Imagine it’s 2016 and you want to open a small restaurant in Buffalo, New York. Before Business Express, obtaining licenses and permits to operate in New York required navigating a labyrinth of state agencies, each requesting similar information. For example, an entrepreneur starting a restaurant must obtain approvals from or submit filings to the Department of State, the Department of Taxation and Finance, the Department of Labor, the Workers Comp Board, the State Liquor Authority, and the Department of Health. About 70% of the information requested is duplicative across agencies.
With no single point of contact, businesses were left to fend for themselves and often resort to hiring lawyers and consultants to manage what should be a relatively simple process. The lack of user-friendly information online often resulted in incomplete filings, which only compounded delays and further frustrated applicants.
This is why me and my team at New York State (NYS) Governor’s Office decided to create NY Business. The goal of the NY business Express project was to simplify the business formation process in New York.
The project had three components:
- A single, user-friendly online portal for all business and occupational licensing activities, including a new Consolidated Business Application, as well as information on incentives and other support services.
- A single number for all licensing questions and support services, similar to NYC 311.
- A single cross-agency business formation and license processing team.
I was a product owner of the initiative and a key decision-maker responsible for driving the strategic vision (leading BPR, aligning all stakeholders, forming coalitions) and tactical organizational pieces of the project (overseeing a team of 10 Business Analysts and documenting specs).
For our prototype, we decided to focus on only one persona: a prospective small business owner who wants to open a restaurant in Buffalo, NY. Our goal was to just simplify the first steps of business formation.
First, we gathered the “voice of the customer” by conducting interviews and observational research in the field. Our goal was to understand people’s relationship and perception of government and its support services for the business community. We wanted to know how they talked about problems with their friends, family, and fellow entrepreneurs, what channels they used and trusted to receive and send information about government services.
We realized that there were two main pain points in the business formation process:
- Prospective business owners don’t know where to start and which government agency to go to. As a result, they often used third-party organizations (like LegalZoom) and paid excessive fees for free services.
- Once they found their way, they complained about the amount of paperwork they were asked to complete and the duplication of efforts along the way.
I also sought to better understand the perspective of government administrators, reporting lines, incentives, and institutional structures within the State government. We produced a value-stream map analyzing the flow of documentation through the 5 agencies involved in the initial licensing of a restaurant business.
The First Prototype
We solved the two main problems by creating:
- A simple checklist for new restaurant owners: summary of the path to licensing a restaurant in New York State, including a list of required forms and transactions, estimated timeframe, total cost, etc.
- Single consolidated application: one application combining all of the licensing forms required at the start of the restaurant business (Department of State, Department of Tax and Finance, Department of Labor, Department of Workers Compensation and State Liquor Authority)
The prototype was far from perfect – it was still a paper application that required manual processing. However, the idea of having only one application (as opposed to 5+ applications) was incredibly well received. This positive feedback urged us to improve and scale this project.
We invested the next 6 months to build businessexpress.ny.gov – an online portal with comprehensive information for starting or expanding New Yorker’s business venture. To this day, the portal remains the state’s primary online guide to help you start, run, and grow a business in New York. The information is organized and presented using customized tools that make it easy to find.