Good morning and welcome to On Small Business’s live blog of The Washington Post’s annual Small Business Forum.

The Washington Post Live team has lined up an excellent panel of small business owners, advocates and government leaders for today’s event, each of whom will address some of the challenges entrepreneurs are facing as well as the ways Washington can revitalize Main Street. The event coincides with National Small Business Week celebrations around the country – but the aim today is do more than celebrate; it’s to educate and debate, too.

Our panel of experts will be talking tax rates, health care reform, immigration legislation, and a host of other policy points, while the small business owners will illustrate how those and other day-to-day challenges are affecting their businesses. It’s an all-too-important debate right now, as the economic recovery continues to move slowly, without a ton of help from small businesses, one of its traditionally most reliable job engines.

So, follow along here on the live blog for updates and some analysis, and tune in to the panel live right here. If you have questions, email them to us at or tweet them to @OnSmallBiz or @PostLive, and we’ll try to raise them during the forum.

Entrepreneurship, fueled by employer discrimination

Many people would like to be their own boss. David von Storch says he had no other choice.

It was the only way he could succeed professionally but still be himself.

“Back in the ‘80s, being out as an openly gay person wasn’t even an option,” von Storch said during the forum, noting that his previous employer did not hide its discrimination.

“One of the senior members of the company came up to me and said ‘Hey David, I never see you with a girl, and I’m sure you’re not gay, because no one at this company would ever tolerate someone being gay,” he said.

It fueled him to start his own venture, where he would not have to worry about acceptance from an employer.

“Sometimes we start businesses for different reasons,” von Storch said. “Mine was a very personal reason.”

Does Obamacare hurt small businesses? A fierce debate

One of the most divisive issues among small businesses just took center stage at the forum, as two experts expressed very different views on Obamacare.

Small Business Majority’s John Arensmeyer called the law “a net-positive” for small businesses, arguing that small business insurance exchanges and tax credits in the legislation would give employers more flexibility and drive down costs.

He also said it’s time to “stop debating the merits” of the law and help educate business owners about changes coming next year. He said many are still ignorant about those changes and advocacy groups must help them prepare now.

Jean Card from the NFIB, which has fought hard against the president’s signature legislation, took issue with using “ignorance” and “small business” together in comments about health care reform. She argued that the law was hindering the growth of many small firms, many of whom have been paralyzed by a lack of information about how the law will affect their companies.

She noted that elements of those small business insurance exchanges (called SHOP exchanges), which she referred to as the “the one little glimmer of hope in this legislation,” have been delayed. Meanwhile, some insurance companies have started to drop out of the small business market, further eliminating some of the price competition the law was expected to create on Main Street.

“Their fears are starting to come true,” Card said on small business owners in her group’s network.

Small business recovery still painfully slow

Small business experts agree that Main Street has not yet recovered from the recession, but there are reasons to believe better times may be just around the corner.

“It’s been a very tough four years, and we are certainly not out of the woods yet,” John Arensmeyer, head of the Small Business Majority, said during the forum.

Jean Card of the NFIB echoed the same sentiment, noting that “uncertainty is still a major concern” for business owners, adding that her group’s monthly small business optimism reports have looked more like “pessimism reports.”

Still, Arensmeyer said recent polls show entrepreneurs have a sense of “cautious optimism” about the near future, and that hiring and expansion plans are starting to trend higher again. So while the small business sector is not back to full strength yet, it is starting to get healthier again.



Meet the small business policy experts

Now it’s time for our expert panel. Here’s a look who will be weighing on the intersection of Washington and Main Street:

Jean Card, Vice President of Media and Communications at the National Federation of Independent Business:

John Arensmeyer, President and CEO of the Small Business Majority:

Michael Chodos, Associate Administrator for the Office of Entrepreneurial Development at the U.S. Small Business Administration:
Though each of the individuals above share a similar mission – to support small business interests in Washington – they have starkly different views on some of the issues.

The NFIB tends to support conservative platforms in Washington, having led a charge to repeal President Obama’s signature health care law last year (the group is still looking to strike down parts of the legislation) and strongly opposing Democrats’ push to raise taxes on the wealthy at the start of this year. A number of critics of the group have cited funding reports from groups run by Carl Rove and others in attempts to link the group with Republican views.

On the other side of the coin, John Arensmeyer and the Small Business Majority have leaned to the left on most policy points. His group has strongly defended Obamacare and the president’s efforts to protect entitlement programs, even if it means raising taxes for some Americans. His group has been linked to liberal groups both through funding streams and via its support of other organizations.

Chodos is likely to defend the administration’s small business efforts, as well, given his role at the SBA.

Keep an especially close watch when the conversation turns to some of the policy issues on which these experts do not see eye-to-eye.

Concerns over payroll taxes, the IRS

One area where policymakers could significantly help small firms is by simplifying the tax code, according to our first panel of business owners.

Amy Nichols of Dogtopia bemoaned payroll tax headaches that she said weigh on many entrepreneurs and sometimes discourage individuals from launching a business, or at least one with employees. It’s one of the reasons, she said, many entrepreneurial professionals continue to work for others (in consultant roles, etc.) rather than setting out on their own.

“Small business owners live in fear of the IRS,” Nichols said.

Nichols and Heidi Kallet of The Dandelion Patch urged policymakers to take any steps necessary to alleviate some of that fear and encourage non-employer firms to expand and begin creating jobs.



Challenges for women-owned businesses

Both Amy Nichols of Dogtopia and Heidi Kallet of The Dandelion Patch detailed some of the unique challenges facing female entrepreneurs during their time on stage.

Nichols explained that real estate agents and building contractors made life a little more difficult for her as she was searching for a home for her first location. In many cases, she said, their is still a stigma against firms run by women.

Nichols noted women receive a much smaller share of private equity than firms owned by men, but she said not all of the blame lies with investors. She said some women often “do not ask for as much” and sometimes do not value their ventures as highly.

Moreover, Kallet said not enough women come into entrepreneurship with a business background, which can also stunt their business growth. She advised other female entrepreneurs to get at least some formal financial and business training before jumping headfirst into a business venture.


Rep. Chris Collins on “creating a better environment” for small business

Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) took the stage first at the event, urging his colleagues in Congress and the administration to take steps to “create an environment…that helps small business create jobs.”

Collins highlighted two changes that he believes are burdening small firms – the Dodd-Frank banking regulations and the president’s health care law. On Obamacare, which he called a “train wreck,” Collins said what’s known as the “employer mandate” portion of the law (requiring firms with more than 50 employees to provide coverage) has deterred firms from hiring new employees and expanding their businesses.

He suggested small business owners would be far better off if lawmakers simply struck down the law and started over on health care reform; not a likely scenario, but still a popular position among many Republicans.

Collins added that he believes tax rates are still too high, arguing that tax hikes on the wealthy earlier this year have hit a disproportionate number of business owners, who often find themselves in higher tax brackets. The result, he said, is less capital in their hands, and less investments back into their companies.

“My worry is that, in Washington, we have gotten in the way of job creation,” he said.

Meet the small business owners

Before we get started, here’s a quick rundown of the small business owners you are going to hear from at the forum today:

Heidi Kallett owns The Dandelion Patch, an upscale stationery retailer with locations in a stationery store with locations in Leesburg, Georgetown, Reston and Vienna. She bought her first store in 2005, and in the first five years, she grew annual sales from $125,000 to $2.5 million.

Heidi also serves as a board member for the Association of Wedding Professionals and was recently elected president of the National Association of Women Business Owners.

Here’s Kallet’s bio and a profile on The Dandelion Patch.

Amy Nichols owns Dogtopia, a “dog daycare” business based in Tysons Corner, Va. Shortly after opening the first location in 2004, Nichols started franchising nationally; there are now 23 locations in the United States.

The company has been listed in the INC 5000 list of the fastest growing companies for three consecutive years, and it now generates $11 million in revenue annually.

Here’s Nichols’s bio and a profile on Dogtopia.

Nizam Ali took co-ownership of the Ben’s Chili Bowl after graduating from law school at the University of Maryland. Opened in 1958 with a $5,000 loan, the U Street restaurant has become a staple in the District.

Ali now co-owns Ben’s Next Door and helped open Ben’s Gift Shops at Nationals Park and FedEx Field. He also co-authored a book, titled Ben’s Chili Bowl: 50 Years of a Washington DC Landmark.

Here’s Ali’s bio and a story about Ben’s Chili Bowl.

David von Storch owns Urban Adventures, which competes in three markets: health and wellness, beauty and style, and dining and entertainment. Its offshoots include VIDA Fitness centers, Aura Spa, Bang Salon and Penthouse Pool Club, all in the District.

Before Urban Adventures, David started the DAKOTA Nightclub/MONTANA Cafe, a restaurant and nightclub in the Adams Morgan neighborhood in Washington.

Here’s von Storch’s bio and a profile on Urban Adventures.

Watch the live stream of the event right here – starting in just a few minutes!