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Main Spotlight: Five Takeaways on Supporting Entrepreneurship from Matthew Wagner, Ph.D.

June 9, 2021 | Main Spotlight: Five Takeaways on Supporting Entrepreneurship from Matthew Wagner, Ph.D. | By: Abby Armato, Communications Coordinator, Main Street America | 
Grand opening of new small business

Earlier this week, Matthew Wagner, Ph.D., Chief Program Officer at Main Street America, was featured on Breaking Down Barriers: a podcast from Startup Space highlighting stories of community leaders who break down barriers to entry for underserved and unrepresented entrepreneurs. In their thirty-minute conversation, Dr. Wagner and host David Ponraj explored the essential role that Main Street organizations play in supporting entrepreneurship and important considerations for rebuilding strong, local small business communities.

Check out our five key takeaways from the episode below, and listen to the full episode here.

1.) Small businesses are more than just small businesses. We all have a favorite local spot to grab a cup of coffee, share a meal with friends, or otherwise connect with our community. For Dr. Wagner, this connectivity is something that local small businesses uniquely offer. What’s more, he emphasized that this connectivity can serve as a metric for economic development leaders and other local leaders to measure their community’s health: "What small business has become is a quality-of-life indicator for communities, much like a school system or a great parks system.”

2.) E-commerce is here to stay. While there may be some pullback in e-commerce as downtowns continue to reopen, Dr. Wagner emphasized that the growth seen during the pandemic will remain relevant in the years to come. In April 2020, Main Street America conducted research to understand the baseline of small business e-commerce. In that survey of 5,850, about 66 percent of small business survey respondents did not have an e-commerce component. The other 33 percent of respondents who had an online presence indicated that e-commerce only comprised 15 percent of their overall revenue stream. While significant growth in e-commerce has occurred over the past year, economic development leaders must continue to support small business growth online and connect small businesses with capital and equitable lending practices to do so.

Looking for a way to take your business community’s online presence to the next level? Check out Main Street Online, our new virtual tool that provides custom recommendations to help small businesses strengthen their online and e-commerce capabilities. View the tool here.

3.) The renewed interest in supporting local. After months of stay-at-home protocols and other pandemic safety precautions, “consumers for the first time were able to visually see the impact of ‘What happens if my small businesses aren’t there? Whether it’s in my neighborhood or in my downtown?’” explained Dr. Wagner. In response to this visualization, national trends indicate that consumers are actively looking to make the switch to supporting local. Dr. Wagner shared findings demonstrating that, when small businesses have online capability, consumers will jump at the opportunity to make the shift from shopping at national chains to local small businesses.

4.) It’s all about ecosystems. Wagner highlighted two ecosystems that economic development leaders need to keep in mind when building (or rebuilding) local economies: the small business community and the larger local community.

Larger Local Community. A guiding principle of the Main Street Approach is the importance of strong private-public partnerships. “You can have a great nonprofit leading the cause. You can have small business commitment. But if it’s not supported by the city, village, or the local neighborhood, it’s going to be a difficult haul,” explained Dr. Wagner. By striving to cultivate a strong network of connections, economic development organizations become a trusted partner for entrepreneurs and can serve as a bridge between the government—at many levels—and the local small business community.

Small Business Community. Maintaining the strength of this ecosystem depends in part on local leaders understanding the makeup of their small business communities and allocating resources accordingly. Our recent research indicated that, on average, 70 percent of small businesses in commercial districts were launched by people that lived in the local community—a finding that reemphasizes the importance of investing capacity and resources locally. “Growing from within, mining those micro-ventures, creating support systems that help businesses scale from Phase 0 to Phase 1 to Phase 2, helping people at all stages of the small business life cycle has a much bigger ROI than where we’re traditionally placing so much of our economic development capacity and resources,” explained Dr. Wagner.

Looking for resources to further support your Main Street’s Entrepreneurial Ecosystem? Explore our new Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Resource Guide for free resources designed to support your Ecosystem journey, including a downloadable self-guided training handbook for community leaders. View the Resource Center here.

5.) The future of Main Streets. When imagining the Main Street of the future, Dr. Wagner underscored the importance of infusing new technologies into how our downtowns operate. Some of these technologies were focused on public infrastructure, such as parking apps, car charging stations, and community e-commerce platforms. But Dr. Wagner also highlighted how small businesses can harness technologies to create a unique connection with consumers. From online cooking demos to recorded educational content to livestreaming a maker at their craft, these digital experiences can enhance an entrepreneur’s business model and create further consumer investment in supporting local.

Listen to the full episode here!