NEW YORK CITY — For StellaService, a local tech company that helps other companies improve customer service, buying a decent coffee machine was the cherry on top of winning a $250,000 grant in 2013.
"It really allowed us to move into a much more comfortable space and get amenities that you think would be standard, but if you are a startup those things are not guaranteed," said Ty McMahan, StellaService's senior director of content.
At the time, the growing company had 20 employees packed into a 1,000-square-foot office in Flatiron. The grant helped facilitate its move to a wide-open space in Lower Manhattan.
StellaService won the grant in the Take the H.E.L.M competition, a New York City Economic Development Corporation initiative that aims to keep Lower Manhattan's economy bubbling.
The sweetener is just a fraction of what's available to small businesses in the form of grants and government contracts. This year, for example, the city's EDC will give away more than $35 million and Empire State Development has hundreds of millions in funding and loans.
Here are five ways to help your business access grants:
Tap the Services That Will Help You Apply for Grants
There are multiple government departments at every level — local, city, state and federal — as well as some private foundations and utility companies, that offer benefits that give businesses a leg up, according to Marsha Parris from New York Grant Company.
"There are benefits out there, but just tapping into it can be a little difficult," said Parris, who assists businesses with the grant application process. Once a business signs on as a client, the New York Grant Company sends them email alerts about grants for which they'd be a good fit, she said.
The website Grant Watch also allows businesses and nonprofits to keep tabs on funding through its listings, which are accessible with a paid subscription.
Empire State Development helps to connect New York City businesses to its dozens of programs through its New York State Small Business Development Centers located in Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn, according to Steven Cohen, who oversees the agency's small business program.
Organizations such as the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce also educate members on what's out there.
Applying for grants with the help of someone who has been through the process can be an advantage, according to Cohen from Empire State Development. The agency recently launched Business Mentor NY, an online platform that has so far connected 1,400 budding entrepreneurs and established business owners.
Consultants for hire, such as New York Grant Company, specialize in putting together applications for businesses. Also, the website Grant Writer Team is a platform that connects freelance grant writers with nonprofits and businesses looking for help with grant applications.
Put Together an Application That Appeals to the Grant's Purpose
StellaService won its grant after an application process that involved essays, in-person interviews and in the final round, a video, according to McMahan.
While the end result was worth it, the Take the H.E.L.M application "required input from every part of our business — finance, operations, marketing," he said.
Businesses often don't win because they don't connect their application to the end goal of most grants — creating jobs, according to Nancy Ploeger, executive director at Manhattan Chamber of Commerce.
"Whatever your story, the way you are telling it must come down to how you are supporting your job base," she said.
If a café wants to get a grant to widen its front window, connect that to how it can take care of its employees or allow you to hire more, Ploeger said. A wider window means more sunlit tables, which could lead to more income and eventually more jobs.
Get a Certification for a Minority or Woman-Owned Business Enterprises (MWBE)
If 51 percent of a business's ownership is in the hands of a minority or a woman, both New York City and New York State could certify it as a MWBE. One of the major benefits of such certification is being considered for more government contracts as well as those from private companies with a commitment to helping MWBEs.
In the 12 months from July 2013 to July 2014, about 25 percent of the state government's contracts were awarded to MWBEs. That number is up from 10 percent in 2010, according to Cohen from Empire State Development.
Even though it can be a rigorous process to get a certification with the state, city or both, most businesses don't make the most of it, according to Ploeger.
"Those that are working it, so to speak, that are out there marketing" are the companies who get the contracts, she said. While businesses get on MWBE directories, they still need to do outreach, contacting the agencies or prime contractors that are awarding the contracts.
Businesses at Crucial Stages of Growth Can Attract Grant Money
Businesses looking to grow or make big changes can be particularly attractive to grantors, according to Parris from New York Grant Company.
"What really triggers it is what the company is doing — hiring, investing in its facilities, relocating, signing a lease or purchasing a new building, installing new manufacturing equipment," she said.
For example, the city's Economic Development Corporation has the Fashion Manufacturing Initiative, which has grants worth up to $150,000 for spending on "infrastructure, equipment upgrades and workforce training" for fashion-related businesses.
A planned move to Lower Manhattan was the central requirement in the Take the H.E.L.M grant won by StellaService.
More Grants and Other Benefits Available to City Businesses
Here are some that were highlighted by experts:
This is one of the few grants that a business can win before it starts. Entrants must be Queens residents and be basing their business in Queens. Winners receive $10,000 in funding and applications close March 1 for 2015.
This grant from the city’s Economic Development Corporation is available to immigrant-entrepreneurs to "start, operate or expand" their business. The top prize winner gets $125,000.
This program from New York State gives businesses access to $460 million in reduced-rate loans that are earmarked for improving “competitiveness, market access and product development” through initiatives such as modernizing equipment, growing facilities or promoting job creation.
For eligible business and nonprofits that are working to maintain job levels or create new ones, Con Edison offers them low-cost power. Small businesses can also access free power usage surveys where technicians do a site visit and make recommendations on how to save on electricity and gas. Con Edison will then pay 70 percent of a private contractor's bill to implement the energy-saving recommendations.