So Many Questions, So Little Time

This blog is the second in a series produced for a Harvard Kennedy School field class on innovation in government. Our team is working with the MassIT Digital Services team and the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. You can read about our project here.

One month into our project with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, we find ourselves with more questions than answers. We have been hard at work figuring out the best way we can make it easier for entrepreneurs like Carlos, a micro-brewer, and Johanna, an app developer (more details about their stories can be found here) to get their businesses started. When our team of five sat down to start our research plan, we quickly learned what many budding entrepreneurs already know: there are endless things on one’s mind when trying to start a business! With so many things to worry about, entrepreneurs like Carlos and Johanna need as much help as they can so they can spend their time where it matters, working with their customers.

So, where to start? Like any good design team, the answer was simple: the whiteboard!

Nisha adds to our endless questions.

Nisha adds to our endless questions.

After a few pads of Post-It notes and perhaps a bit too much coffee, the whiteboard was covered. We had many ideas, but for every new idea there were at least half-dozen questions. What is the hardest part of starting a business? Is it the same thing in Worcester as it is in Boston or Springfield? What kind of businesses are we talking about anyway?

After trying to guess the hardest part of opening a barbershop in Lexington and heading towards a debate about the role of government in the Massachusetts economy, one of us had enough and asked: “Can’t we just ask someone”?

So we did.

We turned to our clients at the MassIT Digital Service (MassIT) and the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development (HED) to help us understand what they thought we could do that would help Johanna and Carlos out the most. Before we made the trip to their offices, we came up with a set of project goals:

  1. Our project needs to address a single, discrete problem, not every issue that faces a prospective entrepreneur.

  2. Our recommendations need to be something that HED has control over so that they can actually put our tool to work.

  3. Our project should focus on the most disadvantaged users. By making the process easier for them, we can improve it for everyone.

Sitting in HED’s 31st floor boardroom overlooking the Boston skyline, we started to narrow things down. The HED team told us that they always hear about the same three pains from small businesses:

  • Taxes are too high!

  • I can’t get enough good employees to run my business!

  • There are way too many regulations, I can’t even figure out what I need to do to follow them!

This gave us our starting point. As the conversation went on, we started to put these issues through the above filter and built a hypothesis about where we could have the most impact. While taxes are probably top of mind for all businesses, changing the tax codes falls well beyond the reach of our team. Massachusetts’ record low unemployment is another policy issue that we can't (and don't necessarily want to) fix. But making it easier for a small business to understand and comply with regulatory requirements felt like something we could wrap our arms around, even if we couldn’t change the regulations themselves.

Even with this more focused scope, we were still wondering: who is our target user? As you can imagine, Carlos and Johanna have different regulatory requirements and resources available to them. For example, Carlos the microbrewer may be having trouble navigating health and safety licenses and permits, while Johanna the technologist  may not, at least for now. After some discussion, we thought it would be best to focus on businesses with relatively high regulatory requirements and low resource levels - small business owners like Carlos (don’t worry Johanna - we’re not going to forget about you).

What’s Next?

With our new focus in hand, it’s time to get to testing it. We have been hard at work making a list of users to interview so we can learn about their pains starting a business. After contacting several Chambers of Commerce, small business associations and Regional Economic Development Organizations, we have started to make our list of businesses to visit across the state. From florists to breweries to auto shops, we will be visiting businesses over the next two weeks with two objectives:

  1. Confirm that navigating regulations is a real problem for businesses, and that it’s where we will have the most impact

  2. Understand where the pains are in the process today and set us up to build a hypothesis for how we can help

Once we have spoken with enough businesses and have developed a hypothesis, we will move on to distilling our insights and developing a solution.

-Artyom, Brian, Julia, Kate & Nisha