This article from the NYT identifies what it describes as “helpful” government websites for small businesses. The most intriguing thing to me is that half of the sites mentioned are identified as useful because of links to other organizations! Here’s a summary and a quick overview of what the site really does for small businesses:
- SBA.gov — this site indeed has many useful tools and a plethora of useful information for business owners. While I tend to think of the “how to write a business plan” stuff as most appropriate for people planning or just starting out, I regularly remember that most business owners do not go through explicit steps like planning and budgeting and forecasting. Indeed, at TSC, we have seen public companies that actually operated without budgets. SBA – thumbs up.
- Entrepreneurship.gov — This site gets an attaboy for having a “resource section that links to more than a dozen organizations.” It’s actually closer to fourteen. I’m not harshing on the site; I’m confused as to why the NYT writer has apparently never heard of Google or Yahoo! or Live.com (Microsoft’s search engine). Can’t any of those sites, clearly well-known to the public, give a searcher a quick fourteen links, or maybe even more? Of course, the real target for this site is not the typical US small business owner, someone with a flower shop or a photography business. The links clearly slant toward big picture activities as evidenced by, e.g., the link to the USAID.
- Mymoney.gov — admittedly, I didn’t spend a lot of time here. The primary framework seems to be a collection of links to other places that deal with issues. The “Paying for Education” topic led to a total of nine links, almost all focused on students paying for college, as opposed to parents saving for future college expenses. The “Starting a Small Business” topic leads to 22 links, ranging from the very on-point “business plan basics” to the well-past the starting phase “401(k) plans for Small Business.” One link, to the “Small Business and Self-Employed One-Stop Resource,” actually links to the IRS website, which of course is focused primarily on taxes — there is one link on starting a business way at the bottom.
- IRS.gov — unfortunately I’ve spent far too much time on this website, but it gets an unqualified positive recommendation. The site is quick, has a comprehensive search function that readily spits out forms, instructions, and IRS publications describing the various issues that face taxpayers of all flavors — employers, individuals, small businesses, and nonprofit organizations.
- Nolo.com — this is another site that is really about content rather than links to other peoples’ content. As a practicing lawyer, I regularly point people to Nolo when they need to handle a legal issue that I can’t help with, and sometimes even when I can. Constant example: I send people establishing small businesses to Nolo when they need to pick an entity and figure out how to form it.
So what? So there are some mediocre websites that merely link to other websites? Well, this mentality exactly represents what has been lacking in every attempt we’ve seen to make a government website to assist people starting small businesses. These sites too often are a silo farm, with links off to different agencies and offices, each with a completely different paradigm and usability characteristics, and each of which handles its subject matter in isolation. That, however, is only modestly useful to the SMB owner. What the owner wants is a consolidated clearinghouse for information, advice, tasks, rules, and tools that is organized around the way the SMB, the customer in this interaction, does its business, not organized the way the government divides up the world. It’s simply backwards.
This problem isn’t just a government problem; it affects companies as well. The government problem is identified in an older useit.com Alertbox, which also lists Microsoft support websites as one example of a company presenting information in the format in which it thinks about it, rather than customers.
Where else does customer-centric organization not exist? Inside global financial institutions. For example, in our of our businesses, we used a standby letter of credit in relation to an international trade transaction. When we inquired about using a documentary letter of credit format for the same transaction with the same parties, we were shunted to a “different part of the bank” with different rules that actually preventing us from moving forward, even though each of the letters of credit were to be fully collateralized with cash, meaning zero risk for the bank since they also control the language of the documents by which they are bound.
Useit.com’ s Alertbox also tells people how to fix this problem, at least on the internet and intranets. We believe that the exercise needs to expand beyond merely rearranging links to actually structuring businesses in ways that appeal to customers. Most large professional service firms, for example, break down into both practice/industry areas as well as regional divisions. If you are a Kuwaiti telecom company, do you belong in the EMEA group or the Communications group? Clients don’t know, and we often suspect that firms don’t really know either. What’s the right answer? It’s neither. The client belongs in the group that solves the problem. Most of the time, that’s an industry focused team with reference to geographic expertise when it’s relevant, such as a group that assists with regulatory compliance.
One tangible example that comes to mind of information architected in a more friendly manner is the US Code. This is a publication that takes the statutory language actually enacted by Congress and breaks out the bits and pieces and rearranges them into a coherent whole. This rearrangement means that a change to some unrelated area of law such as the taxation of oil exploration isn’t forever stuck with social security issues that might make up the bulk of a statute. (As an aside, this happens because the process of amending a bill does not require the amendment to be related to the underlying bill.)