An Interview with Stephen Olson of U7

By Dan Woychick

Logo for U7In a tough economy, small businesses everywhere are struggling to survive. Add a multi-year light rail construction project on your front doorstep, and the future begins to look even bleaker. U7, an initiative of the Neighborhood Development Center (NDC) in collaboration with six other non-profit organizations, was launched to support small businesses along the Central Corridor in Saint Paul, Minnesota – with design and marketing services playing a key role.

Recently, I spoke with Stephen Olson, the lead designer at U7.

How long has U7 been around? And what services do you offer?
We started in July 2009. We offer design, marketing and business consulting services, as well as help with financial projections, bookkeeping, and applying for grants. We’ll also provide referrals to consultants in areas beyond our expertise.

What is your criteria for working with area businesses?
The business must be affected by the light rail project, either on University Avenue or one block north or south of University, stretching from Lowertown in Saint Paul to Highway 280. For our purposes, a small business means $2 million or less in annual revenue with five or fewer locations. So far, we’ve worked with nearly 100 businesses.

How does U7 market its services in the community?
We started by going door-to-door, doing cold calls on University Avenue. A lot of the businesses haven’t traditionally sought design and marketing help, and there’s a huge amount of diversity along the avenue, so there’s a trust that has to be gained. It was a lot easier to show potential clients what we have to offer than to try and explain it over the phone.

Now, we get referrals from other agencies like the University Avenue Business Association (UABA), through social media and word-of-mouth – clients we’ve worked with tell their friends and neighbors. We also have a quarterly newsletter that is sent to our target audience.

Through the Neighborhood Development Center (NDC), U7 provides all of these services for free. Was this made possible by a new revenue source, or a reassignment of existing funds?
These are all new revenues and come from a variety of funders: Saint Paul Foundation, Bigelow Foundation, Central Corridor Funders Collaborative, Federal Appropriations Awards, Living Cities, and the City of Saint Paul STAR grant. We are always looking for new funding sources to increase our manpower to help businesses faster!

How many people are currently on staff?
We have five full-time staff members: One project manager, two small business consultants, one loan officer, and me – the lead designer. As lead designer, I supervise a team of three design interns and a contract worker. It’s a struggle to keep up with the demand for our services, so we’re constantly tweaking how we staff and how we work.

What do businesses most often need when they come to U7?
It varies quite a bit. They usually know what they don’t want. We start by conducting interviews to assess where they’re at and determine what is needed. It can take some time to build the relationship and identify how best to help their business. We don’t want to just give them a business card and push them out the door.

Does the amount of help you offer each business vary as well? I’m guessing some businesses have more needs than you’re willing or able to take on.
We rarely turn them away, but we do try to keep a cap on project creep. We’ll usually design 3-4 pieces and then let the business run with it. We want to teach them how to update things, use social media and become more self-sufficient.

We have created marketing plans for a handful of clients: What they can do weekly, monthly, annually to continue marketing their business. Then we stay in contact with them monthly to see how things are going.

The best feeling is when clients call us up spontaneously, excited about seeing their efforts pay off.

Would you share a success story?
The Best Steak House has been around since 1991, and they’ve been very receptive to exploring new things. We did a whole brand refresh with a new logo, tagline, business cards, take-out menu, website, social media and small table tents telling their customers to find them on Facebook and Twitter.

When we stopped in for a follow-up visit, we found out they needed 1,000 signatures in order to qualify for a façade grant. We jokingly said, “Let’s make an Uncle Sam poster with Mike’s (the owner) face on it.” They hung the posters in the windows and bathrooms and got over 1,000 signatures in three days.

Are businesses required to put up any capital or show an ability to implement your design ideas?
When we start working with a business, we explain that all production costs are their responsibility. We ballpark a price for them depending on what they want – usually $100–$400. In a few instances, when a client was unable to pay, we have helped with loans and even done some printing in-house.

Does U7 have a future beyond the construction of the Central Corridor light rail line?
The life span of U7 is tied to the construction, which is scheduled to be completed in 2013. We’ve talked in general terms about possibly offering these services under the NDC banner. There are a handful of other non-profit organizations that serve small businesses, but I haven’t seen any of them doing what we’re doing.

What’s your favorite part of this job?
At my first internship, I worked on projects with some huge corporations. Now I’m working on a very intimate level. These are mom-and-pop stores whose family livelihood depends on the success of the business. It’s pretty fulfilling.

It sounds like a great program. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today, Steve. I wish you and U7 continued success.

Related content:
Central Corridor Businesses Prepare for Disruption
University Seven website

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