Mission: Small Business is a nationwide grant program sponsored by Chase Bank and LivingSocial that will provide individual grants of $250,000 to 12 businesses from a pool of all that complete an online application and garner at least 250 votes from consumers.
And hey, business school students, here's more evidence that folks still need to keep their writing skills sharp: Grant applicants have to demonstrate in an essay why their businesses should get the money.
According to program rules, it seems winners will be chosen based on their submitted plans' "likelihood" of success within two years, as well as demonstrated "energy, enthusiasm, creativity and passion" for their businesses.
"The program aims to find the most inspiring small businesses and provide them with capital to help grow their business and make a positive impact within their communities. Chase and LivingSocial decided to offer 12 grants of $250,000 to help small businesses achieve measurable growth," says Tony Leach, Chase Business Banking manager, Milwaukee.
Seventy Milwaukee businesses are currently listed on the program website. The top five vote-getters (at the time of this writing) are Orchard Street Press, Milwaukee Blacksmith, Fresh is Best, Fine Line Magazine and Avia Cakes, LLC.
A recent addition to the applicant pool is Mofoco Enterprises, 102 W. Capitol Dr., a mechanic specializing in imported cars and a Volkswagen parts manufacturer.
"We applied in order to help start another manufacturing-only division at Mofoco. We intend to steal manufacturing back from overseas and do it here in Milwaukee. A grant of this kind would be a great help," says Roy Henning, who wrote the application for his family's company. (Note: Henning's wife is a member of the OnMilwaukee.com sales team.)
Grant applicants must have been in business for a least two years and have fewer than 100 employees.
People can search and vote for businesses on the program site by first logging in via Facebook. The voting began May 7.
Every vote put another $5 in the grant pool, until the upper limit of $3 million was reached. Each business must reach the 250 vote threshold, so voting on the site is still relevant.
Once the voting period ends on Saturday, June 30, the proposals will be reviewed by a panel of business owners and executives of Chase Bank and LivingSocial.
Grant recipients – which will be announced by Sept. 15 – will be selected by a panel of small business experts, including AOL founder Steve Case, Candace Nelson, founder of Sprinkles Cupcakes, U.S. Chamber of Commerce's David Chavern and LivingSocial CEO Tim O'Shaughnessy.
Stacy La Point, president and owner of Fresh is Best Natural Pet Food, 3720 N. Fratney St., applied to the program after first seeing other businesses requesting votes on Facebook.
"A chance to be selected for a $250,000 grant is hard to walk away from," says La Point, whose business only needs about 20 more votes in order to be eligible for review by the panel.
Fresh is Best makes fresh-frozen and freeze-dried, grain-free foods and treats for dogs and cats.
La Point explained in her essay submission that Fresh is Best is in a niche market, "growing exponentially," and the challenge she faces is simply acquiring capital for expansion.
"The industry itself has few challenges as people are discovering healthy food for their pets more and more every day. Both pets and people like variety so the brands that exist in this niche are really just helping to educate and expand the market – as they say, when the tide rises, all boats float," says La Point.
La Point applied for the grant in order to purchase equipment, expand production, hire staff and launch new products.
Former OnMilwaukee.com writer Julie Teska is co-owner of Orchard Street Press, 815 S. 9th St., a Milwaukee-based screenprinting and graphic design company that she started with husband Whitney.
"We started our business just as the economy slumped into the Great Recession (2008) and although we've been more successful in such a short period of time than we'd ever dreamed, it's been extremely tough," says Teska.
Orchard Street first got rolling with $7,500 in start-up money that the Teskas won in a business-plan competition through UW-Milwaukee. After that money was invested, the couple invested more of their own and took small loans from family members, which they used to transform their at-home operation into a full-fledged shop in a Walker's Point commercial space.
"We are so proud of what we've accomplished, but we want to do so much more and the reality is that growth takes more capital than we've got," says Teska.
Teska says Orchard Street Press had some great design opportunities so far, Rishi Tea, Great Lakes Distillery and Local First Milwaukee for example, but the challenges of balancing home life and running a small business have stretched the new parents pretty thin.
"We're sort of stuck in this frustrating middle place," says Teska. "We really need to hire more people, but, of course, hiring more people takes money. You're probably thinking, if you've got so much work, surely you can afford another employee. But it's tricky."
Like Fresh is Best, Orchard Street Press currently has one employee in addition to the owners.
Both La Point and Teska intend to create local jobs, if they're awarded the grant money. Fresh is Best needs production staff and Orchard Street Press anticipates being able to hire between three and eight people for various positions, from shop workers to graphic designers to sales reps.
"We also have our eye on a few upgrades that would boost our environmental friendliness by reducing water and energy consumption. We'd also like to expand our flat-stock printing operations because screen-printed posters are a beautiful thing that we don't want to see die out or give way to digitally-printed posters," says Teska.
In her essay proposal, Teska stressed how they were understaffed and also wrote about Orchard Street Press' dedication to craft and "love of creating beautiful things with inks and fabric," in addition to creating "a more sustainable approach to an industry that historically has been plagued with harsh chemicals and solvents."
It's likely that grant proposals making these connections between their for-profit businesses, service to community and striving for improvements in their industries will get more consideration than others.
Being able to stress these connections in writing is paramount, since the application is entirely text-based. And getting people to vote for your business and demonstrate the company has community support has got to be right after writing in importance.
"We pride ourselves on top-notch customer service so, thankfully, in turn we've earned a lot of friends and loyal customers over the years who enthusiastically support us. But in all honesty, getting the 250 votes, which we just reached, was a lot harder than we'd anticipated," says Teska.
"It comes down to this: we love Milwaukee and we love being a part of a strong network of fellow small-business entrepreneurs who go above and beyond to support each other. The do-it-yourself spirit is strong here and it seems like the community responds really well to it. It's amazing," says Teska.
La Point reached out to her Facebook friends first. Then she discovered that many businesses are exchanging votes, their supporters backing other businesses and vice versa.
"It's been fun, I'm discovering amazing small businesses all over Wisconsin and the rest of the country. People are really friendly and hopeful, there's a sense of camaraderie to it," says La Point. "May the best 12 businesses win."
Royal has taught courses in critical pedagogy, writing, rhetoric and cultural studies at several schools in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He is currently Adjunct Associate Professor of Humanities at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.
Royal lives in Walker’s Point with his family and uses the light of the Polish Moon to illuminate his way home.