Problem: As more people create home-based businesses, they need help starting and growing their businesses.
Solution: York County, Va., started the Home-Based Business Assistance Program.
With more and more people starting businesses from home, York County, Va., has not only stepped up to help those residents get up and running, but is helping them grow their businesses.
Behind the trend: Retirees setting up shop as contractors and consultants after they’ve left the military or a corporate job, parents juggling work and family life, retailers moving from brick-and-mortar and millennials choosing when and where they work.
“It’s such a growing trend — 66 percent of our business licenses are for home-based businesses,” said Melissa Davidson, assistant director of the York County Economic Development Office, who oversees the county’s Home-Based Business Assistance Program or “HBB” as some participants call it.
Located on the eastern shore of Virginia near the U.S. naval station at Norfolk, the county is home to thousands of military retirees including Toni Chavis. She and her husband, retired from the Air Force, started a home-based handyman and interior design business from their home in York County.
If you want to learn more about York County’s Home-Based Business Assistance Program, contact Melissa Davidson.
“A lot of people don’t know where to start,” Chavis said. The couple started a home-based business because they are parents and wanted a more flexible schedule. The county program has exposed her to “things you might not hear about,” such as business laws and accounting issues, she said.
York County economic development staff and officials began noticing the home-based business trend about six years ago when they saw more and more residents applying for home-based business licenses.
The county decided to create its own program, after they had a hard time finding information to help residents. “We did a lot of research,” Davidson said.
The program was launched by staff members in the county’s Office of Economic Development with a one-time grant of $25,000 from the state’s Economic Development Authority, for the Home-Based Business Transition Grant Program, which helps home-based businesses transition to commercial spaces. The county department, with an annual operating budget of $474,000, devotes two of its three full-time staff members and one part-time staff member to the program. They spend about 20 to 30 percent of their time on it.
The Office of Economic Development often solicits private sponsorships to help defray costs of big events such as its annual resource fair and conference (the state’s Economic Development Authority covers $2,500 of the $6,000 cost), held in the fall. The department’s event budget is used to rent a venue (if not donated), pay for food that isn’t donated and to market the event. “We try to get as many sponsorships and donations as possible,” Davidson said.
Today, the program includes:
Transition Grants: Matching grant funds, 50 percent up to a maximum of $2,000 per business, can be awarded for supplies, equipment or inventory; funding can also be used for down payments on the lease or purchase of commercial property or on marketing and promotion. The funding comes from Virginia’s Economic Development Authority.
Home‐Based Business Resource Fair & Conference: An annual daylong event that focuses on the needs of the county’s local home-based businesses and entrepreneurs. The day features a resource fair with more than 30 exhibitors, as well as sessions and specialty breakout tracts focused on topics relevant to all types of home-based businesses, including traditional, franchise and direct and network marketing. The conference hosted 106 participants its first year in the fall of 2015 and 147 its second year, in the fall of 2016. Another fair is set for this fall.
Home‐Based Business Lunch & Learn Series: Networking and educational opportunity. Monthly brown-bag style sessions focus on topics relevant to doing business from home. Professionals are on hand to give tips and advice. In 2016, the lunches attracted 167 participants; this year, the lunch series so far has attracted 93 participants in the first six months.
E-commerce Grant Program: Program encourages businesses to create or enhance their online presence. Fifty percent matching grants up to $500 are awarded for design of new or upgraded websites.
NxLevel Scholarship Program: The county offers matching scholarships up to $300 for any citizen to take the Small Business Development Center’s NxLevel Course, a 12-session national training program that helps entrepreneurs learn skills needed to create and strengthen successful business ventures.
The county also works closely with the York County Chamber of Commerce, which offers short-term office and conference room rentals, as well as a home-based business ordinance review committee.
The county worked with the chamber to create a new membership tier just for home-based businesses, at a more affordable rate of $125 a year.
“A lot of home-based businesses, you see them trying to meet at a Starbucks,” Davidson said, but with a chamber membership they can hold meetings using conference rooms at the chamber.
As far as advice to other counties thinking of starting a similar program, Davidson said the most important aspect is making that initial connection with home-based businesses and finding out what participants need.
The county made their first contact with program participants by reaching out the old-fashioned way.
“We sent out postcards inviting them to a launch breakfast,” she said, adding that mailing addresses were matched with business license applications. After gathering RSVPs, they held the breakfast meeting at a county building. They held their first Lunch & Learn in November 2015.
One of the most well-attended Lunch & Learns was held in May, when the featured speaker gave organizing tips to participants on everything from creating a workspace to time management to work-life balance, Davidson said, noting how easily home-based businesses can sink into chaos when lines between business and home life are blurred.
Getting feedback from participants at all of the events is crucial, Davidson said. Surveys are emailed to participants afterward, asking attendees their opinions on everything from the speaker to the dessert, she said. “We get pretty good feedback, it keeps us on our toes.”