Pittsburgh image via Brian Donovan / Flickr.

A new initiative championed by Pittsburgh City Councilman Corey O’Connor aims to make sure smaller businesses have every opportunity to succeed in our increasingly tech-focused city.

The City of Pittsburgh Advisory Board on Entrepreneurship and Start-ups will provide guidance for new and existing business owners. Loans will be made available through the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Micro Enterprise Program to qualified applicants with a viable business plan within the city limits.

“You don’t have to be a tech firm to do this,” O’Connor says. “There have been entrepreneurs who’ve said they want to start a pizza shop or a local deli. And we as a city need to support those smaller businesses, because they create more neighborhood jobs and bring stability to a neighborhood.”

The advisory board consists of 15 members who have diverse experiences in high-tech, finance and retail. They will serve as a think tank for Pittsburgh city government and as counselors to prospective business owners.

“A vibrant Pittsburgh in general is rooted in a vibrant economy,” says Zach Malone, a principal at Draper Triangle Ventures and the advisory board vice chair. “Ultimately, in order to continue to make Pittsburgh the really unique and interesting place it is today, we need to make sure new businesses continue to start and flourish in the community.”

How will it work?

The program will provide loans of up to $20,000 through the Micro-Enterprise Program, administered through the Urban Redevelopment Authority. The loans must be at least $5,000, which are made at a two percent interest rate with no repayment penalties for at least three years.

That money can be used for any costs associated with launching a business, including operational needs that may be overlooked by first-time entrepreneurs.

“When people start a business, they’re thinking about rent,” O’Connor says. “But sometimes they’re not thinking about the $500 per month to keep their website running. Costs just add up. And we just want to try and take care of all that red tape so people can be successful.”

While the goal of the program is to provide new, and in some cases, existing business owners with start-up funds, tools and expertise, there’s another reason City Council unanimously approved the advisory board: O’Connor says the city owns vacant buildings and properties that are available for the asking.

If there are five vacant properties on a street, why not use them for five start-ups?

“It may be residential, but if I have a computer business, I can go into a house, do some remodeling and rehabbing, and now I have this property where I can start my business,” O’Connor says. “It’s kind of hard for a manufacturer, but you could do a caterer. I think that’s what you have to look for, a street where you can capitalize on that stuff.”

Helping small businesses — from cutting-edge software companies to restaurants to novelty shops — remains important, even as Pittsburgh woos a huge corporation like Amazon to locate its second headquarters in the city.

While bigger companies such as Google, Apple and Uber bring prestige, smaller companies provide unique services while benefiting from the proximity to their larger peers.

“You’re still going to have spin-offs and other companies that want to be around an Amazon, a Google, an Apple,” O’Connor says. “They want to be around those companies because they bring different elements that those (bigger) companies can’t handle.”

Advisory board members receive no compensation, nor are they guaranteed support for their own business ventures. For Malone, whose company Draper Triangle Ventures provides venture capital to entrepreneurs, supporting and advising smaller start-ups feeds into his vision of long-term growth.

And that growth depends on the city being able to attract talented workers and entrepreneurs.

“Having a really vibrant local economy — great restaurants, great bars, art museums, cultural venues — helps attract that great talent for those companies to hire,” Malone says. “I think that’s something where Pittsburgh has a really unique advantage over some other cities in the United States. And I do think it’s a way this board can really help. Not to be too selfish, but it does make my job easier.”

The better Pittsburgh’s reputation is, Malone says, the easier it is for his portfolio company to hire talented workers.

A website featuring the resources and materials available from the City of Pittsburgh Advisory Board on Entrepreneurship & Start-ups is scheduled to launch in the next few weeks. Until then, interested parties can contact O’Connor’s office or reach out here.

Rege Behe

Rege Behe is an award-winning journalist, writer, and editor. A native of Trafford, Pa., he's covered school board meetings, reviewed concerts, and interviewed Pulitzer Prize-winners including Michael...