BY ZAK SZYMANSKI
The first time you visit canopygroupinc.com/inbizcafe.html, you may feel disoriented. There are very few graphics. There’s nobody to “poke” (a popular function on Facebook). The interface feels more like one of those generic pages you’d stumble upon after typing in an incorrect web address.
“We are not a social networking site. Some people wanted us to launch a Facebook-type of solution, but there’s no way we could do that,” says Craig Hickman of Canopy Group, Inc., a Bloomington company that provides tools to assist entrepreneurs. Hickman and business partner Brian Kleber conceived and funded inBizCafé, designed to link Bloomington’s small-business owners with colleagues, financial resources, and educational materials.
It’s not flashy. But the old-school format may also work to the site’s advantage.
“You set it up once and walk away—that’s the big thing about it,” Hickman says. “For small-business owners, it’s a way for them to enter information and, instead of having to always run a search manually, get e-mail updates. It saves them time.”
Users simply create an account and set up a profile (or several), depending on what they are looking for. Then their search begins—for grants or procurement opportunities (the site pulls data from government databases), or for local experts, products, and services. Save the search and get e-mails when a match enters the system. There are special “one-sided” searches for investors that allow them to remain anonymous while looking for businesses they believe are worthy of their funds. The key to making local connections, of course, is encouraging more people to sign up to use the site.
“The more people that use the site and put their products and services in, the more valuable the site becomes,” Hickman says.
Promoting the site is the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce, which helped to launch the project last September.
“There are a number of opportunities within the site, and from our perspective we wanted to make it available to everyone,” says Heather Robinson, vice president of operations for the Chamber. “We are the face of it, but it has been developed by people in the community. It’s a local idea by local folks helping local business.”
In addition to making business-to-business connections, the site offers free, web-based educational seminars on everything from attracting investors to creating a business plan.
“The tool is a great opportunity if it’s embraced,” says Hickman.