Down to Business

Examining Milwaukee's small business supports

November 2023


Up to Speed, a report released by the Wisconsin Policy Forum in October 2021, explored the technology challenges facing small businesses in Milwaukee. Among its conclusions were that 1) small business owners in the city use and rely heavily on various types of technology but would benefit from better access to training and learning opportunities; and 2) many Milwaukee small business owners “feel they are a grant or loan away from the technology they need, but they are not always aware of available financial assistance.”

These findings raised larger questions about the adequacy of Milwaukee’s overall “ecosystem” of services to support small businesses, which are widely seen as the lifeblood of local economies. Numerous public and private organizations offer business creation and development services in the city and metro area, from business planning to peer networking to loans and grants. Some assist nearly any type of small business, while others target certain neighborhoods, demographic groups, or industries. An important question, however, is whether these efforts are appropriately coordinated and sufficiently accessible, and whether they offer the array of services that are most needed.

In this report, we analyze Milwaukee’s small business support ecosystem and seek to identify strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for greater effectiveness. Our research is guided by the following primary research questions:

  • Who are the players in Milwaukee’s small business support landscape, what types of assistance do they offer, who do they serve, how are they resourced, and to what extent do they collaborate?
  • Is there duplication of efforts or unnecessary competition for public and philanthropic resources among small business support organizations in Milwaukee? Conversely, are there gaps in the types of services offered or does the demand for certain services outstrip supply?
  • Are providers of small business support services effectively reaching existing or prospective small business owners who might benefit from such services? Are there barriers that prevent potential beneficiaries of such services from accessing them?
  • What can we learn from peer cities with regard to best practices and innovative approaches to small business support?

To help answer these questions, we collected and synthesized information from 50 organizations active in Milwaukee and the services they provide, then dug deeper by interviewing several organizational leaders and collecting data on their budgets, staffing, activities, and impact. Interviews with other key stakeholders provided additional perspective on the effectiveness of Milwaukee’s overall business support ecosystem, while our peer city analysis offered insights on promising strategies being used in other cities to help small businesses and spur their development.

We hope the information and insight gleaned from this analysis will assist policymakers, civic and business organizations, and others in their efforts to strengthen the business support ecosystem and foster entrepreneurship and business development in Milwaukee and the broader region.