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Keeping City Hall Open for Business

Joel Mahoney, co-founder of startup OpenCounter, points to the City of Santa Cruz, Calif. as an example of cities lacking the resources to keep themselves open long enough to accommodate demand for business applications. That city’s economic development offices, he said, are open Monday through Thursday from 7:30 a.m. to 12 p.m., difficult hours for many aspiring entrepreneurs to make.

“The majority of folks that were coming to city hall and asking for help were small businesses, and I saw a real opportunity to develop a tool for this group of entrepreneurs,” said OpenCounter’s other co-founder Peter Koht in a recent profile of the company by Government Technology magazine. Koht is the former economic development coordinator for Santa Cruz.

OpenCounter helps those entrepreneurs get businesses up and running more quickly and easily by providing an online interface to the permitting process at city hall. It asks a series of questions in the right order so business owners can see the requirements, fees and estimated turnaround time for their planned use.

How does that help? In essence, OpenCounter is using technology to keep a city’s permitting offices open beyond its staffed hours, benefiting would-be entrepreneurs and, by extension, cities looking for increased small business activity.

The company, part of Code for America’s 2013 startup accelerator program, already has expanded beyond its Santa Cruz roots, adding other California clients such as Los Gatos, Pacific Grove, Seaside, Gonzales and Truckee.

Koht anticipates more demand for the company, based on recent interest and on statistics – more than 550,000 new businesses are created each year, he said, and in 2009, small businesses accounted for 64 percent of new private-sector jobs.