A new city portal aims to take the grunt work out of launching a new business
Photo: City of London municipal policy specialist, Ethan Ling
IN THE STRICTEST sense, the City of London only does four or five things to help new and small businesses get off the ground and grow, explains Ethan Ling, municipal policy specialist with the city. “We permit, we license, we zone and we inspect.”
But in an era where the buzzwords around business development are often “innovation” and “disruption”, sometimes those four traditional buckets of service can seem inflexible and inadequate.
“We were getting all sorts of queries that were a little outside the box,” says Ling, pointing to new categories of businesses like food trucks, craft breweries and ride-sharing apps.
“They’re pushing the boundaries and we didn’t know how to deal with it. These things were sometimes met with a ‘no’ because we just didn’t know what else to say.”
“If we can put this info in a clear and succinct way on a website, it can answer the 75 per cent of easy questions and we can focus on the 25 per cent of really tricky ones” —Ethan Ling
And just as often, the tools someone needed to answer business-related questions existed, but they were spread across different city websites and departments, which ended up being tedious and frustrating for businesses to navigate.
An antidote, Ling says, is a new city web portal called Service London Business. The site centralizes the resources that businesses might need from the city and makes them more intuitively placed and easier to access. Launched earlier this year and beta tested over the past few of months, the site picks up the torch of the city’s efforts to improve their frontline customer service.
“The idea of the website was to be a clearinghouse for all sorts of information,” says Ling. That includes resources that business owners might not automatically think to look to the city for—things like help with business plan writing, grants, loans and listings of networking opportunities.
It’s a tool that will hopefully cut down on the guesswork for new and small businesses.
“I think previously the experience would be someone comes [to city hall] to do something [and] they would say a word to the concierge desk or maybe they would just wander into the building and start pressing buttons on the elevator to get to what they think they need,” Ling says.
The website is essentially like a digitized guide through that process, without the elevator. “It takes a little bit of that burden off, and we can help them be a little bit more organized,” says Ling. “It doesn’t cut any corners—it just gets you to the answers to your questions a little bit faster.”
It’s the kind of support that can go a long way to helping promote the city’s friendliness towards business and innovation. “We were hearing through our different channels that it’s great that we attract Maple Leaf Foods or Dr. Oetker, but what are we doing to help the small businesses that really drive employment and drive the economy?” says Ling.
“If we can answer someone’s questions and they can do it from their pyjamas in the middle of the night, that’s great,” he sums up. “If we can put this info in a clear and succinct way on a website, it can answer the 75 per cent of easy questions and we can focus on the 25 per cent of really tricky ones.” Kieran Delamont