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Keys to growing a small business in a pandemic: Research and marketing

Carl Hadden, of USF’s business development center, has seen entrepreneurs struggle in 2020, but also survive and expand. Here’s how.

Not long ago, Carl Hadden and his wife were on a weekend beach getaway from their home in Lake Wales when they noticed a favorite local restaurant had gone out of business.

“Hopefully they do reopen, and the next time we go to the beach, it’ll be there,” Hadden said. “But it’s challenging, because that was a very small place. Even when we went there when it was open, just looking at their dining area, it would be difficult to squeeze a lot of people in there.”

Watching small businesses struggle during the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t been easy on Hadden, an associate director at the Florida Small Business Development Center at the University of South Florida. Hadden and his fellow small business consultants advise entrepreneurs on topics like fundraising, marketing and disaster preparedness, all at little or no cost.

This year, though, most of the organization’s focus has been on helping businesses stay afloat, whether it’s by pivoting to new revenue streams (like a restaurant shifting to takeout) or seeking federal aid (like Paycheck Protection Program or Economic Industry Disaster loans).

Recently, Hadden shared some of what he’s learned — and passed along to clients — during the pandemic. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

As small businesses build out their budgets for next year, how are they factoring in the effects of the pandemic?

One of the services we offer right now is a COVID preparedness and reopening plan — helping businesses build a way to incorporate all of the CDC and Department of Health guidelines into their operations, so as they reopen, they can do so safely. I had one client who had a tanning business, and when it was time to open it back up again, the conversation was, “What are we selling on the other side of COVID?” You already have customers; they already use your services. Now you have to convince them it’s safe to partake in those services. So it’s really changing the marketing message. Safety becomes a competitive advantage.

Is the mindset all about survival right now? Or are there entrepreneurs out there looking to start new businesses, or expand what they currently do?

Yes there are, and that has been encouraging, that in spite of the struggle, the entrepreneurial spirit of our community is alive. There are entrepreneurs who are looking to take advantage of opportunities that were created within this struggle.

What types of businesses are ripe for growth right now?

One that recently reached out was a medical transport company. I was talking to a business owner yesterday who has a window and glass company. They’re incredibly busy, and actually could be busier if they could get some more folks on board. They’ve actually had to turn away some jobs because they just haven’t had people to do the work.

How are small business owners making new connections in the COVID-19 era? Classic, old-school networking is out, I imagine.

Yeah, face-to-face networking is rare, if it’s happening at all. Some of the services we offer include search engine optimization and website reviews. We have experts on social media marketing. Businesses who may have dabbled in that, or maybe just had a website or a Facebook page but never really used it, are now refocusing on that.

If you had the resources to start a business right now, would you? Or would you wait until 2021?

I would have to sit down and build a business plan and really see if the numbers made sense. Because you don’t want to make an emotional decision. If you turn on the evening news, you might be like, “Man, there’s no way I’m going to open a business right now.” But the local market doesn’t always follow what you see in the national news. Florida doesn’t always follow national trends. The demands of the market within your local community may vary from what you see on TV, so you really need to do your research and work to build a plan and make sure the projections make sense.

Have you noticed a change in how people are preparing for hurricane season this year, just because everyone’s focus has been elsewhere?

Most people aren’t even talking about it. I’d like to say that’s different from previous years, but it seems like people prepare for a hurricane as a hurricane is approaching. But our message is, plan now. Because disaster preparedness can be a competitive advantage as well. The quicker you can reopen after a disaster, the quicker you can meet the needs of your community.

As an organization whose entire mission is getting small businesses get off the ground and growing, what’s it like for you to see so many lay people off or go out of business?

As hard as you try to keep that emotional distance from your clients, it does wear on you, and that has been a challenge within the organization. We’ve worked very hard to continue to motivate and encourage and support our consultants so that they can provide services to the community. I’m very proud of how our team’s responded. They’ve stepped up. They’ve put in extra time.

Florida SBDC at USF

Entrepreneurs seeking assistance from the Florida Small Business Development Center at the University of South Florida can reach out at sbdctampabay.com.

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