How can Congress help small business? 7 owners, 7 answers

    By Adrienne Burke | Small Business

    While Congress and President Obama come down to the wire on fiscal cliff negotiations, small business owners hold their breath for a solution that will not be an economic setback for them or their customers. After averting the cliff however, there is still much to be done to improve conditions for small business in the U.S. We asked small business owners around the country what else they'd like to see from the federal government in the coming year.

    Seven entrepreneurs in seven industries answered the question: "What is the most important thing President Obama and Congress could do in the next year to improve the outlook for your small business?" Here are their seven (quite different) answers:

    Lenore Davies, Partner, Pripstein and Davies Architects, Wyncote, Pa.

    We are a very small business; an architecture firm of 2 people. Our industry has been decimated by the economic downturn. We specialize in small projects, predominantly residential renovations and additions. Our clients typically finance these projects with home-equity loans or a similar financial product. However, even though the interest rates are low, it is so difficult to actually get one of these loans. The banks, having been burned in the recent past, have really tightened the standards they use to evaluate and grant loans. Where once almost anyone could borrow outrageous amounts of money to finance anything, the pendulum has swung in the other direction.

    If the government could intervene and help stabilize this market it would greatly improve our business and many others in related industries as well. The result would have the added benefit of allowing people to invest in their homes, a form of saving and investing in their future.

    Andy Bhattacharjee, CEO and Scientific Director, Parabase Genomics, Andover, Mass.

    Even for life science startups like ours, it is very hard to get money to grow our company and hire people. Here is what we have seen:

    • We can't get the loans from banks or other private firms for R&D. The lending rules require you to put up personal collateral.
    • Massachusetts has a Mass Life Science Initiative. This is a good initiative, but not small-business friendly. We never ended up applying as we felt we don't have the political connections.
    • Founders have the option of robbing their 401K (ROBS) and even there the rules are hard. Benetrends or Guidant are companies that can help, but the IRS does not like this avenue.
    • Seed financing rules are also very hard (for example, crowdsourcing rules). You can go to Las Vegas and lose everything, but you can't invest in a startup that easily.
    • The innovative grants from the government do work. We are very grateful for this. We received one SBIR grant, but it is complex and the money is modest per award. The compliance is still very hard.
    • In diagnostics companies the reimbursement rules and other laboratory codes and standards are also anti-small business.

    Based on this I would say the most important thing the administration could do is make it easier for businesses to get resources and access that is fast and streamlined. There should be some minimal standards. For example, if we won the SBIR grant, then my company has proven some worth and then other providers should allow us some leniency in getting resources. Like if you have a drivers license then you can use that to back up your credit card verification. Right now there is none of that in the small-business side. I am not going to discourage people from starting a small business, but I don't think this avenue is good as it stands right now. Someone needs to redesign the system.

    Shane Snow, Cofounder, Contently, New York, NY

    Our small business employs a dozen American workers, and helps thousands of American journalists get work. As high as U.S. unemployment is, we and most other small tech companies have an extremely difficult time finding qualified technology talent—programmers, user experience designers—domestically. We have plenty of qualified candidates from England, Europe, and South America, but the time- and cash-costs of getting them legally into the states are prohibitive.

    The most important thing the president and Congress could do for our small business is make it easier for us to get foreign talent into America. If the government could facilitate our bringing the best and brightest foreign talent to work for us, we could boost our company economics, create more U.S. jobs, and help America become the global talent magnet it used to be before immigration got so messy.

    David Bratvold, Founder, Daily Crowdsource, San Diego, Calif.

    I am the founder of the top provider of crowdsourcing research and resources. We give business professionals the education and information they need to solve their existing business problems by getting crowds of people involved in the solution.

    President Obama and Congress could help improve the outlooks for many small businesses by removing the costs and time burdens we face. Dealing with taxes, fees, and legal red tape from the government is costly to an organization whose each and every hour is priceless.

    Jeff Foster, Owner, Jeff Foster Landscapes, Easton, Conn.

    I run a small residential landscaping business in one of the wealthiest areas of the country. Before 2008, a lot of my work was planting design and installation work—large projects with customers who were investing in their homes. For the past couple of years it's been mostly maintenance work. There aren't new homes in need of landscaping, and people aren't making major renovations to their properties or building additions on their homes that would call for landscaping work. It means I employ fewer people, and I don't invest in new equipment.

    For my business, the most important thing the federal government could do would be to give people a sense of clarity and confidence about their financial future. Let people know once and for all that their taxes are not going to go up, help them understand how much health insurance is going to cost for their families and their employees, and give them a sense that credit will not continue to be so hard to get. People need to know how much money they're going to have available for home improvement projects next year.

    David Kirkpatrick, Founder, Techonomy Media, New York, NY

    For my company, which is in the business of trying to raise consciousness about the frightening pace of tech change and how it is forcing all businesses to rethink just about everything, things today are going well economically. For our sake, fear actually sells.

    However, as a citizen I feel deeply that we are becoming an international embarrassment for our inability of our government to function in a civil way. There are massive challenges facing the U.S., many of them driven by the accelerating pace of technology change. And there appears to be very little awareness of that set of shifts in our government.

    If Congress and President Obama could bury the hatchet and start moving the country forward on the budget, then perhaps they would have time to step back and take a look at the massive challenges that face us all. For example, jobs are under dire threat at a macro level because of the twin forces of productivity growth and automation; climate change is accelerating and we are likely to face major dislocations as a result; global competition in every field is improving; our national education system needs revamping to keep pace both with a changing environment and quickening global competition.

    None of these things can be addressed in the next year. But if we at least did not face government-induced pain in the form of this absurd game of chicken that Congress created for itself, and if our leaders could learn to talk to one another, we would be more likely to start finding a workable path towards the future.

    Stacy McCarthy, Owner, Learning Design Network, San Francisco, Calif.

    Our company comprises an extraordinary mix of experts in strategic communications, engagement, graphic arts, and information and learning design. We help Fortune 100 clients in a variety of industries interpret complex business issues creatively so that people inside those organizations can learn more effectively and therefore adapt quicker to the challenges of today's business world. Our work helps to create more agile organizations that perform better both internally and in the marketplace as well-functioning networks.

    We've pitched federal agencies who've been excited about and in need of what we provide, but cutbacks are standing in the way of the government taking innovative approaches. Administrators from those agencies have gone on to hire us after they left the government for the private sector.

    The best thing Congress could do, not just immediately for my business, but for the good of all businesses, would be to embrace innovation and, for example, hire my team to help them become more functional!

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