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“Bridging the Small Business Tech Divide, and much more!” #SFSBW2015 Interview with Urban Solutions

#SFSBW2015 asked small business owners and the organizations that support them throughout the year to share insights, best practices, stories and resources to help small business owners flourish. Today we hear from Steve McCoy-Thompson, Executive Director, Urban Solutions.

Tell us about your organization in one sentence.

For over 20 years, Urban Solutions has developed small businesses and healthy neighborhoods with a comprehensive set of leasing support, loan packaging and small business training and mentoring programs.

What is your organization doing to help small business owners navigate today’s increasingly competitive marketplace?urban solutions logo

We are working on several fronts. With licensed real estate brokers, we help entrepreneurs negotiate fair leases and move into challenging neighborhoods to help stabilize those communities. This is critical when rents are rising everywhere. We help with access to capital by packaging loans and steering them to a broad range of partners, from Kiva to Working Solutions and Pacific Community Ventures and from the City’s Emerging Business Loan Fund to our banking partners who are eager to help small businesses move up the financial ladder. We also have important programs like Legal and Banking Office Hours, which offer free, 1:1 consultations with legal and finance professionals, as well as Enterprising Women!, which provides targeted training and mentoring to women of color entrepreneurs.

At the same time, we’re dipping our toes in the advocacy arena. We work closely with website our growing Advisory Board of property developers, small business owners, banks and law firms, real estate brokers and other local stakeholders to make recommendations on how we, as a City, can better support and retain local small business in San Francisco. So, we’re busy! But we think it’s important to work on multiple levels – planning, finance, operations, and leasing – to address the multiple challenges that small business owners face in the marketplace.

What is your organization doing to attract and support new and younger small business owners who are starting out today? What are you doing to bridge the gap between old and new businesses?

For new businesses, we have a strong business attraction program in which we work with the City’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development to identify and attract small businesses to priority corridors around San Francisco, particularly in Central Market, Tenderloin and the Fillmore.

I’d like to give a shout out to several new businesses – Green Apple Markets, San Francycle, MonteSacro, Huckleberry Bicycles and others that have opened in Tenderloin/Central Market recently and are leading a resurgence of this dynamic area.

Moreover, with City support we built and maintain a great website called Storefront SF (www.storefrontsf.com) which provides free access to vacant retail space throughout the city so property and business owners can post and view specifications on available space.Urban Solutions

At the same time, we have a long history of working with local businesses to help them thrive. We have helped several small businesses renegotiate leases and have helped other displaced owners relocate in San Francisco. With our legal, banking, planning and other hands-on work sessions and counseling, we offer targeted assistance to help them meet real challenges in their daily operations.

Finally, we have an exciting new program to help bridge the technology gap between local business and world class tech companies that are right in our neighborhood, which I discuss next!

Please describe one of your organization’s innovations. How has this enhanced way you reach and serve your clients or members?

Actually, we are launching a great new program called Bridging the Small Business Tech Divide. With generous support from the SOMA Stabilization Fund, we are partnering with Impact Hub and leading tech companies in San Francisco – including Twitter, Salesforce, Square, Yelp and others – to provide targeted training and mentoring to small business owners as well as transitional youth. The goal is to help small businesses use readily available, and low- or no-cost technology to grow customers and revenue as well as to lower operating costs and streamline their operations. These programs, or sometimes just smart phone aps, help business owners with critical tasks such as point of sales, account management, etc. At the same time, the program enables technology leaders to directly connect with small businesses in a new and meaningful way. What makes the program unique is that volunteer tech staff will provide the training and ongoing support, via mentoring and direct access, to help entrepreneurs and transitional youth (age 18-25) build practical skills that will make a tangible difference in their business or personal employability—and ultimately increasing their income. Our first introductory session is June 3 at Impact Hub and we hope to expand the program in other regions. Check out our website to learn more!

What is one lesson you would like to share with small business owners—especially those who are struggling to change the way they do business in the current climate?

I think ‘current climate’ is really code for rising rents and growing opportunities. The same forces that are putting upward pressure on rents are bringing new customers and business opportunities to many neighborhoods that have struggled in the past with economic development. So, one important lesson – and there are many – is to know your customers, including what they want and how to reach them.

Many local owners are so focused on the next service order – whether it’s the next lunch order or haircut or repair job – that they ignore the broader market. With the influx of tech corporations into the city, the customer demographic is also changing. More people use apps (such as Yelp, Emily’s List, etc.) to find local business, expect a vibrant atmosphere when they arrive, want friendly service and easy pay processing, and, of course, a great product. If more owners are aware of these trends, they’ll be in better position to face the pressure and take advantage of the opportunity that comes with the ‘current climate.’

What is the most important belief or principle that guides your work and the trajectory of your organization?

We believe strongly in the need for balanced neighborhood growth. Many small local businesses that add to the cultural diversity of this great city are threatened with displacement and may leave without direct support. If this happens, San Francisco will lose a vital element that makes it truly unique. At the same time, ‘balanced’ to us means two things: help existing local businesses adapt to and thrive in this changing market while also attracting new businesses that will enhance the local vitality and cultural diversity of these neighborhoods. We believe it’s possible to achieve both and that the future of the City depends on it.

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