Café Commerce: One Stop For San Antonio Small Business Startups

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Café Commerce President Peter French welcomes Mayor Julian Castro to the stage at Café Commerce's grand opening on June 30, 2014. Photo courtesy Accion Texas.

Several years ago, Mayor Julián Castro created a small business task force to find out what the city could do to best support small business and entrepreneurship in San Antonio. The answer to that question was Café Commerce, a resource center where small business owners can get the help they need to start a business quickly and efficiently.

After months of work, Café Commerce held its grand opening Monday on the first floor of San Antonio’s Central Library. The center will operate in two separate spaces in the library totaling 10,000 square feet,with one space available even when the library is closed. To fund and manage Café Commerce, San Antonio has partnered with Acción Texas, a nationally-recognized nonprofit microlender based in San Antonio that has been promoting small business development since 1994.

Café Commerce President Peter French, Mayor Castro, Acción Texas Chief Program Officer Celina Peña, and others spoke at the grand opening today, outlining the importance of entrepreneurship and small business in San Antonio.

The grand opening of Cafe Commerce drew a number of local business leaders and entrepreneurs. Photo by Andrew Moore.

The grand opening of Café Commerce drew a number of local business leaders and entrepreneurs. Photo by Andrew Moore.

“We know that today in our city, small businesses contribute more than three-quarters of the jobs. And in the last few years especially, businesses that are less than five years old have contributed the lion’s share of new jobs,” Castro said. “What we want is to have one place where, if you’re a person who has an idea to start a business, you know that you can come here to find the information and resources you need to get started.”

Café Commerce President Peter French, Mayor Julian Castro, and Accion Texas Chief Program Officer Celina Peña

Café Commerce President Peter French, Mayor Julian Castro, and Accion Texas Chief Program Officer Celina Peña

The interior design for the space was created by the five-year-old construction management firm Straight Line Management. Owner Sherrika Arch, who spoke at the event, believes the space will be a great help to new businesses.

“I feel like this is something I needed when I started my company five years ago,” Arch said. “Me and my husband were running everywhere trying to get all the help we needed as far as getting certifications, meeting all the different agencies. It’s an excellent opportunity to have Café Commerce, where it’s just all-in-one and you don’t have to search everywhere for the different things that you need.”

To help entrepreneurs find the support and contacts they need, Café Commerce will use US SourceLink, a web-accessible database created by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and licensed by the city. The database will be free to use for all San Antonio businesses. Café Commerce has spent the last several months populating the database with every available business resource and contact in the city. Resources may include anything from industry specific-attorneys, to the availability of local retail space, to connections with other entrepreneurial hubs such as Geekdom of San Antonio or the Small Business Development Center at UTSA, and others.

“We are not here to duplicate services that are being provided in the community,” French said. “We are here to make sure that as many small businesses and entrepreneurs as possible can access services that are already being provided as efficiently as possible.”

Café Commerce will use several other Kauffman programs as well. On July 9, it will begin the 1 Million Cups program, which provides a weekly opportunity for two startups to pitch their business model to an audience of mentors, advisors, and entrepreneurs. To help San Antonians better think like entrepreneurs, Café Commerce will also offer the Ice House Entrepreneurship Program, an educational curriculum that fosters the development of the entrepreneurial mindset. The pilot for this program starts August 25.

The idea for Café Commerce originated as the brainchild of a small business task force created by Castro as part of SA2020’s economic development agenda. Several years ago, the task force was commissioned to find how to best support San Antonio entrepreneurship and to assess the cities strengths and weaknesses in entrepreneurial support. According to French, the team discovered that San Antonio had plenty of resources available for small businesses, but the resources were siloed and hard to find.

The team’s answer, Café Commerce, was to be a resource for small businesses the same way that San Antonio’s Café College is a resource for college readiness. To fund Café Commerce, San Antonio signed a five-year contract with nonprofit microlender Acción Texas, which will put up $800,000 in matching funds to run the program. Acción Texas will manage all the back office work for Café Commerce, such as payroll and human resources, and will provide microloans to San Antonio entrepreneurs at a discounted interest rate.

In April, Acción Texas hired entrepreneur and Geekdom member Peter French to run Café Commerce’s day-to-day operations. French has experience in entrepreneurship as the Director of Operations for the Plum Creek community near Austin, and also runs Geekdom-based nonprofit immigration resource FreeFlow Research. To help him with day-to-day operations, French has assembled a growing team of paid Trinity University interns who have already gained entrepreneurial experience after winning the freshman startup pitch contest at Trinity with their startup “Modern Snail”. Though it might seem odd for a city-funded program, French plans to run Café College as much like a startup as possible by constantly exploring new ideas to help entrepreneurs and by providing a space where failure is not only accepted, but understood as part of the journey of entrepreneurship.

“Failure is not a great press conference word, but it is the central tenet for entrepreneurship,” French said. “There are some things in life that you just can’t learn from a book — walking, talking, how to use an iPhone – you really have to put it in your hand and play with it, and often along the way you fall down. That is okay. That’s why we’re here.”

*Featured/top image: The grand opening of Cafe Commerce drew a number of local business leaders and entrepreneurs. Photo by Andrew Moore.

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