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Since 1991, the Small Business Administration’s Business Information Centers (BICs) have provided on-site counseling and technical assistance to help small businesses level the playing field in an ever-changing marketplace. Now these centers have stepped up their efforts by offering an advanced technology program called Start, Run, Grow. And it’s at no cost to the user.
Start, Run, Grow provides the latest computer software, hardware, technical support and educational resources in 38 BICs nationwide. The centers, estimated to service about 100,000 business people over the next fiscal year, are located in such cities as Washington. D. C., San Diego, Baltimore and Newark. Would-be entrepreneurs and business owners can enter these business “labs” and use Microsoft programs (including Microsoft Word, Publisher and Internet Explorer) and Compaq computers to write business plans, prepare cash flow analysis and explore the World Wide Web. Software programs for financial modeling, market research, desktop publishing and contact tracking are available, as well as an extensive reference library and business templates. Center workshops use Microsoft’s America at Work, a six-videotape series highlighting small companies that are using technology to overcome common business problems. A trained staff is on hand to provide step-by-step instructions for all applications.
There are 21.5 million small businesses nationwide. These outfits employ 53% of the private work force, contribute 47% of all sales and are responsible for 50% of the nation’s gross domestic product. Yet many still operate without using the most current technological information. D.J. Caulfield, a public information specialist for the SBA, says Start, Run, Grow seeks to change that. The concept began in 1991 at the SBA’s first BIC in Seattle. There, Microsoft, one of the original private- sector sponsors of the center, developed a technology program that provided different types of software. But after monitoring the development of other BICs and realizing the increasing importance of automation to the small entrepreneur, Microsoft approached the SBA and Compaq about supporting the program, ultimately aiding its growth nationwide.
“One of the things we’ve been tracking over the years working with the SBA is that there’s not a lot of resources like this in local communities,” says John Coake, group marketing manager for Microsoft’s Small Business Group. “So, for start-up companies and companies looking to expand or grow, it’s an awesome resource for them to get free counseling and use the technology.”
Launched last December, Start, Run. Grow is being rolled out to each existing BIC through June and up to 16 new centers this year. Funded by Microsoft and Compaq Computer, it’s valued at $2 million, representing one of the largest private-sector contributions to the SBA. James Hood, a spokesperson for Strategic Alliances Group, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting company that helped organize Start, Run, Grow, says the program is crucial. “I’ve seen a lot of small business people who know their business. but don’t necessarily have a clue about computerized accounting, inventory control, e-mail and all the other things that can make it really possible for a one-or two-person operation to not only survive but