A case study on building HUBFinder, a one-stop platform for managing the SBA HUBZone program.
It’s no secret that the current Small Business Administration (SBA) HUBZone Map is not easy to use. There are a lot of technical glitches and restraints with the current map. For example, if you you accidentally type in an incorrect address, there isn’t a built-in autocorrect to redirect to the correct address. As a user, you may not immediately catch a typo or error that hinders you from getting in the HUBZone program since HUBZone tracts can be specific to exact city blocks or a side of the street.
As a HUBZone (Historically Underutilized Business Zones) certified firm, Fearless has become very well-acquainted with the SBA program. We initially started off rebuilding the HUBZone map internally for ourselves. Because map visualizations fall under our Presentation specialty, Fearless is always excited about utilizing the superb geospatial developers on our team. After we rebuilt the map, we looked for additional ways to simplify the mapping experience. Since a user new to the program does not understand the difference between a Qualified Census Tract, a Qualified County, or a Redesignated Tract Area, we wanted break things all the way down to the terminology that they would intuitively understand.
However, our ultimate goal was to take HUBFinder further than just a map. We wanted a comprehensive system for managing an entire company’s compliance, program, employees, and recertification. We wanted a networking platform that could bring together companies and opportunities, employees and employers, contractors and subcontractors. We wanted an exploratory tool for new users to understand, discover, and apply for HUBZone status. Some of that we’ve accomplished with the product you see today at hubfinder.io; however, we are only at the beginning.
Death to Spreadsheets: Compliance In a Box
After we recreated the map as a proof of concept, we decided to tackle the next and most difficult hurdle for HUBZone companies — compliance management. Receiving a HUBZone certification is an exciting moment for any company, since they are now equipped with additional competition ammo when submitting for contract bids. However, maintaining that hard-earned compliance throughout the following years is both complicated and extremely laborious, especially if you have a large team. To better understand the requirements that must be maintained to stay HUBZone-compliant, below is a list provided by the SBA:
- It must be a small business by SBA standards
- It must be owned and controlled at least 51% by U.S. citizens, or a Community Development Corporation, an agricultural cooperative, or an Indian tribe
- Its principal office must be located within a “Historically Underutilized Business Zone,” which includes lands considered “Indian Country” and military facilities closed by the Base Realignment and Closure Act
- At least 35% of its employees must reside in a HUBZone.
Using our own experience, as well as surveying countless HUBZone companies, we discovered that the large majority of businesses were tracking their compliance of employee homes, monthly hours, primary working locations, etc, in a basic in-house spreadsheet. They relied on their own system of building out these complicated calculations to tell them if they were compliant or not.
To our knowledge, the SBA does not have a comprehensive tool that they use to discover if a company or employee is compliant. The current SBA HUBZone map is the only provided reference, requiring a manual entry of addresses — not only for the company but for the employees as well. Imagine the time it would take to sit in front of a computer checking if 10 companies, with 20-40 employees each, were all HUBZone compliant. The SBA is currently in the process of launching SBA One, which will be a great tool to help automate a lot of their processes, but it does not manage HUBZone compliance.
To combat the dreaded spreadsheet, we built HUBFinder to be a complete, all-in-one, compliance management tool. Companies can use bulk uploaders and seamless controls to import, track, and manage their employees, employee locations, office locations, work hours, and other necessary data. The process is simplified by removing math equations from the user’s side. Instead, the tool asks questions to gather the necessary data and automatically run the needed calculations in the background.
The power of HUBFinder is that all company information is overlaid onto the new HUBZone map with instant checks to announce who is HUBZone and who is not. Forget using multiple browser tabs, documents, and spreadsheets to figure out current compliancy and strategize how business actions will affect compliancy — it is now easier than ever to strategize potential hires and moves with what-if calculation tools. Companies can simply enable or disable employees in the calculations, while preserving easily-reversible archives. The entire platform prioritizes visual displays of charts and maps, allowing companies to easily and visually track their to-the-minute compliancy with real-time metrics.
Freezing the Revolving Map: Proving Compliance
One large area of current frustration is that the SBA HUBZone map can be updated often throughout the year, since there are many different data sets that determine if a geographic area is a HUBZone tract or not. If a company were ever to get audited by the SBA, they would have to rely on matching their archived documents to the current SBA Map. If the SBA map had been updated 6-12 months from the last time the company did a HUBZone compliance report, the updated map could show that the company isn’t compliant, even if it had been at the time of the archived documents.
HUBFinder solves this issue by taking a snapshot each month of the current company status, list of employees, addresses, and hours. Additionally, a new feature is being developed to export a comprehensive snapshot of the map when a user exports their HUBZone Portfolio. With this tool, a map screenshot would be archived at each key milestone within the company — whether a new hire, a loss of an employee, or even a primary office location change. In the event of an audit, a company could then show the company’s history alongside a screenshot of the HUBZone map to prove compliance.
Turning Data into Actions: Embedded Alerts
Before HUBFinder, there wasn’t a way for companies to be alerted if their HUBZone status changed. We experienced firsthand how the lack of proper alerting, added to incorrect and confusing map data, directly affected companies in the HUBZone tract where our primary office resides.
Over a year ago, this qualified tract was rezoned to lose its HUBZone certification. As soon as companies in the tract found out, they began making and implementing plans to move office locations in order to keep their company’s HUBZone status. Several months later, somebody happened to check the SBA map and realized that the tract showed a qualified status again. After digging deeper, they discovered that there had been two overlapping tracts that had been merged. The duplicate tract was rezoned to lose its HUBZone status, the original was not. However, because of confusing information, incorrect mapping layers, and a lack of alerts, some companies had already moved away from the area.
Understandably, accurate alerting was one of the top features we wanted to see in HUBFinder. We created an email alert system embedded throughout the HUBFinder platform that notifies users if their compliancy has changed for any number of factors — such as a HUBZone Map update, the loss or addition of an employee, or the change of their Primary Office location. Companies can also receive alerts if any of their employee’s home locations change status.
What we’ve learned
Since our public beta launch, we have learned a lot about the HUBZone community. Most notably, we’ve been encouraged that we aren’t alone in struggling through HUBZone compliancy management, frustrations with understanding the program, and lack of tools to efficiently do business. We also quickly found out that building HUBFinder gave us an unique opportunity to be a voice in the community, something we don’t take lightly.
HUBFinder is currently free to all beta companies! You can claim your company profile today at hubfinder.io to join our beta group – all we ask in return is your feedback. Let us know how it does (or doesn’t) work for you. Together, we can make this government program more intuitive, seamless, and manageable.