Chasing Obama-bucksWritten by Jim Harpen | | firstname.lastname@example.org
I’ve been working for about seven months on creating a new business. Done lots of research, put the prototype together, spent all of my money getting the company set up, lined up purchase orders from buyers and all that. But financing to get a business off the ground these days is pretty tough to come by. Ask any developer with a half-finished strip mall. So when I heard that three guys in East Toledo got $15,000 in federal grants to start an Internet radio station, that got my attention. I could make 15-large go a long way toward launching my business.
Now, I never before considered asking for a grant to help get my new business going. Like any other entrepreneur who’s run himself ragged developing a business, I hoped that potential investors would see it, love it and start writing checks. But with the recession leaving many would-be investors on the financial ropes, you can afford to leave no stone unturned. So I decided to pocket my pride and go for my fair share of economic stimulus Obama-bucks. Shoot, Goldman Sachs turned a $10 billion bailout in October into a $3.44 billion profit last quarter.
I called Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur’s office and was told that the grant program that kick-started the Internet radio station was handled by The Source. The people at The Source told me to call a guy at the Small Business Development Corporation. So I called him and made an appointment with this “Keeper of the Obama-bucks.” Seed financing was soon to be in hand.
Not so fast, Harpen.
We met at his office, and the first thing he told me was that their specialty is helping business startups get Small Business Administration (SBA) loans. Here’s what the SBA wants: your house. If the business goes belly up and you default on the loan, they can take whatever collateral you put up, which, in many cases, is your house. I don’t own a house so the SBA route was a dead-end.
“What I want to explore,” I told the Obama-bucks Keeper, “is that program that landed the $15,000 for those Internet radio guys.”
Obama-buck keeper: “Unfortunately, that program expired June 30.”
Me: “How long was it available?”
Obama-buck keeper: “About a month.”
Me: “What else is out there?”
Obama-buck keeper: “That’s about it. Actually, that program still exists, but now there are restrictions. Are there any women involved in your business?”
He knew the answer to that question. My business plan features the bios and photos of everyone who’s on board so far.
Obama-buck keeper: “I’m looking at your business plan bios, and all I see are white, middle-age males.”
I saw where this was going.
Obama-buck keeper: “Are there any minorities who are involved in the company?”
Me: “I’ve talked with a couple of black … err … African-American friends about two of the positions, but they weren’t interested in being involved with a startup business.”
I could feel Obama-bucks slipping away. But I admired the Obama-buck keeper’s straightforward approach, and he kept trying.
Obama-buck keeper: “Is anyone on your team a veteran who was deployed in a combat zone?” A quick call on my cell phone revealed that the one guy I thought might be a vet hasn’t seen hand-to-hand combat since he studied Tae Kwon Do.
Obama-buck keeper: “Too bad. The Veterans Administration has a lot of good programs. Do any of your people have a disability?”
Me: (feeling desperate and considering an unfortunate “accident” on my way out of his office) “Don’t know, but I’ll ask around. How disabled do you have to be?”
What’s notable here is what we were, and were not, talking about. The discussion was all about the classification, not the qualifications, of my people. The quality of the proposed business didn’t even enter into the equation.
Like anyone else, I’ve heard the anecdotal stories about these federal stimulus programs, but this was the first time I was so personally on the losing end of a set-aside program. And set-aside program supporters are right.
It really does.
E-mail columnist Jim Harpen at email@example.com.