Deirdre McMurdy

Given the wobbly state of the economy these days, debt and risk are two things you're probably not terribly eager to embrace. Still, for those with a solid idea, a clear plan and steely nerves, it is actually a very good time to start a small business.

In fact, some of the most famous names in business — think Microsoft, FedEx, CNN, Disney, General Electric — were created in a period of severe economic retrenchment.

In part, that because opportunities tend to surface during times of uncertainty and flux, there is improved access to equipment, space and talent at lower costs, and there is often an emergence of new niche markets and casualties among competitors. Not only is low-cost technology now available, it also makes it possible for start-ups to be faster and more responsive than ever before.

This time around, there is also political overlay that's building awareness — and resolve — on the financial side.

In January, the Harper government declared that 2011 is the The Year of the Entrepreneur in Canada, noting that small and medium-sized businesses "will play a greater role in securing our fragile economic recovery."

That rhetoric, designed to appeal to a carefully targeted group of voters, has been accompanied by a shopping list of well-funded programs such as the $15 million-a-year Canada Business network, the $1 billion-a-year Canada Small Business Financing Program, the $10 million Canadian Youth Business Foundation and a steady focus on reducing taxes for small businesses (the 11 per cent rate is now applicable to $500,000 of income, up from $300,000) and elimination of red tape and bureaucratic delay. The Prime Minister himself launched a federal Red Tape Reduction Commission in January (insert joke here about bureaucrats in charge of reducing red tape.)

Chances are that there will be at least a nominal further nod to small business start-ups and empowerment in the upcoming federal budget.

Yet another way that Ottawa is supporting the development of new ventures is through the Business Development Bank, a Crown corporation. In its last fiscal year, BDC extended a record number of loans to small business owners, topping out at $4.4 billion.

Although loaning to small businesses is always a politically expedient consideration for a regulated chartered bank, the recent credit crunch has made some of them less amenable. According to a survey conducted for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business last year, loan applications are facing the toughest scrutiny since 2000, with one in five being rejected.