Resources to Help Scale Your Business Today
Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC)
When starting or growing your business there’s a lot on your mind and on your plate. You are thinking through all of the next steps you’d like to take and juggling the day-to-day tasks. You might not know what resources exist for what you need, or maybe you’re getting advice in every direction; from endless links of where to apply for grants to names of people with whom you should connect but can’t keep track of all the contact info. Many cities have fantastic organizations that can help streamline your process for growth, and just reaching out to one is a step in the right direction. Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) is one of those incredible resources for small businesses across the country.
I had the chance to speak with Beth Haskovec, the Commercial Revitalization Program Officer in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin office. She has an impressive background in helping community-minded entrepreneurs launch and scale up. I’ve distilled some key takeaways from our conversation that will hopefully provide some insights for you and your business.
Some of LISC’s main goals are to:
- Equip talent in underinvested communities with the skills and credentials to compete successfully for quality income and wealth opportunities;
- Invest in businesses, housing and other community infrastructure to catalyze economic, health, safety and educational mobility for individuals and communities; and to
- Drive local, regional, and national policy and system changes that foster broadly shared prosperity and well-being.
Visit their Strategy page for more about their approach in the context of Milwaukee’s changing demographics and socio-economic challenges.
Some great ways to get organized and avoid common pitfalls when starting or growing your business are to keep detailed records, know your sales numbers, understand your cash flow (in and out), and to run a few different focus groups. Successful businesses know what they’re good at and keep a finger on the pulse of the ever-changing market. Haskovec also recommends taking things slow, understanding your price point and not scaling up too quickly. Be consistent and reliable. Keep regular hours and contact info current and visible. Posting on social media or your website about alternative hours or a day your business is closed can be easily overlooked amongst all of your other tasks, but transparency and communication are invaluable to customers.
When it comes to marketing, collaboration is a great place to start. Look to other businesses in your area or in the same retail corridor as your space. Be in it for the long haul. Build personal, not transactional, relationships. Get creative about methods of income outside of your main product or service. Haskovec noted the example of a candle shop. These days it can be hard to rely on retail sales alone if you have a niche product line, so hosting some kind of event or workshop gets people in the door for a fee, increases the chance that they’ll make a purchase onsite, and creates an impression of your brand that they will remember in the future. Starting a wholesale component to your business is also a great way to boost sales and visibility.
In the case of LISC Milwaukee, Beth Haskovec was instrumental in the success of Pop-Up MKE, a program that, in its first run, supported nineteen entrepreneurs. In coordination with the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative, various components of support were in place for these entrepreneurs, including a free month of retail space rent, planning for the gap in resources and funding between being a home-based business to a storefront shop, as well as tech assistance and business training. Pop-Up MKE is part of a larger initiative, funded by Chase, aimed at building capacity and supporting urban entrepreneurs, which includes additional partnerships like the Milwaukee Urban League and the African American Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin.
We spoke a little bit about how, or if, any large corporations have made giving back and community inclusivity part of their permanent business model. While it can be hard for behemoth companies like Amazon or Zappos to work small businesses into the networks of their headquarter cities, banking giant JPMorgan Chase has found a way to leverage their scale in a welcoming - not overpowering - way, such as Pop-Up MKE. After winning Chase’s Partnerships for Raising Opportunity in Neighborhoods (PRO Neighborhoods) competition, a collaborative known as Brew City Match will use that funding to provide capital coupled with business and financial educational support. They plan to grow neighborhood businesses, alleviate blight and fill vacant commercial space.
Donsia Strong Hill, Executive Director of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) in Milwaukee notes, “This initiative will help adjacent neighborhood corridors to stabilize and benefit from the emerging growth opportunities, while mitigating the risk of wide-spread displacement. Brew City Match also provides what minority entrepreneurs need to achieve economic mobility—access to affordable, flexible capital and the technical support to help them thrive.” Other cities have similar programs in place such as Detroit’s Motor City Match, so be sure to explore what’s available in your community.
Some recurring themes throughout our conversation were that of pace, scale, authenticity and ingenuity. Take small, sure steps before you run. Use mini grants or grassroots fundraising to invest in things like hardware (displays, marketing materials, hard drives, etc) and software (bookkeeping and newsletter programs) before you move on to larger capital to manufacture or buy materials. Connect with property owners and incentivize them to use their space in new ways by having you host an event there. If you are looking to get serious and start or scale your business the support is out there for almost anything you might need, so write down some short and long term goals and start planning!