The U.S. Small Business Administration has a cadre of talented and dedicated staff whose goal is to help small-business owners succeed. Yet, when it came to revamping its web site, it outsourced the contract to DRT Strategies, Inc. rather than designing it in house.
In turn, the contractor, a Washington, D.C., Beltway "insider," subcontracted tasks to less-well connected companies. And $2,825,000 later, sba.gov launched its new face to the small-business community.
"SBA Administrator Karen Mills unveiled a newly re-designed SBA website," according to the agency's Dec. 25 press release.
"With the launch of the new SBA.gov, we have reached a significant milestone," Mills said. "The agency has evolved in using interactive web tools, social media and blogs to engage with, and better meet the needs of small business owners."
So I checked it out and also e-mailed blasted my SCORE colleagues to give me their opinions.
"This seems to be a pretty daunting process, particularly for a beginning entrepreneur," Tom Hafner responded. He is a volunteer business mentor with SCORE's chapter in Atlanta, Ga. "I would require a lot of help, even with my legal experience."
Alan Zell, a SCORE member in Portland, Ore. responded to Hafner's post, "daunting is an understatement at best," he wrote. "If there ever was a way to tell someone to not to go into business, this is it!"
I went to score.gov and clicked on the "For Lenders" button. That is because the information provided to lenders foreshadows whether or not bankers will embrace SBA's new lending initiatives. Too vague or complex rules may deter them from participating.
But the message I got said that it is still in the works and is scheduled to be launched early this year. But it did link me to its archives to review "stale" information instead of the agency's recently announced lending programs.
SBA Direct is touted in the agency's press release as "a dynamic new web tool with a variety of personalization features that will help small businesses start-up, succeed and grow." That covers the most of my clients so I entered my zip code and clicked the "go" button.
A pop-up with 12 choices appeared on my screen. I chose "veteran," "starting a business," "loans, grants & funding," "counseling & training" and "business law & regulations."
Those are likely choices for a veteran starting a business.
I was overwhelmed by the shear volume of links and information crammed into four pages that resulted from my search.
I decided to try again by limiting my choice to "starting a business." As before, SBA Direct feed me an overabundance of data, much of which did not seem targeted to my search, as the press release suggested it would do. The volume of information was still "daunting," but it was in three pages instead of four --- not much of an improvement.
Meanwhile, Marv Trott, another volunteer with SCORE Atlanta, said, "Finding a state SBA guide is not obvious unless the user is told to click on the 'Magazine Tab'." That is important because the states' guides provide local contacts and information, including establishing a business legally, financing resources, free mentoring, export resources, procuring government contracts, construction bonding and disaster loans.
You can download the local guide by entering their zip code at smallbusiness3.com. Notably, it is a direct path to the guides instead of slogging through sba.gov.
Trott also encountered broken links. Likewise, I also received error messages.
SBA provides an extensive menu of services. But it is difficult to quickly find the ones you need at sba.gov. So not surprisingly, I did not receive favorable comments from any of my SCORE colleagues about the site.
Bob Halstead, a SCORE volunteer in Dayton, Ohio reviewed sba.gov and said, "I was not impressed and would hesitate to send a client to the site."
In my opinion, sba.gov needs lots of work to make it easier to navigate and match the rhetoric of the agency's press release.
Jerry Chautin is a volunteer SCORE business counselor, business columnist and SBA's 2006 national "Journalist of the Year" award winner. He is a former entrepreneur, commercial mortgage banker, commercial real estate dealmaker and business lender. You can follow him at @JerryChautin.