At one time or another, we have all dreamed of starting a business. My mom and I thought about starting a dog supply store. I even tried my hand at being a dog trainer for a while. Owning your own business feels like the all-American dream, and many Veterans desire to make it a reality after completing their military service. But, starting a business isn’t easy. That’s why the City of Lacey and the Thurston Economic Development Council (EDC) Center for Business Innovation created the EDC Veterans Microenterprise Program.
It began when South Puget Sound Community College was awarded funds to help veteran students, but they ended up getting money from somewhere else to fill this need. The funds became “extra.” Celia Nightingale, Center for Business and Innovation Director, was asked to come up with a way to use the surplus funds to help Veterans even further. What better way than to partner with the EDC (located in the same building), to offer training and grant money for Veterans interested in starting a business or growing their current one.
Nightingale pitched the idea to the City of Lacey, who promptly approved it at their City Council meeting. “The City of Lacey has been a great partner of the EDC and supportive of Veterans, especially,” says George Sharp, Veterans Microenterprise Program Outreach coordinator. “They did the marketing, sent out press releases, and even sent out a flyer with utility bills to let veterans know about this program.”
First, Veterans attend the free training classes. Then, upon completion, they can apply for a grant anywhere from $500 – $26,000.
Since part of the EDC Veterans Microenterprise Program is funded by a federal Community Development Block Grant, the federal government sets the eligibility requirements for the grant. Recently, there have been changes to these criteria. For example, any Veteran in Thurston County can now take the free training. If they want to apply for the grant money after the training, their business must be located in the City of Lacey city limits. Total household income limits for grant recipients have increased to the following:
- $42,750 for a 1-person household
- $48,850 for a 2-person household
- $54,950 for a 3-person household
- $61,050 for a 4-person household
- $65,950 for a 5-person household
- $70,850 for a 6-person household
Since its launch in the first quarter of 2016, they have had 78 inquiries about the program and 11 Veterans have completed the training series.
The Training Series: Know What You’re Getting Into
“The one thing I think is most important is this – anyone interested in starting a business really needs to go through training and create a business plan,” says Sharp. “What we found with our first 11 veterans is that once they saw what it takes to run your own business, including the costs and liability associated with it, they decided not to pursue their idea.”
While this may sound like a negative at first flush, Sharp says it’s not. These individuals could have invested all they had into an idea that wasn’t viable or they weren’t prepared for. Instead, they found out through the free training that their idea might not pan out as they had hoped.
“One of the real challenges of business is you need to be ready to do everything. Our program really shows participants what that means and they can decide if this is really what they want to do,” adds Nightingale. One of the Veterans who went through the training program had a 9-month-old baby and wanted to open a diaper service. The training allowed her to see what the real numbers would be after costs and she realized it just wouldn’t be enough.
“The number of business that fail in the first year is more than 50 percent,” says Sharp. “We are hoping to help people be more successful, whether they decide to start the business or not.”
Veterans who make the decision to start a business can take the Business Enterprise Start-up Training (BEST) through the Washington Center for Women in Business (WCWB). It’s an eight-week online course that covers start-up, marketing, and financing, with the end result being a useable business plan. Each Veteran also gets four, one-on-one coaching sessions with the WCWB. The cost is covered by the City of Lacey funding.
Veterans who already own a business can attend the ScaleUp Training Series. This series combines the EDC’s former TuneUp and ScaleUp classes into a new nine-week course that includes updating business plans and financial management with the goal of growing the business. “Phoebe’s Pastry Cafe attended our program and her business increased 30 percent,” says Sharp. Again, this is free for Veterans thanks to the City of Lacey.
Currently, one Veteran is participating in ScaleUp. He already has a home-based business and plans to apply for a grant. He is asking for money to expand his business into a retail location in the City of Lacey.
“We want people to know that even if they don’t initially qualify for this program, we can help them out,” finishes Sharp. “Whether you are a veteran or not, the EDC is here to help people succeed with their businesses.”