OpenCounter: Open for Business

This post is part of a series to celebrate the Code for America Accelerator companies.

OpenCounter’s mission is to empower entrepreneurs and foster local economic development by simplifying the process of registering a business.

Economic development happens in many forms, from projects like the revitalization of the Brooklyn Navy Yard or Hudson Rail Yards in New York City, to campaigns to encourage residents to shop at local merchants. While the majority of headlines will focus on a City’s effort to secure a major new employer (think Apple’s 1,000,000 square foot expansion in Austin, Texas), most economic development and job creation happens on a much smaller scale, as individuals stake their financial futures on creating a new product, store, service or firm.


The statistical evidence is overwhelming. According to the SBA, 552,600 small businesses are created in the United States each year, and account for 99.7 percent of U.S. employer firms and 64 percent of net new private-sector jobs.

But these new businesses aren’t in a position to accept tax breaks on capital equipment or enter into complex development and disposition agreements to build new offices or stores. Many new businesses can’t even meet the underwriting criteria of SBA backed revolving-loan programs. Competition for local grants for facade improvements or signage assistance can be fierce.

To make matters worse, many entrepreneurs are baffled when they confront City Hall for the first time. Intent on finding their product:market fit and meeting their milestones, entrepreneurs frequently have little to no background in land use processes or business permitting.

Our Solution

Despite many cities’ genuine efforts to be “business-friendly,” their default user interface consists of florescent-lit formica, waiting lines, and stacks of forms. Online resources often remind one of a phone book, with little interactivity or specialization based on either the businesses’ function or location within a jurisdiction.

That’s why we built OpenCounter.

OpenCounter helps entrepreneurs get their businesses up and running more quickly and easily by providing an online interface to the permitting process at City Hall.

OpenCounter asks the right questions, in the right order, so business owners see the requirements, fees, and processing time that will apply to their planned use and location.

If you’re a restaurateur, you’ll get information on health permits, grease traps and signage permits. If you’re a hotelier, you’ll learn how to register for Transit Occupancy Tax (a.k.a Hotel Tax). If you’re a retailer, we’ll explain how to set up your sales tax accounts.

We think that by making it easier for entrepreneurs to get started, OpenCounter helps cities establish early, healthy relationships with these job creators, so that as these new businesses grow and become eligible for other forms of business assistance, the City is already a valued partner.

Why Are We Coding for America?

That’s simple. OpenCounter’s roots flow from Code for America. Joel Mahoney, was an inaugural fellow in 2011, embedded in the City of Boston’s office of New Urban Mechanics. He later served as a technical advisor to the organization. Peter Koht, formerly of the City of Santa Cruz, helped to bring the first iteration of OpenCounter to the City of Santa Cruz during the 2012 Fellowship year.

Got Comments or Questions? See what we’re up to at or visit a live version of our software at Follow us on Twitter at @opencounter or drop us a line at [email protected]

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