Highland News Leader

Here’s how Highland will help the city’s businesses thrive in a digital world

The city’s Director of Technology and Innovation Angela Imming stand in front of giant satellite dishes at Highland Communication Services.
The city’s Director of Technology and Innovation Angela Imming stand in front of giant satellite dishes at Highland Communication Services. mbraa@bnd.com

After years of helping small businesses in Highland get their start, the city is retooling the Highland Entrepreneurship Program to better assist the city’s existing ventures.

Highland officials are planning to rebrand the now-defunct entrepreneurship program and put the city’s Highland Communication Services technology to work for local businesses.

The Highland Entrepreneurship Program, which once helped entrepreneurs in Highland like Justin and Hillary McLaughlin, who renovated an reopened the Lory Theater, had been dormant for roughly a year before work on rebranding it began.

That was due to declining interest in the program over the years and a newly identified need for skills in the digital age, Highland Economic and Business Recruitment Coordinator Mallord Hubbard said.

In August, on Mayor Joe Michaelis’s direction, Highland partnered with Strategic Network Groups, a Canadian consulting firm that specializes in digital technology. The firm’s findings, Hubbard and Highland Director of Technology and Innovation Angela Imming, who partnered with Hubbard to rebrand the program, demonstrated a clear need from the city’s businesses for guidance in the digital age.

Thus, the Technology Innovation Program was created.

“What we’re trying to do is create a program that really emulates or mimics the success we had with the HEP,” Imming said. “The idea is that someone would say ‘yes, I think my business would be more successful or relevant if I could deploy these technologies I don’t really know much about, but want to know more about.’ This program would lead them toward that.“

The August study made one thing crystal clear, Imming said: Businesses in Highland weren’t using technology to their advantage.

Angela Imming HCS
The city’s Director of Technology and Innovation Angela Imming stand in front of giant satellite dishes at Highland Communication Services. Megan Braa mbraa@bnd.com

The voluntary study had the participation of just 12 percent Highland’s businesses. Imming said that in itself gives her and Hubbard insight into how at least some of the businesses in the city are using technology.

According to that study, 25 percent of the respondents indicated the high cost of technology development created a barrier for moving forward digitally. Roughly 19 percent cited internal resistance and uncertainty of the benefits of increasing tech and digital efforts.

Imming said, most alarmingly, 25 percent of the businesses who responded had no plans to use technology at all and furthermore had no plans to advertise online. She said in some cases, those businesses were hesitant to even move away from cash-only transactions.

“We know that the longevity and relevance of a business that doesn’t innovate and use the current tools and trends will shrink way far down,” Imming said. “If they had somewhere to go to help guide them through this, these numbers would be higher and their longevity and relevance in the business industry would be positively impacted.”

Hubbard said they are currently looking for businesses that will help define the program and create longstanding benefits for the business as the Lory Theater did for the HEP program.

Hubbard said the program not only will try to mimic the HEP’s success but also its framework.

The HEP started with an application process, interviews to determine if the entrepreneurs were a good fit, establishing partnerships between the would-be business owners and successful local business owners who would work as consultants, and in-depth examination of business plans to make those enterprises successful.

To apply, a local business must be a customer of the city’s communication services, HCS.

The city will then pair those businesses with an ever-growing board of consultants which Imming said are made up of Highland residents with a background in tech and social media. Those consultants would then work with the businesses to identify technology needs and ways to improve the company’s digital presence, work flow and other aspects.

Imming said the implementation of new technology can touch several areas of a business. For some businesses, automation or streamlining their supply chain could be where technology could help. For others, it might be a better digital presence on social media or creating e-commerce for their website.

“We would collectively come back and write up a report and explain to them these are the things we’re thinking, these are the things that will get you the most bang for your buck, and here are some technologies, products and solutions that might be a good match for their need,” Imming said.

TIP is expected to launch in Spring 2019. Hubbard said there are still many parts of the program that need to be further hammered out, but he said he and Imming are excited about the prospects and already have a few businesses interested in the program.

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Kavahn Mansouri covers government accountability for the Belleville News-Democrat, holding officials and institutions accountable and tracking how taxpayer money is spent.

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