Like many cities, Kansas City, MO experienced a rise in small business formation during the pandemic. Accompanying this increase was a greater need for small business support, which put unprecedented demands on some city governments.
However, Kansas City was well-positioned to help its entrepreneurs due to the city’s small business support operation, called KC BizCare. The KC BizCare Office uses a robust digital infrastructure called Qwally to support the city’s small business community and quickly adapt to new challenges.
“If you are building an ecosystem, one of the first things you need is that digital platform, that foundation to collect and centralize things,” says Nia Richardson, managing director of BizCare. To help her identify a digital solution, Richardson joined a cohort of cities participating in NLC’s City Inclusive Entrepreneurship (CIE) program who were interested in forming new partnerships with startups to solve civic challenges. She was introduced to Qwally as part of that program.
“Qwally has helped tremendously,” Richardson says. The establishment of a digital infrastructure was crucial to BizCare’s role in connecting entrepreneurs to community resources.
Created in 2009, BizCare was founded with the goal to help businesses struggling during the Great Recession. Office advocates help entrepreneurs with business formation, zoning, licensing and navigating city processes. These advocates also provide extensive counseling to business owners and make referrals to technical assistance providers.
Nia Richardson and her colleagues use their positions at BizCare to act as liaisons between entrepreneurs and city governments, and make city processes more business-friendly. “Often cities stop at what the city needs and not how it impacts the end user, the citizen,” she says. “With [Qwally], we get more people through the process more efficiently.”
Often cities stop at what the city needs and not how it impacts the end user, the citizen. With [Qwally], we get more people through the process more efficiently.Nia Richardson, BizCare Managing Director
BizCare’s focus on empathetic design led Richardson to look for a technology partner who could improve the user experience for small businesses, while helping her team deliver excellent services. She was particularly attracted to Qwally’s capabilities, commitment to collaboration and willingness to customize solutions for particular cities.
“I knew what we needed and how we operated. Qwally had the best platform to match that,” Richardson says. “[They] were also able to be innovative with me. It’s really fun and dope to build with people. And that’s been a great experience.”
Qwally’s virtual one-stop shop centralizes information using plain language descriptions of common rules and regulations; provides resources from state, local and community partners and drastically reduces the time it takes to review essential business requirements.
Richardson says that the plain language content and user-friendly guides help reduce the intimidation factor that occurs when first-time entrepreneurs interact with their local governments. “Sometimes it’s just that one little thing they need or somebody explaining it to them in a very simple way,” she says. “It’s not intimidating anymore.”
Working through the system’s checklist means local governments take the time to get to know the businesses and suggest eligibility for programs and resources. When the owner completes a simple diagnostic questionnaire, they receive customized steps to help them better identify and meet their goals. This checklist is saved in a profile that can be accessed using their email, and allows them to message with staff and work through the steps of the list at their own pace. The profile allows them to complete zoning clearance and other tasks without entering any new information. “These virtual tools provide a new or ‘informal’ entrepreneur with the resources and steps they need to formally register, permit and license their business to operate in Kansas City,” says Richardson.
The information collected during this questionnaire helps provide BizCare staff with a better sense of the business and the owner’s specific context before their first in-person or phone conversation. The result is a more meaningful and impactful initial interaction between the entrepreneur and staff. BizCare advocates can immediately offer more incisive, targeted counseling or referrals to community partners or sources of funding.
Additionally, the system provides a means to track these interactions and business characteristics. During the pandemic, BizCare used Qwally to survey the small business community and identify issues around access and equity.
In her interactions with NLC’s City Inclusive Entrepreneurship program, Richardson learned about a promising model from Philadelphia designed to improve access to federal relief programs like the Paycheck Protection Program. Qwally helped Richardson digitize the application and quickly deliver the program to the community.
“We were able to turn this around in about 10 days,” Richardson remembers. “We had the application up and ready to go, we had our intake, we had our customized checklists. We had data points that we were looking to track.”
Richardson is now able to share system data outcomes with community partners, agency peers and city leadership. This has helped build a better understanding of local trends and allows for data-driven decision-making.
Next for BizCare is implementing its recently-announced partnership with nonprofit Venture Noire that aims to make Kansas City “the City of Entrepreneurs” by creating policies that advance Black-owned businesses. “The City of Entrepreneurs initiative will not only remove barriers for aspiring Black entrepreneurs and business owners, but it will ultimately serve as a template for other municipalities to follow,” says Richardson.
Learn more about the City Inclusive Entrepreneurship network.
About the Author:
Chris Offensend is Co-Founder and CEO at Qwally.
Annie Kleeman is a Content Manager at Qwally.