When I talk to others about what it’s like to start a business, I often turn to one of my favorite analogies. “It’s like the Old West,” I would say. “Old West towns had two types of people in it: settlers and gamblers. The settlers were more than happy to live life as it came. But gamblers were bent on making their own luck, creating a life they wanted rather than, well, settling for anything less.”

As we start to recover our economy, we will need every gambler we can find. In our modern world, these are the entrepreneurs and small business owners who drive this state’s economy through job creation and revenue growth. Our future is tied to theirs, and they deserve all of the support we can give them.

While the state can’t invest taxpayer dollars in new businesses because of constitutional constraints, we can tip the odds in their favor by giving them the technical assistance, education, training and mentorship they need throughout the five phases of a business’ lifecycle: Think, Form, Launch, Grow and Optimize.


There’s a lot of thought that goes into a successful business. You are committing a lot of time and money to start a new business or restart an existing one in the wake of COVID. And, of course, your reputation is on the line.

For many would-be business owners, this is a time to reflect. Not everyone has what it takes to be their own boss. The Think phase allows you to be honest with yourself and be critical about your idea and its potential. Starting a business is hard work. It requires sacrifice. It is risky. At this stage, however, you can test numerous ideas to see what sticks, all without spending a dime. You can also up your game by updating your business skills with some extra training and education to increase your chances of success.

For starters, you can enroll in Commerce’s Entrepreneur Academy. The 11 different tracks teach you the basics of running a business, from ideation and business structure to avoiding common mistakes. Each track has its own workbook and an expert to guide you through the subject matter. You may also find SizeUp helpful at this stage, since it allows you to play with the numbers to see how your business will perform in the real world.


This is the stage when you turn an idea into an action. It starts with filing the necessary paperwork, selecting a name, refining your business model and determining how much capital you will require. You want to make sure that you set everything up right in the beginning. Making a mistake can cost you dearly in time and money.

To guide you through this process, we’ve created The Startup Playbook, an online guide written by a long-time small business owner and consultant. The Playbook walks you through every stage of starting and running a business, from choosing a name and business structure to hiring employees and accessing capital. It has lots of handy links to the places you need to go to set up your business and get it up and running. SizeUp really comes in handy at this stage too, as you can do more detailed research into your customers, competitors, and location and run additional scenarios to test your business plan to see if the numbers still pencil out.


All your ideation and planning have led to this. You’re finally ready to open your doors and take in your first dollar. There’s still a lot to learn about running a business and positioning it for success, things like managing cash flow, mounting an effective marketing campaign, finding dependable suppliers and building a loyal customer base.

This is where MyStartup365.com will come in handy. It is Commerce’s one-stop-shop for small businesses. You probably already know this by now since all of the programs mentioned so far are housed on this site. It has tons of resources for businesses as well as news, tutorials, training and access to programs and services to help you grow predictably and successfully. This will include the new Restart Academy, designed specifically to help an experienced business owner start a new business or rebuild an existing one as the economy begins to recover (look for it in Spring 2021).


Well done! You’ve made it to the fourth stage. By now, you’ve been in business for a couple of years, have some steady revenue coming in and you’re growing. A lot of businesses begin to hit a wall about this time, in part because the business owner doesn’t know how to scale the enterprise beyond the “mom and pop” phase. Everything is still working fine, but the business is stretching at the seams a bit, trying to grow within existing operational constraints.

It’s time to look beyond the business model you started with and grow the business by adding some additional competencies. ScaleUp is perfect for that. Led by a professional trainer, ScaleUp includes roundtable discussions, best practices and access to mentors over an eight-week period. ScaleUp will help you create business systems that will allow you to become more efficient, develop effective strategies for increasing revenue, streamline financial systems and operations, create targeted marketing strategies that increase sales leads and strengthen your product and/or service.

Commerce is also launching a new Mentorship Program that will connect entrepreneurs with C-level executives. These mentors can help you improve business acumen, provide technical assistance and serve as a sounding board to help your small businesses grow more quickly. Look for it in February.


Once your business enters this stage, you’re poised for rapid growth and expansion. You’ve made mistakes along the way but have improved operations, maximized profitability and have a seasoned management team moving your business along. There’s always room for improvement when you reach this stage. Commerce is there to help you with programs designed specifically for second-stage companies that employ between 6 and 99 employees and generate $1 to $25 million in annual revenue (pre-COVID).

Washington Peerspectives is one of our newest programs. The series brings together a dozen executives from different industries to share best practices, address challenges and solve problems in an online, peer-to-peer environment. Over the course of a year, business executives will be able to improve their decision-making, identify areas for improvement and growth, connect with potential customers and partners and hear from industry experts on a range of topics in a secure, online environment.

This roundtable is ideal for business leaders who have already taken their companies through Thrive!, the state’s economic gardening program.

Designed for second-stagers, Thrive! helps CEOs identify market trends and untapped resources, map geographic areas for targeted marketing, improve the company’s overall business model and examine actionable intelligence that is usually only available to large corporations. The goal is to move the company beyond identified roadblocks to growth so they can grow exponentially through mergers, acquisitions, international trade or additional investment rounds.


That’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. My personal regret is that many of these programs weren’t around when I was still playing the hand I was dealt, all those years ago when I started a couple of businesses, the biggest gamble in my career. I would have liked to have a couple of these aces up my sleeve.

In the Emerald City, still hoping for a winning hand,

  • Robb