scaled the technology, formalized the approach and is in early conversations to beta test the approach outside of Iowa as a cost effective, outcome driven resource to serve young companies.
Each month, more than half a million new businesses are created in the United States. Some have employees and a management team on opening day and others are lifestyle operations or born out of necessity in a changing job market. All these businesses share the same need however, for key business resources to allow them to thrive in a globally competitive economy. Those key resources include capital, technical assistance, networks and community placemaking/infrastructure.
The University of Northern Iowa Entrepreneurship Outreach team philosophy is to listen to the entrepreneurial community, imagine what we can do to fill gaps in these resources; then create sharable solutions leveraging our technology and university assets. Annually, we evaluate how we’ve done in terms of economic impact and strive to scale those resources that are effective.
UNI annually surveys the small business community in the state of Iowa to assess the business climate, and to identify emerging and ongoing needs among different business segments. Every year, entrepreneurs (particularly startups) have identified access to business information- including competitive analysis and marketing assistance as unmet needs.
Acquiring the database resources required to provide this kind of business intelligence is enormously expensive. Dunn and Bradstreet (business profiles), Demographics Now (customer profiles) IBIS World(industry trends) and JigSaw (email lists) make up a few of the many subscription-based resources that could provide great business intelligence to small companies, but these resources are financially outside the reach of most small companies and costly for public sector organizations to assemble from scratch. In addition, each database has differing navigation and an overwhelming amount of overlapping data to search from, making the cost benefit implausible for an individual business.
Some attempts to connect entrepreneurs with customized business intelligence have been made in recent years. The National Center for Economic Gardening (NCEG) has made inroads in certifying teams to navigate databases of this kind in support of a tiny sliver of the entrepreneurial ecosystem known as Stage II companies (those ventures with 9-99 employees and sales of more than $1M dollars annually). These Economic Gardening (EG) programs are popular; the number of EG programs have grown dramatically in the past five years across the country, demonstrating the need for these kinds of services. (UNI serves as the hub for an EG program in the state of Iowa). Many EG programs are affiliated with universities because some of the data-driven resources are already available in university libraries. Stage II companies however, make up less than 7% of the overall business community and their numbers are trending downward.
Conversely, the numbers of sole proprietors and employer firms with fewer than 10 employees have been growing dramatically. Between 2005 and 2010, the number of sole proprietors jumped by over 33%, the number of State I companies (1-9 employees) grew by 27%. Collectively, these two segments of the entrepreneurial ecosystem employ more Americans than any other business segment, a trend that Kaufmann and others have suggested will continue into the future.
The UNI Entrepreneurship Outreach team believed that a program could be developed to give small business owners access to business intelligence by aggregating the most relevant business databases, training a team to mine them and then giving small businesses anywhere in the state, access to those experts through online technologies.
We established multiple success measurements for the Business Concierge:
- to connect small business and entrepreneurs with critical business intelligence
- to provide those resources largely for free
- to reduce the barriers to obtaining business help online
- to enhance the supportive entrepreneurial ecosystem in the state.
The UNI team compiled a list of databases that would be needed to deliver services – and assembled them from a variety of sources. The University of Northern Iowa Rod Library had existing subscriptions to many, including LexisNexis, Dunn and Bradstreet and IBISWorld. UNI was also an emerging hub for Economic Gardening in the state, so several additional databases were readily accessible to the new program at no additional cost.
UNI then built an online portal where small business owners could contact a concierge, submit a request for help and learn more about the services. The technology included a back-end administration tool to track the assistance provided and build a library of commonly requested resources.
A soft campaign was built around the theme of ‘Call, Click or Chat- Ask Us Anything’. In the first six months of soft launch, 256 small business owners received assistance with a wide array of services from a single staff person who served as the Business Concierge. The assistance requested during the beta test helped to refine what kinds of database resources were most useful in serving younger companies. Some examples of help provided include:
Staci needed to know more information about companies in an eight county region with 25 to 50 employees. The Business Concierge was able to find these companies, map them and provide Staci with that lead list.
Josh contacted the Business Concierge for help in determining how much local businesses and educational institutions were spending on pest control services. The BC was able to collect spending and competition information from UNI, NIACC, Hawkeye and from a number of private companies. In addition, the BC conducted research to help Josh determine if there was a growing market demand for bedbug pest control services in Iowa
Dylan sought assistance in acquiring a mailing list. The Business Concierge built a mailing list of Drake and Iowa State students with e-mail addresses and a business list of restaurants and bars in the Des Moines metro.
Jacque was looking for financing assistance to help her start a hair salon in Elliott, Iowa. The Business Concierge provided basic information about the Targeted Small Business program via chat and other Information about local revolving loan funds she might qualify for in her region.
In 2012, the Business Concierge was expanded to include a small team of UNI students who were trained in database navigation and client interactions. A workflow process was established, categorizing requests into short and long term assistance and client tracking administration was created to capture and track interactions online. The first follow along surveys were developed to track economic impact.
The Business Concierge technology was then modularized so it could be iframed into other websites to get closer to local entrepreneurs and to add value to web resources belonging to other service providers.
The Business Concierge is innovative on many fronts. The development of a service delivery model, based upon an online Concierge to engage small and young firms is new and original. At the time it was launched, there were no other similarly titled or structured programs in the country. Since then, a number of concierge programs have emerged, but they simply offer referrals and brief online counseling. UNI’s Business Concierge program does those things, and provides customized business intelligence.
The Business Concierge service delivery model strives to magnify personal contact Every request is responded to within 24 hours and 75-80% of business owners are engaged by phone or interactive online video at least once during service delivery. Every set of deliverables includes a referral to at least one service provider partner for follow along assistance and those referrals are personal (by name and organization) and followed along fourteen days later to insure connections were successfully made.
The Business Concierge is marketed and branded using a novel, shared ownership strategy. Rather than build a new website to host the Business Concierge, the program was modularized so that it could be iframed into other websites instead and branded as a local resource. With a limited marketing budget, the UNI team believed that by sharing ownership of the program, other organizations would promote it as their own, and more entrepreneurs would become aware of the services. The Business Concierge for example, is the first point of contact at IASourcelink a statewide website of the Iowa Economic Development Authority. The Business Concierge replaced an 800 number at IASourcelink where entrepreneurs could ask for a referral. The Business Concierge now takes all IASourcelink calls. It is a big win for IEDA, as IASourcelink now has a live, professionally trained business consultant fielding their calls and a new set of services on their site.
The Business Concierge program offers an innovative approach to leveraging existing assets of the University (specifically students and library resources) in a way that benefits economic development. Students gain valuable skills in database navigation, business interaction and startup and growth strategies. Entrepreneurs gain valuable business intelligence they might otherwise not be able to afford or find. Higher education benefits by parlaying existing resources in yet another way to add public value- and the positive connections with entrepreneurs positively brands the university.
In the first six months of soft launch, 256 small business owners received assistance with a wide array of services from a single staff person who served as the Business Concierge. Among those served, 11 new businesses were started, two businesses were purchased, eight new products or services were launched, seven new FTE jobs were created and participants hired an additional 39.5 new contract employees.
Early outcomes suggest the benefits of Business Concierge services are formidable in terms of accelerating business startup and growth. The key assets needed to deliver such services (specifically databases and students) are readily available on every college and university campus in the country, positioning higher education as one of the only organizations (outside of Economic Gardening programs) capable of delivering these kinds of services cost effectively.
UNI scaled the Business Concierge technology such that it can be framed into most any website and is in the final stages of replicating the approach for sharing outside of Iowa.
UEDA Awards of Excellence Finalists presented at the Annual Summit in Pittsburgh on October 28, 2013. Summit attendees then voted for the best initiative in each category.