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As small firms shutter due to COVID, Some have adapted. Here's how they did it. - Soapbox Cincinnati

As small firms shutter due to COVID, Some have adapted. Here's how they did it. - Soapbox Cincinnati


As small firms shutter due to COVID, Some have adapted. Here's how they did it. - Soapbox Cincinnati

Posted: 05 Oct 2020 09:02 PM PDT

Starting a small business has never been for the faint of heart.

The worry list is long: Where to locate? Will it be profitable? Who will buy what we're selling?

Although that list is already lengthy, a global pandemic has never been on it.

Until this year.

COVID-19 was added to the list in February when the coronavirus emerged, and it rose to the top of it in March when lots of businesses were ordered to close and people stayed home.

Months later, with the virus still surging, many small businesses haven't made it. But others have, as their owners discovered ways to adapt to doing business in the COVID Era.

Rudy Harris and his wife, Tammi, own Harris Media, and things were going well for the Northern Kentucky video production firm. So well that in February they decided to move from a small space in Covington, and buy a 4,500-square foot space on Monmouth Street in Newport, a 100-plus-year-old place that had a colorful history as a brewery, a bar, and a grocery, among other incarnations. It needed a lot of work.

Then the virus emerged, grew, and never left.

"We were pretty fearful," Rudy says.

But they pressed on, gradually renovating the building, and staying in touch with their clients, which include Kroger, St. Elizabeth Healthcare, and Fox Sports.

For them, a year that has seem almost cursed has been one of their best ever.

Pre-COVID, many of their clients held frequent large meetings, conferences, and events. Those are now a thing of the past. But as Rudy says, "Marketing never stops." Those businesses needed to stay in front of their customers, and Harris Media was able to adapt and help them do that.

Big conferences and events have all gone virtual now and Harris Media provides high-quality video to stream these happenings to reach audiences online and on social media.

St. Elizabeth Healthcare for example, just opened a $140 million cancer center that has been years in the planning and construction. It had scheduled days of events to launch the center, including an open house, a blessing by the Catholic bishop, and a ribbon cutting. Those all became virtual, five days of events streamed live on St. E's Facebook page and recorded by the Harris Media team.

That's how Harris Media turned a pandemic into profit.

"It's definitely been an opportunity for us," Rudy says.

Stephanie Webster is a former high school biology teacher whose interest in microscopic life and fermentation eventually led her to open The Rhined, a shop that sells artisanal cheese and natural wines across the street from Findlay Market in Over-the-Rhine.

The shop is small but had a bar and a few tables where, on weekends especially, a dozen or so people at a time could hang out, sip wine, and sample cheeses. Findlay Market visitors and tourists would stop in after shopping and relax with a glass or two.

A cheese board from The Rhined.Then COVID happened. No more cheese tasting or sipping wine at the bar.

A couple of years ago, Stephanie and her husband, Dave, had also purchased Oakley Wines, a wine bar in that east side neighborhood. That too was in jeopardy.

It was so worrisome that Dave reached out to his former employer and inquired about the possibility of coming back. They thought about closing both places permanently and going to live with Stephanie's parents in Savannah.

But they persisted. "We couldn't just lay everyone off and head to the beach," she says. "Although it definitely crossed our minds."

The Rhined was considered a grocery and could have stayed open during the March shutdown, but because of the tight quarters there, the Websters closed it to customers and went online only. Over a couple of days in mid-March, they listed everything they sold online, and a couple of cheesemongers became delivery drivers.

"We've been trying to get an online shop up for two years and were forced to do it in 48 hours to pivot," Stephanie says.

At Oakley Wines, tastings and private events had been popular but the pandemic put an end to those, and the Websters closed that shop for a while.

But in the downtime, they added tables and chairs in the alley next door, enough to seat about 20, and re-opened in June. The outdoor seating has brought the guests back during a season that was previously a slow one for the shop when it was all indoors.

"We're actually up in gross sales compared to last summer," Stephanie says.

Kash Shaikh started BeSomebody in 2015 as a personal blog. It transformed into a company connecting people with personal experiences, then transformed into a business that trained people in job-specific roles, contracting to do that with big companies such as Kroger.

It became one of Cincinnati's fastest growing companies and was named to the Inc. 5000 list of the nation's fastest-growing small businesses, ranking No. 49 for the three-year period of 2016-2019.

Its calling card was onsite, in-person job training, but that became impossible with the spread of COVID, combined with the social unrest gripping cities and big businesses struggling to improve their commitments to hiring diversity and racial inclusion. Shaikh and his team seized on that opportunity and transformed BeSomebody yet again to a provider of diversity training and education.

At the beginning of this year, Shaikh started another company, BSB Group International, a marketing and events agency. But when pandemic grew, businesses cancelled events and cut back on their marketing budgets.

"Seventy-five percent of our work would have been or was cancelled because of the pandemic," Shaikh says.

≠That could have been lethal to a startup. But, "We battened down the hatches," he says.

Shaikh asked his leadership team, "What do we know about the current environment, and what can we forecast will happen if we bring to life new initiatives to our partners in the COVID environment?"

They built a business-to-business specialty, helping companies understand COVID protocols, testing strategies, return-to-work strategies, and consulting on communications from leadership.

The group helped Kroger roll out COVID test sites over the spring and summer, and worked with clients to shift marketing plans, strategies, and messaging to acknowledge and respond to this new era.

"Everybody has been forced to move at light speed," Shaikh says. "We always knew we had to be fast; it's part of our DNA. But the speed at which we had to pivot to protect our business, to protect our payroll, to protect our team, is something I'm really proud of."

What these entrepreneurs have in common is optimism, a trait that's not taught in business school but is essential to managing through crises.

Starting a small business has always been a risky proposition. Even in "normal" times, about 20 percent fail in their first year and half them die by the fifth year. Online reviewer Yelp released data in September that showed nearly 100,000 small businesses have permanently closed just over the last six months.

"There's going to be businesses going out of business, it's the nature of the beast," says Lisa Brann, a business coach with the Kentucky Small Business Development Center's Covington office.

"COVID has created another challenge for us," she says. "You've got to have that optimism to get to the next level."

Pete Blackshaw, CEO of Cincinnati entrepreneurship hub Cintrifuse, calls it the "startup mindset," and urges all small firms, not just startups, to adopt it.

"A startup mindset is different than a conventional leadership mindset," he says. "It prizes speed, rapid prototyping, constant iteration, and failing fast to learn fast."

According to Blackshaw, that mindset will help small firms to get through this crisis — and the inevitable next one.

"We must look beyond the present to a future that is going to be even more demanding than the moment we're living in today," he says.

This is the second in a three-part series on how COVID-19 will change the Cincinnati Region with expanding supply chain innovation, retooling jobs, and small business adaptation. It is made possible with funding from Google's Journalism Emergency Relief Fund.

SBA Awards Up to $3 Million in Grants to Organizations Supporting Small Business Innovation and R&D Commercialization - GlobeNewswire

Posted: 18 Sep 2020 12:00 AM PDT

Washington, Sept. 18, 2020 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- The U.S. Small Business Administration granted 24 awards up to $125,000 each for specialized training, mentoring, and technical assistance for R&D-focused small businesses under the Federal and State Technology (FAST) Partnership Program administered by the SBA's Office of Innovation and Technology. FAST seeks to improve outcomes in the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Programs for underserved communities by increasing participation from women-owned, rural-based, and socially economically disadvantaged small businesses.  "Our FAST partners address the unique needs of next-generation, high-tech small businesses. The program supports innovative entrepreneurs from underserved communities by helping them start and grow—a primary mission for SBA," said SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza.  "Programs like FAST are more critical than ever as the SBA is laser-focused on helping small businesses recover and once again propel the national economy forward. The SBIR and STTR funding can be the early seed capital to jumpstart companies today and make them successful in the future.  Some of our nation's leading technology firms got their start with SBIR funding, and FAST is helping expand those opportunities to other entrepreneurs."The FAST Partnership Program provides one-year of funding to organizations that team up with others in their state to help build the innovation ecosystem that is key to helping grow the tech economy in that state. Current law only allows one proposal per state and territory. Candidates are endorsed by their state and territorial governors.  Proposals are evaluated by panels of reviewers from SBA and the SBIR participating agencies. Varying levels of matching funds are required, based on the number of SBIR Phase I awards in each state.Recipients this year cover a wide geographic area and include state and local economic development entities, Small Business Technology Development Centers, Women's Business Centers, Procurement Technical Assistance Centers, incubators, accelerators, colleges, and universities. All entities will provide support to small businesses developing high-risk technologies. The FAST grantees are as follows:                                            Awardees – 20/21 Cohort-###-About FASTIn FY 2020, $3 million was appropriated as grants for entities to carry out targeted activities from September 30, 2020, through September 29, 2021. Entities from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, and American Samoa are eligible to receive funding to provide outreach, technical, and financial assistance in support of the SBIR/STTR programs. Additional information can be found at www.sbir.gov/about-fast. About SBIR/STTR SBA coordinates the SBIR/STTR programs, also known as America's Seed Fund, which for FY 2020 will have more than $4 billion in early stage seed capital which will result in over 7,000 awards to small businesses. Eleven participating federal agencies announce funding opportunities as either grants or contracts to address their research and development needs. Companies supported by the SBIR/STTR programs often generate some of the most important breakthroughs each year in the U.S. Additional information about the programs, as well as past and current topics can be found at www.sbir.gov.About the U.S. Small Business Administration
The U.S. Small Business Administration makes the American dream of business ownership a reality. As the only go-to resource and voice for small businesses backed by the strength of the federal government, the SBA empowers entrepreneurs and small business owners with the resources and support they need to start, grow or expand their businesses, or recover from a declared disaster. It delivers services through an extensive network of SBA field offices and partnerships with public and private organizations. To learn more, visit https://www.sba.gov.Tiffani Clements United States Small Business Administration 202-401-0035 Tiffani.Clements@sba.gov

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