It took about five years, a new wave of technology and almost 80 inches of snow to revamp a business-creation guidebook that debuted in the dot-com boom two decades back.
The Maryland Entrepreneur’s Guide, a source for starting and maintaining a business in the state, is now available online as a Wikibook as part of a joint effort by the Maryland State Bar Association Business Law Section, the Bar Association of Baltimore City and students at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.
With information on financing for start-ups, the source can also be used by attorneys looking to start their own law firms, said William A. McComas, a member of the MSBA’s Business Law Section. David Mcl. Williams, who also worked on the guide, said solo firms could use taxing authority contacts or real estate transaction contacts in the guide.
“Attorneys are starting a profession, but they are also starting a business,” Williams said.
The entrepreneur’s guide is divided into seven chapters providing information on private, state and federal financing programs, tax credit programs, chambers of commerce and business associations to contact and business enterprise programs. (To find the guide, go to wikibooks.org and search for “Maryland Entrepreneur’s Guide.”)
“The document can … be living and breathing as opposed to being published and out-of-date,” said Kenneth B. Abel, chair of the MSBA’s Business Law Section.
The guide was originally published in the early 1990s, under former dean Mark A. Sargent of what was then the University of Maryland School of Law.
The MSBA’s Business Law Section’s Emerging Companies Committee decided to update the book in 2007, but after working on the project for a couple years, members realized the information would be outdated by the time the guide was published, Abel said.
McComas said he uploaded the content to Wikibooks, a website that compiles textbooks online that people can add to and edit, while housebound during the snowstorms that rocked the East Coast in early 2010.
“It should be an index on offerings the state of Maryland has to offer,” said McComas, a partner at Shapiro Sher Guinot & Sandler.
McComas directly linked to the websites of organizations and resources from the Wikibook instead of listing phone numbers and street addresses, leaving blanks for information that hadn’t been collected yet, he said.
“The goal is to have it now as a middleware, a one-stop place,” McComas said.
Enter the students
Once the guide was online, Williams divided the guide’s contents into 10 portions and gave it to members of the Bar Association of Baltimore City’s Business Law Committee to edit and fill in the blanks McComas had left behind. Williams, an attorney at Gorman & Williams, is both on the committee at MSBA and the city bar’s business law committee.
During the process, several UM-Carey students heard about the project at a BABC meeting and decided they wanted to help, said third-year student Eric Hontz.
“There wasn’t really a one-stop shop that collected all that information, and I think the Wikibook format made my ears perk up,” Hontz said. “It provides incentives for organizations to come and keep information fresh. It’s a bottom-up approach.”
Hontz and two other law school students, Ameya Pardkar and Garland Rowland, reformatted the site to make it easier to use and more readable, Hontz said.
“It looked like a lawyer’s production until the University of Maryland students got involved,” McComas said.
For example, the Wikibook had been one infinite page users would scroll through. Hontz and his colleagues cut the information into smaller sections, he said.
The students added a table of contents and created links throughout the guide both to outside sources and to other pages within the Wikibook.
“We were brought in when the ball was at the 20-yard line,” Hontz said. “All we had to do was reformat it and make it look a little better.”
Hontz said he and his fellow law students largely finished the website this spring, but it is of course being continuously updated both by them and outside users.
Rowland checks any updates users add to the site before they are published. There is also an informal group of attorneys involved in creating the guide who check changes as well, a process that will be more organized in the future, McComas said.
The law students also update the printable PDF of the guide once a week, adding changes that have been made to the Wikibook.
This summer, the guide’s organizers will meet with government agencies and law firms to persuade them to link to the entrepreneur’s guide on their own websites, Hontz said.
The hope is that, in the future, the guide will be so widely used that outside organizations will regularly add the Wikibook themselves, Williams said.
“Our thesis is, the more people use the guide, the better the product is,” Williams said.