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The Game of Starting a Business

June 23, 2011 By Mari Harries, Policy Associate

Irony is when you are sitting in the ideal café in a neighboring city because the one you live in doesn’t cultivate such places.

I can feel this place speaking to me with its earth tones splashed on the walls and soft background music. One day I looked down at magazine rack; colorful, bold words on the cover of an old issue of O Magazine bizarrely lying on top of a pile of books called up to me, asking: “What’s Your True Calling?”

It’s “An Easy-Does-It-Guide to Finding (and Fulfilling) Your Life’s Purpose.” Oprah always makes it sound so simple, how does she do it?

For the past five years, I’ve been trying to open a café just like the one in the neighboring town that I come to for inspiration. This place opened a few years ago, and despite the economic downtimes, it does brisk business all day. Some of the menu items are a little pricy for a rural community, but that doesn’t seem to bother the people constantly coming and going.

While the O Magazine suggests it is as easy as reading an article, I’ve come to tell you opening a business is not.

Let’s start with financing.

For five years, I’ve worked hard to build my credit and some startup capital. I researched financing strategies and perfected my business plan with the Small Business Development Center. I finally became gutsy enough to ask the bank to help me finance my own business. It’s something I tried five years ago with no success. Then I asked bank number two to help me finance my own business. And then I asked bank number three to help me finance my own business.

A few weeks later, denial letters filled my mailbox.

A good credit score, good character, a good business plan, good marketing ideas, good products, a good location…none of it works. What does work? I’m still trying to figure it out.
I did have luck with a private investor who believed in me, my plan, my business, and my rural community. The investor saw the community’s need for such an eatery.

Here’s another helpful hit for small business owners who’ve tried to access community financing with no success: Try again. When I asked my local development committee for help five years ago, they seemed more interested in attracting and growing manufacturing companies. This time, however, it seems they realize communities can no longer put all of their eggs in the manufacturing basket. They kindly listened to my business plan and expressed their belief my eatery would help our community.

Now the fun part. I finally have sufficient financing, what’s next?

There has to be a more efficient way to navigate all the regulatory steps in opening a small business—from my local zoning and planning office to state electrical inspections to approvals from the department of health. I understand why all of this is important. Public agencies have to ensure I’m operating a safe, clean, legitimate business. I’m not against regulations. I just don’t want to feel like a Ping-Pong ball anymore.

I must submit my remodeling plans to the State of Minnesota for approval before I can even start to make the place a business, even with the cheap help of family and friends. The state’s policy in order to become a licensed business is to have control over what I do to the building, but no one can tell me exactly what I can or cannot do to the building. No one can tell me exactly who gives the final say, or how to achieve standards for licensing, no one can tell me exactly how many bathrooms I need to have.

You need this, you need that, but in order to get one thing, you need this thing, but you can’t get this thing until you’ve got the one thing. It sounds counterproductive and it is exactly that.

The local government, the county and the state governments are all pointing fingers at each other while saying, “Well, ask them.” And I say, “I just did, they told me to ask you.” It’s the game of starting a business in Minnesota. It doesn’t have to be that way.

They say we need small businesses. They say it will help the economy. They say we need young entrepreneurs in rural communities, but no one will help make it happen. The banks won’t help, the local government and state government can’t tell me how to do it either. So who will?

This is where DEED or the Small Business Development Center need to have adequate resources so that first-time business owners can have a one-stop service that coordinates and guides an entrepreneur through the regulatory process.

Maybe I need to read Oprah’s article. She makes it sound easy.

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