It shouldn't be this difficult

Starting a business is hard. In Santa Cruz, like other cities, getting started meant applying for permits, understanding zoning regulations, and navigating city code. Entrepreneurs had to meet with many departments. Each had their own forms, fees, and procedures. Some people hired consultants. Others just gave up.

Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane knew that small businesses were the heart of his community. He asked a team of Code for America fellows to help the city reduce confusion by putting instructions to start a business online. Together they built OpenCounter, a digital permit office open 24-7.

By presenting and collecting data in a logical, plain language fashion, OpenCounter will help to reduce confusion, set realistic expectations, and help more people achieve their dream of opening their own business in Santa Cruz.

— Mayor Don Lane, City of Santa Cruz

Starting a business

For entrepreneurs in Santa Cruz, opening a business started with a trip to city hall — and conversations with seven different departments. Penny Ice Creamery found they needed 20 permits before they could start serving customers: a certificate of occupancy, a zoning clearance permit, a fictitious business filing, a reseller’s permit, etc.

“[The City of Santa Cruz] gets folks who don’t know where to start,” said Peter Koht , a city economic development coordinator. “We walk them through getting a planning permit, filling for a business license, meeting special requirements.”

<p>A screenshot of the Open Counter application.</p>

A screenshot of the Open Counter application.

Koht worked for a team that coordinated all of the city staff who signed off on business permits. They were spread across the planning, building, finance, and utilities departments. Each staff member shepherded entrepreneurs through one step in the process, then sent them on to the next office.

But entrepreneurs were surprised at how many departments were involved, permits were required, and fees were incurred. They felt locked out of the process.

Open 24-7

To clear things up, city officials partnered with Code for America fellows to meet with entrepreneurs and understand their needs.

We wanted to put some of those [permitting] functions online as a force multiplier. The information needs to be accessible 24/7. We help people navigate some very confusing regulatory structures without having to read and learn the municipal code.

— Peter Koht, Economic Coordinator at City of Santa Cruz

The fellows found that simplifying business permitting required a different way of thinking — understanding what people needed and presenting that information in plain language with good design.

With a full understanding of the business permit pipeline, city officials and the fellowship team built OpenCounter. Finally, the most important steps were available around the clock, online for anyone to complete.

“OpenCounter doesn’t change our rules or review process, but it does reorient an entrepreneur's relationship to them,” Former Santa Cruz Mayor Lane said. “By presenting and collecting data in a logical, plain language fashion, OpenCounter will help to reduce confusion, set realistic expectations, and help more people achieve their dream of opening their own business in Santa Cruz.”

OpenCounter is now a full-fledged company. Entrepreneurs in cities across the U.S. can go online to answer a series of questions to find the permits and licenses they needed. Now, new business owners can know the estimated fees and processing time before they step foot in a city office.

You can review the original open source code on GitHub.