Big businesses that depend on government money, such the phone company, have large and well paid staff to handle the quirks of government rules, changes, and deadlines — but small businesses do not.
Grant opportunities are all too often funded late, and the rules fixed close to the deadline for grant submission. This puts small business at a disadvantage. Yes, you have a few weeks to get the grant written, but you also have a small business to run, and unlike Verizon, you don’t have $400 per hour lawyers and accountants to do the work for you.
So it makes sense to prepare for the grant writing process before the rules are fixed.
You need to prepare because you will be asked for information about your business that you do not have readily at hand. As Charles Wu of CTI likes to say, “small businesses have a bookkeeping function but not an accounting function.”
Most small businesses keep track of cash flow but do not track accounting items such as the depreciation of plant and other assets. Small businesses have a cash flow statement but often lack a balance sheet.
Most grants will require information from a balance sheet. Therefore, before the rules of the grant are set, there’s a lot you can do. You can have your bookkeeper gather the data you’ll use to calculate costs. Answer some simple questions, such as how much did you spend on marketing last year, how much does customer support cost per customer, and how expensive is it to set up a new wireless tower.
Businesses start out in this process with good intentions, but the daily management work often takes over, and all too often the grant writing process is a scramble to the finish line that uses only half of the already too-limited time that the state or federal government has made available.
In addition to accounting metrics, it’s a good idea to gather and examine other key business metrics. You may have an approximate idea of how fast your WISP is growing, but for the grant writing process, it’s great to have the actual statistics of how many customers you added and how many you lost for each month over the past 12 to 36 months.
If you’re planning to grow faster than you have in the past, plan that growth with your sales team. Describe how many people you’ll hire in order to achieve faster growth or to serve an area that’s outside your current coverage area.
Gather market research statistics on the area you’re targeting (your grant writer can certainly do this, but you may want the information for yourself). At the very least, look up the townships or counties on the census.gov site, using Quick Facts for counties and cities, and the more detailed but slower FactFinder for small towns.
If you’re a wireless ISP, you have a mapping function of some sort. Do as much of the mapping as you can for the area you intend to cover. The map is the core of your business plan. It lets the evaluator know exactly what you want to do, in a way that financials and even words cannot. Get the map started early.
When you’re thinking about an expansion area, start thinking about a realistic growth plan. If you have one tower climber on staff, or you use only one contractor, build a tower per quarter or less. This will allow all of your other business functions, such as sales and customer service, to keep up with growth. Many businesses like to say that all the growth will happen immediately, but that’s just not true, and a realistic plan is a persuasive plan.
Your plan is even more persuasive if you demonstrate that you know your equipment.
You’ll need to have a network plan. Often, this is not too difficult, because the equipment you’re adding is the same equipment you’re already using. However, if the grant includes a network upgrade, start examining the equipment you want to upgrade to (today, WISPs would like to upgrade to WiMAX and in some cases to better backbones such as DragonWave or even fiber).
Any expertise that you can demonstrate will enhance the application.
Work out an approximate tower map, and start guessing at the equipment you’ll need on each tower. The plan can be written to allow flexibility — you’ll need to adjust to business results — but a plan will help a lot.
These are just some of the things you can do to prepare for grant writing project. Additional items depend on the specifics of your business and the opportunity you’re looking into.
Cross posted at WiNOG Grants Cooperative