Five and a half years ago, Yemi Mobolade and Russ Ware had an idea for a small business. They wanted to open a café that could serve as a place for creative people, students and professionals to connect and create a unique community.
“We asked lots of questions and did our best to avoid all the pitfalls, but you don’t know what you don’t know,” said Mobolade, who with Ware conceived a plan for the Wild Goose Meeting House.
Mobolade and Ware signed a lease and started work on the site at 401 N. Tejon St.
“We realized in the early stages that we needed a grease trap and that the building wasn’t built for the plumbing and electricity we needed,” Mobolade said, so the two were faced with finding $40,000 to supplement their limited opening budget.
“We dodged a bullet because our neighbor, Rasta Pasta, allowed us to tie into their grease trap,” Mobolade said, and the two were able to open Wild Goose in November 2013.
Now, as vice president for business retention and expansion at the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC, Mobolade is spearheading a project designed to help budding entrepreneurs find out what they don’t know and to streamline the startup process.
“We recently were named [by Thumbtack.com] as the nation’s fourth most business-friendly city,” Mobolade said. “We scored high on things like networking and access to information, but we got a ‘C’ on ease of starting a business.”
Next year, Mobolade wants to see that grade raised to an ‘A.’
Plotting a course
About six months ago, the chamber convened a group that came to be known as City Agencies for Small Business Advancement. It consisted of representatives from city and county departments, Colorado Springs Utilities, the chamber, Pikes Peak Small Business Development Center, the Downtown Partnership and other interested individuals.
“We got all six agencies that frequently engage with entrepreneurs, and key partners, around the table to address how we can make it easier for small businesses to open and advance,” Mobolade said.
The group is developing a roadmap for small businesses that will guide entrepreneurs, step by step, through all aspects of starting a business.
Beginning with business planning, the roadmap will help startup owners find the right legal structure, choose a location, get approval for their site, acquire the necessary permits and take the final steps to meet city and county code requirements.
The idea is to help entrepreneurs navigate from idea to opening, point them toward resources and find the right people to help them along the way.
City and county processes are just a part of that, but meeting regulations is crucial, and that can be a bump in the road for new business owners.
“The chamber has been communicating with and interviewing small business owners to let them tell the story of what they’ve experienced,” Colorado Springs Director of Planning and Development Peter Wysocki said.
“That reaffirmed the questions that the city needs to be very clear about our processes,” he said. “We’re experts in our own fields, but sometimes we need to step back and understand what it actually takes to open up a business and to appreciate our customers’ needs. I certainly hope that after this process, our staff with boots on the ground can appreciate the financial and time investment of entrepreneurs.”
Mobolade said the group aims to make sure the energy and effort put forth by entrepreneurs are focused on the right areas. Those who have been there and done that are contributing their knowledge to the roadmap.
“I hear from businesses [that] they sign leases without understanding what’s needed to convert the place into what they need it to be,” Mobolade said. “If they knew, it might inform where they choose to locate.”
The group is trying to design a user-friendly, entrepreneur-centric tool that eventually will reside on a web platform.
“One of the barriers to getting started is not knowing where to start,” said Chelsea Gaylord, economic development project manager for the city of Colorado Springs. “Part of our work is getting to startups and seeing if this makes it easier. Running a good business is still key, and that’s on the entrepreneur. But can this help somebody get started?”
Mobolade said the group has identified three outcomes it intends to achieve as the roadmap comes together:
1. Process. “We want to untangle the web of our process from the city side — how to move through it, who to talk to and how long it takes,” he said. “If small businesses can manage the process better, they can create a better business plan.”
2. Technology. Mobolade wants to broaden the reach of the roadmap so entrepreneurs can explore aspects of the startup process in greater depth.
“Imagine a business owner that finds a 30-second video that’s connected to the tool,” he said. “We’re exploring some great practices around what other cities are doing.”
3. A small business entrepreneurship manager. “What we’re working toward is a person dedicated to supporting small business efforts in our city, which I call the czar — the navigation person, the first point of contact,” he said. “In a perfect world, we would have a whole department, but right now, here’s somebody to shepherd you through the process who has influence on both sides of the table.”
The group has already had some accomplishments that might not otherwise have been realized.
“We now have a network of folks across the city who are helping businesses,” Gaylord said, adding some city employees have already become more conscious of the hurdles small business entrepreneurs have to clear.
The Downtown Partnership and the chamber hosted a lunch-and-learn event Sept. 26 at the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department.
At that meeting, Todd Baldwin, founder and president of Red Leg Brewing Co., shared the experiences of opening his business with about 35 engineers, inspectors and technicians from the city and county planning, building and fire departments.
“They were allowed to ask empathy-related questions,” Gaylord said. “It worked; eyes were opened. They got to hear things like, ‘I walked into Regional Building for the first time, and I was nervous.’
“Many [of the city and county people] said, ‘Gosh, I had no idea. If I’d known this, I could support you better.’ The outcome and feedback were so positive. They were more compassionate at the end of the day.”
Some of the agencies also have started looking at how they can streamline their own processes.
“There are some processes and requirements that we simply don’t have the ability to waive or vary from, because they are required by the city code,” Wysocki said. “It’s how we operate within those lanes. I hope we can now see the entrepreneurial view.”
The roadmap project has encouraged and facilitated interdepartmental communication as well.
“We want to make sure we have a good understanding of each department’s requirements,” Wysocki said.
Mobolade said he is proud that the group is already making a difference but stresses that the process is just getting started. He expects the roadmap to go through several more stages of evolution and design, including fine tuning for specific industries, and to be released officially during Small Business Week, May 5-11, 2019.
“Everyone loves being on this team,” he said. “We feel like we’re solving a real problem and making a big impact. Many of us feel that Colorado Springs can become the best midsized city to start a small business.”