Archive for April, 2009

Economic Gardening with Public Librarians

by Christine Hamilton-Pennell
Growing Local Economies, Inc.

The research component of an economic gardening initiative must be implemented by professionals with skills in both business research and strategic business counseling. Successful programs need to find a way to marry and coordinate these two functions. A logical place to look for partners with business research skills is in the library world. Librarians in both public and university libraries know how to search for and find information, and usually have access to one or more business databases through their own library or a larger consortium. Several libraries are involved in economic gardening initiatives in the U.S. A couple of them are profiled below.

One of the first economic gardening initiatives to seek the assistance of local libraries was in the city of Greeley, Colorado. Economic Development Manager Kelly Peters approached librarians at High Plains Library District and the University of Northern Colorado Libraries to assist with business research for clients of their Economic Gardening program. Two public reference librarians stepped up to the plate and volunteered to do research projects for the businesses. Peters found that the public librarians, even though they had limited knowledge of business research at the outset of the project, were eager to learn. Along with two business librarians from the local community college and university, they created a small learning group that began meeting regularly to discuss business research tools and techniques. They also met with the businesses they were assisting to hear first hand what the business owners needed. The librarians completed three large research projects in the first six months, including one supporting the county airport in its efforts to recruit aviation-related businesses to its industrial office space.

When Peters left the City of Greeley to become the Chief Operations Officer of the Rocky Mountain Innovation Initiative (RMI2) in Fort Collins, Colorado, she again approached business librarians at the Poudre River Library District and Colorado State University Libraries to assist with research for RMI2 clients, who comprise high impact scientific and technology start-up companies in Northern Colorado. The Initiative was formed by an alliance of Northern Colorado municipal governments, academic institutions and economic development organizations. Anne MacDonald, business reference librarian at the Poudre River Library District, assists with the business research. She reports, “I love the projects and truly think this—economic, market and industry research for local economic development efforts—should be in the job description for any public library business librarian.”

A more recent entrant into the economic gardening field is the Douglas County (Colorado) Libraries. When the Douglas County Economic Development Manager, Meme Martin, approached the Chamber of Commerce at Highlands Ranch to host a pilot economic gardening (EG) program, the library took a seat at the planning table and became part of the initiative.

Rochelle Logan, Associate Director of Research and Collections at the library, serves on the steering committee for the Economic Gardening project. She says it is a natural partnership. “One of our goals at Douglas County Libraries…is to reach out to answer the community reference question. It’s a natural fit to partner with local economic development entities such as the Highlands Ranch / Douglas County EG program” (Your Hub-Roxborough, June 25, 2008). The library was already providing classroom space in three of its locations for business start-up workshops offered by the local Small Business Development Center.

The Douglas County reference librarians received training in basic business strategy and information sources, and began promoting reference services to start-up business owners through the library. They purchased additional business database tools and began conducting more in-depth business research on behalf of the EG center clients.

“We are extremely excited about the partnership we have with the Douglas County Library System and the Chamber’s Economic Gardening program. Douglas County is very fortunate to have the Douglas County Library System as a resource. They continue to stay on the cutting edge,” reports Steve Dyer, President, Chamber of Commerce at Highlands Ranch. They are now a year into the collaboration and the librarians report having completed more than 20 successful research projects for local business owners so far in 2009.

© 2009 Christine Hamilton-Pennell

Growing Local Economies

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Business Start-ups Are Like Orchids

Several months ago, my son brought home a flowerpot containing two bare sticks from the flower shop/urban café where he was working. Orchids, he told me. The owner said she didn’t think they would bloom. He rescued them from the trash.

So we watered and fed them for two or three months. The leaves came along nicely, but the sticks still looked like, well, bare sticks.

orchidsThat’s why I was so astonished a couple of weeks ago to see two blossoms on one of the twigs, with more budding out on both sticks. They are exquisite white orchids that amaze me every time I see them!

It struck me that the orchid story is an analogy for the business start-ups I’ve worked with or observed over the years. You can nurture them and support them and cajole them to take certain actions. It takes time for the new business idea to germinate and take root.  Research shows that maybe a quarter of these aspiring entrepreneurs actually create a new enterprise. In fact, most of them don’t bloom. But you never really know for sure which ones will burst into flower until they do.

Scott Shane points out in his book, Illusions of Entrepreneurship: The Costly Myths That Entrepreneurs, Investors, and Policy Makers Live By, that the majority of people starting new businesses enter a field they already work in, most of which are already saturated with small businesses (think massage therapists, construction, or pet grooming businesses). Many of these aspiring entrepreneurs have never been in business before and usually have not done an analysis of the market potential in their area before they decide to put out their shingle. 

In terms of “economic gardening,” not all start-ups are created equal. The ones with the most promise of high impact have several defining features. They have some kind of leg up on their competition—an innovative idea, process or product; they have a good management team to execute their idea; they have a solid market that is broader than the local region; and they want to grow their business (the majority of entrepreneurs don’t have a growth focus). These are the orchids. Daisies are far more common, of course, but they don’t have the same value (at least monetarily).

Perhaps the lesson here for local communities is to focus more time and resources on the orchids than the daisies, but to remember that daisies can also be a very important part of a beautiful garden.

(c) 2009 Christine Hamilton-Pennell 

Growing Local Economies

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