Story last updated at 10/14/2009 - 1:37 pm
"AlaskaSourceLink," a new statewide referral network unveiled at the 50th annual Alaska State Chamber of Commerce conference in Homer, offers small business owners help to identify the kind of assistance they need and then where to find it.
Referrals on the free, web-based service include funding agencies, business venture groups, chambers of commerce and other regional development organizations, state and federal business assistance offices and more.
"We don't actually provide services. We connect people," said Linda Ketchum, project coordinator at the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development.
As of Sept. 22, when Ketchum discussed the project at the state chamber convention, the website offered 62 resource partners. "We're talking weekly to new partners and bringing them onboard and expanding the database," she noted.
Live only since the summer, AKSourceLink.com is the 49th State's edition of U.S. SourceLink, recognized for excellence by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the federal Dept. of Commerce since it was created in 2003.
"Even though we're an affiliate of a national program, this is a website built for Alaskans by Alaskans. We want it to work for Alaska," Ketchum emphasized. The program here was developed following discussions with 200 business owners in 19 Alaskan communities.
"One of the common themes was that the business folks did not necessarily know what help the needed or often where to go to get that help," Ketchum said.
The Alaska project was begun by the Alaska Entrepreneurial Consortium with a grant from the Denali Commission. Speaking to an audience that included most of the local chamber of commerce directors in the state, Ketchum was recruiting new partners as well as promoting the service. "Our goal is to include everyone in this network who is providing some sort of assistance or acting as a resource to small business," she said.
"We hope it will result in better use of our limited resources, more camaraderie, networking and collaboration among service providers," Ketchum added.
In return the website also tracks its use, providing local development organizations with data on potential new businesses for their communities. Over a five-week period the site drew 170 visitors, including a daily rate of over 50 percent first time visits. "There's interest from outside of Alaska from people who are perhaps looking to start a business here or move here," Ketchum observed.
Currently the majority of users are Alaskan entrepreneurs looking for help. About 25 percent of those who completed a search were successfully referred to a resource partner to date.
Users begin a search by entering basic information about their location, business and interests. The engine "gathers information about your business and what you need. It guides you to the resources you need," Ketchum said.
A search on the site's "resource navigator" begins with four questions including location by zip code, type of business, whether it has completed a business plan and business stage (concept, start-up, established, revenues over $1 million).
The site then sends the user to a list of 20 assistance categories ranging from "advocacy & public policy" to "regulatory compliance." In addition to obvious topics like "business planning," the site also links to on more advanced questions like import/export assistance internship programs and incubator and laboratory space.
Users get a list of resource organizations, brief profiles and their contact information and the option of downloading detailed background and performance reports.
To continually improve the site's performance users are telephoned two or three weeks after a search to learn whether it was successful and if any further help is needed. The site also provides a toll-free phone number in case of Internet problems and to give more personal assistance.
The AlaskaSourceLink also offers pages with explanations of the business start-up process, financing issues, a business library and links to state and national business news page.