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State-Led STEP Program Helps Grow Nebraska Small Businesses
Nebraska Ag Connection - 05/17/2018

With over 95% of the world's purchasing power living outside of the U.S., exporting can be a key driver of growth for Nebraska businesses small and large. In turn, their success generates statewide economic impacts, creating jobs and sustaining communities.

"When Nebraska businesses promote Nebraska products and industries abroad, it creates more opportunities here at home," said Governor Pete Ricketts. "Supporting the efforts of our businesses to expand internationally is an important part of creating great career opportunities for our people."

In promoting the State Trade Expansion Program (STEP), the Nebraska Department of Economic Development (DED) hopes to spread the word to small businesses, in particular, that exporting can be a great way to boost production and profitability -- and that the process is not as out-of-reach as it can seem.

If exporting appears to be a tactic of large companies, consider the fact that enterprises with fewer than 500 employees accounted for over three-quarters of Nebraska's 1,900-plus exporting companies in 2013. Last year, such companies helped contribute to the state's $7.2 billion in total exports, which sustained nearly 60,000 jobs.

But that's not to say that expanding into foreign markets is an easy task for a small business. The learning curve, upfront costs and uncertainty about return on investment can be enough to dissuade some owners from trying. That's where STEP comes in.

STEP, which is funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) and administered by DED, is designed to help Nebraska companies succeed on their voyage into international markets. The program reimburses qualifying small businesses for a percentage of certain export-related expenses -- including, for example, the cost of embarking on international sales trips or attending foreign and domestic trade shows. The program can also help companies defray the cost of federal programs, like the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC) Gold Key Service, designed to help small business owners nail down their target markets and directly connect with interested buyers.

According to program participants, STEP can be the extra boost businesses need to start growing beyond U.S. borders.

"STEP has allowed us to explore new markets and make business trips that would otherwise not have been in our budget," said Ryan Mitchell, president of Dempsters, LLC, out of Beatrice. "We're very thankful for the program."

Jim Glazer, president and CEO of Elliot Equipment Company in Omaha, shared similar thoughts about the program.

"The STEP program has really helped us grow our international business, particularly in Latin and South America," Glazer said. "The program has helped us find and train distributors and launch new products, as well as advertise and market those products at trade shows."

Pete Stout, sales manager for Kearney's Origin Engines, said that apart from its other benefits, STEP helped fund his company's participation in DOC's Gold Key Service. This helped Origin build strong relationships with foreign buyers, which led to improved international sales.

"This program is an invaluable asset to small businesses. It essentially allowed us to increase our sales force and pursue projects, trips and events which would not have been economically feasible," Stout said. "But it's been more than just financial assistance. STEP has opened doors and helped us to build relationships that have been great for our business."

More than 85 Nebraska businesses have been beneficiaries of the STEP program over its more than six years of operation. Meanwhile, funding -- though limited -- remains for the 2018 grant period. To qualify, companies must meet the definition of a small business, per SBA standards. They'll also need to submit an application that includes an itemized budget request for each activity for which they're seeking funds.

Potential applicants should know they'll also need to have some skin in the game: a 25% financial match is required for all STEP funding distributions. All grantees will also need to submit quarterly activity reports to DED to help track program-related outcomes. That still means 75% of the funds businesses receive through STEP are match-free, with no reimbursement requirements.

According to DED's Susan Rouch, who administers the STEP program, interested businesses don't have much time left to apply during the 2018 grant period -- so they should act fast if they don't want to wait until next year.

"Due to the popularity of this program, funds tend to go quickly," said Rouch. "We encourage all interested companies to apply well in advance of the September 29 closing date, by which time any activities must be approved and completed, and all expenses paid."

"We see this program as a difference-maker for Nebraska's small business community," said DED Director Dave Rippe. "Our agency looks forward to assisting business owners as they strive to promote their products, as well as Nebraska industries, on the global stage."

To learn more about STEP, including how to apply, visit the program website at www.neded.org/program/step-grant/. For additional questions, contact Susan Rouch at 402-471-4668 or susan.rouch@nebraska.gov.

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