What is the name of your organization?
Start Small. Think Big., Inc.
Is your organization registered as 501(c)(3) status with the IRS?
In what city, town, or region and state is your organization headquartered?New York, NY, USA
Which dimension of the Challenge does your solution most closely address? [Select up to 2]
What is the name of your solution?
The Start Small Think Big Portal
What is your solution?
Start Small Think Big (Start Small) is developing a dynamic web portal to improve services for small businesses from marginalized communities and groups. The web portal will serve as a hub for onboarding, project management, and analytic tool for both the small business entrepreneurs we serve and professional-level volunteers who administer technical assistance in legal, financial, marketing/sales matters. The portal is designed to reduce barriers to obtaining technical assistance, such as access to services and wait times, and is easily accessed from both mobile and desktop devices.
The web portal will:
Connect entrepreneurs to volunteers with greater expediency.
Increase the number of entrepreneurs we serve.
Improve the client journey with technology-led project management and the ability to facilitate multiple assistance requests per client.
Empower entrepreneurs, providing project status, connection to volunteers, and scheduling features.
Improve volunteer onboarding, increasing the number of volunteers we engage.
Increase volunteer engagement with technology-led project management (to increase their hours and timeliness of project completion).
Improve data capture and feedback mechanisms, enabling us to identify and respond to shifting client needs.
The portal has been developed using human-centered design principles, relying heavily on interviews and focus groups with our various stakeholders and staff. We continuously employ this type of feedback as we iterate and improve the portal. By providing an improved client experience and seamless journey, an enhanced volunteer pathway, and a mechanism for deeper community partner involvement, we can immediately improve small business owner's (our clients) economic security and potential to build wealth
Film your elevator pitch.
Describe the core technology that powers your solution.
The portal is a React web application built on top of Start Small’s Salesforce instance hosted on Vercel. By using open-source development tools and a low-cost, low-lift hosting environment, we are able to develop and continuously iterate on a solution that meets the specific needs of our constituents.
Our design practice centers around our clients, volunteers, and staff to ensure that new feature development improves their day-to-day experience with Start Small’s services. Our initial work was facilitated by a product design firm, Argo, and we have since moved on to managing the project internally with a small team of freelance developers and product designers. We have also built an internal project team that gives continuous feedback on the project and assists with conducting constituent interviews with corporate and community partners, volunteers, and clients.
Ongoing development of the application includes such features as:
Streamlined onboarding of clients.
Streamlined training for volunteers.
Workflow management for clients/volunteers.
Document upload for clients/volunteers to prepare for 1:1 sessions.
Listings of open opportunities for volunteers.
Scheduling that enables volunteers/clients to book appointments easily.
Data compilation and sharing.
Which of the following categories best describes your solution?
A new application of an existing technology
Please select the technologies currently used in your solution:
Who does your solution serve, including demographics, and how does the solution impact their lives?
This solution will support Start Small’s client base - marginalized small businesses founded by low-moderate income entrepreneurs identifying as BIPOC and/or women. 87% of the businesses we serve are BIPOC-owned, and 85% are women-owned.
The majority of our clients are ‘main street’ businesses, serving their own communities, adding to their vitality and economic stability. We serve small businesses across the US, with a majority located within our New York City and Bay Area, CA hubs.
Our clients are often sole proprietors, with 47% located in high-poverty areas and 100% are low-moderate income (defined by our eligibility, linked to federal poverty guidelines). As such, they do not have the means to invest in the legal, financial, marketing/network-building services they need to scale and rely on the free technical assistance Start Small provides via our network of professional volunteers from 130+ top-tier companies.
During 2022, Start Small provided small businesses with over $20 million in pro-bono support, including:
Financial matters: building financial infrastructure, bookkeeping systems, financial management/projections, and capital readiness.
Legal matters: managing business risks, negotiating contracts/rent agreements, and creating a stable legal foundation.
Marketing/Sales matters: providing branding/marketing assessments, developing an online presence, and learning to do business online.
Community/Network building: we connect entrepreneurs to prospective strategic partners, affinity groups, promotion and sales opportunities (e.g., pop-ups and corporate-partner small business campaigns.)
Currently, 40% of entrepreneurs who apply for our free services do not complete the onboarding process and, once onboarded can face challenges scheduling appointments with volunteers, increasing wait times for services. By implementing this technology, we will consistently iterate to reduce attrition points and improve the time to refer for services.
Explain how the problem you are addressing, the solution you have designed, and the population you are serving align with the Challenge.
Small business ownership is a proven strategy for building wealth and addressing both racial and economic inequity. Entrepreneurs whose businesses survive 5+ years are shown to have higher incomes than their peers who are wage earners (Source: Pew Charitable Trust). However, only 4% of Black American businesses survive the start-up stage, even though 20% start businesses. Cost, inaccessibility, and mistrust of professional services are among the reasons that only 58% of Black business owners seek professional services compared with 70% of White business owners (source: McKinsey Institute for Black Economic Mobility.)
Start Small advances economic equity for entrepreneurs who face systematic barriers that prevent them from accessing the resources, networks, and capital to position themselves for and invest in growth opportunities. We focus on serving low-moderate income entrepreneurs who identify as BIPOC and/or women. Leveraging the expertise of 2,700+ professional volunteers, we provide hands-on technical assistance, business development, and scaling support to enable business growth and success - support that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive for the small businesses we serve.
Start Small developed its portal to: improve accessibility to our services (including non-English resources); empower entrepreneurs to own their journey; engage volunteers efficiently, allowing for more time directly helping clients; and work more closely with our community partners - through which we build trust with the communities in which we operate. A predictable and consistent user experience and reduced wait times for referrals means services are easier for clients and volunteers to navigate, and client retention is improved.
What is your theory of change?
Start Small provides free and comprehensive technical assistance to entrepreneurs who do not have the means to invest in the legal, financial, marketing and network-building services they need to scale. Our 1:1 business assessment, conducted during intake, identifies the priority needs of a business and directs them to one or more of our services (financial consultations, legal assistance, marketing & sales support). Our partnerships with 100+ community organizations builds community trust in Start Small and allows us to adapt our programs to meet the changing needs of the communities we serve.
Entrepreneurs participating in our programs gain the knowledge and direct assistance, otherwise inaccessible, to address the unique business needs that will drive their success. Through our support, a small business builds foundational infrastructure, improves resilience, ensures compliance and reduces business risk, in addition to implementing strategies and processes that drive growth and facilitate successful access to capital. This is the essence of the Start Small ecosystem - a suite of comprehensive wraparound services that seeks to provide precisely what a small business needs to succeed, where success is defined by the entrepreneur. 70% of small businesses receiving services from Start Small demonstrate improved business practices.
As entrepreneurs gain knowledge and their businesses thrive, not only do they improve their household income (impacting themselves and their family), but they also build generational wealth and contribute to, and hire within, their communities. Our clients see an average 95% survival rate and a 50% increase in year-on-year revenue. 60% of businesses report an increase in revenue within the first year of receiving services, and 25% create/retain at least two full- or part-time jobs.
The improved efficiency and client experience of the new web portal will create capacity for Start Small to serve more small businesses and increase our impact.
What is your solution’s stage of development?Pilot: a product, service, or business model that is in the process of being built and tested with a small number of beneficiaries or working to gain traction.
What is your organization’s stage of development?Scale: A sustainable organization actively working in several communities that is capable of continuous scaling and has a proven track record, earns revenue, and is focused on increased efficiency within its operations.
How many small businesses does your solution currently serve?
Current number of people we are serving: 800
The number of people we expect to serve in 2023: 850
The number of people we expect to be serving in five years: 2,000+
How do you define the community you serve, and who are its stakeholders?
Start Small’s community includes:
The small business entrepreneurs we serve.
130+ corporate partners provide professional-level volunteers to help serve our clients with technical assistance.
100+ community-based partners (50% of our clients referred to us by).
Our staff and Board of Directors.
We are actively engaging all stakeholders in testing the web portal through each stage:
Our program teams are closely involved in every step of the design process, including facilitating stakeholder interviews with all constituents.
Volunteers test the web portal experience, ensuring the onboarding, training, assignment, and tracking abilities meet their needs.
Board members test the web portal from the corporate and funder perspective, raising strategic questions about capabilities.
Clients test the portal, intake process, how they choose services/assistance, volunteer assignment, and scheduling/tracking/document upload capabilities.
Community partners use the portal as a self-service tool to keep informed of shared clients’ progress in our programming.
How do you build trust within the community your organization serves and among small business owners?
Trust-building is very important to Start Small. To reach marginalized entrepreneurs, our dedicated Community Engagement team develops meaningful partnerships with community organizations that are trusted by and have access to marginalized business owners, particularly BIPOC, immigrant and non-English speaking entrepreneurs. Through our partnerships, Start Small becomes a trusted partner to small businesses and develops programming that effectively serves their needs.
We also run affinity events that encourage community building within our entrepreneur network and actively engage and promote clients in our work (e.g., #ShopSmall campaigns, facilitating sales opportunities with corporate partners, holiday gifting program, etc.) and promoting clients on our social media and website.
We actively encourage cultural competency among our staff and volunteers and offer non-English resources, staff, and programming wherever possible.
What are your impact goals for the current year and the next five years and how will you achieve them?
For the coming year, Start Small expects to:
Provide 3,500 entrepreneurs with the skills, networks, and markets they need to thrive.
connecting 2,050 volunteers to deliver 1:1 support to 850 unique small businesses with tailored support (via our the web portal).
Provide pro-bono support valued at $20million+
Engage 20+ new community-based organizations for client referrals.
Engage 15+ new corporate partners to provide support for entrepreneurs.
Expand our data collection and post-engagement surveys, focusing on holistic measures of small business success and community-level impact.
100% of entrepreneurs will be low-moderate income
90% of entrepreneurs will identify as BIPOC and/or women
95% of businesses we serve will survive
After fully launching the web portal, over the next five years, Start Smalls plans to:
Increase the business matters addressed via our 1:1 volunteer-matched services. These services impact small businesses outcomes but are the most resource-intensive services.
Increasing capacity via the web portal and delivering 5,500+ 1:1 services to 2,000+ unique small businesses. This will be made possible by the web portal controlling client workflows.
Replicate our regional hub model in 2 new locations, using the web portal to create a consistently high-quality service across states.
Via the web portal, create multiple language pathways and resources for non-english speaking clients, including recruiting more multilingual volunteers.
Increase the retention rate for clients and volunteers.
Why are you applying to Truist Foundation Inspire Awards?
We would deeply value receiving the capacity-building resources this challenge offers - especially expert counsel and thought leadership from your subject matter experts on how to best leverage this resource with your clients and with the industry. We'd love to brainstorm on how to share it with other nonprofits.
In which of the following areas do you most need partners or support?
Please explain in more detail here.
Start Small is currently undergoing a comprehensive strategic planning process that we will begin enacting in 2024. After spending 3 years reacting to the critical needs of businesses during the pandemic, we are now seeing a marked shift in the services and delivery methods requested by entrepreneurs. Demand has moved away from group workshops and returned to a need for tailored 1:1 services that drive growth, resilience, and support capital access. While remaining true to our mission to bring about economic equity for entrepreneurs facing systemic barriers, we are adopting a strategic assessment of our programs and services to ensure that we continue to evolve our programs and meet the needs of marginalized entrepreneurs.
The strategic planning will also determine how we scale our model nationally. During COVID-19, we proved that we have the ability to serve clients across 42 states, but have since intentionally refocused efforts on NYC and the Bay Area,CA in order to concentrate resources on the highest-need communities previously identified. With the web portal, we will have the capability and capacity to scale nationally and will research the next 4-6 priority cities for launch. All of these processes will benefit from the external support of MIT Solve and Truist Foundation.