Timely Connections Make a Difference

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on October 4th, 2018.  Who you know is often more important than what you know. Making good connections is crucial through all stages of business, but it’s especially critical during the startup phase when prospective entrepreneurs… Read more »

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This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on October 4th, 2018. 

Who you know is often more important than what you know.

Making good connections is crucial through all stages of business, but it’s especially critical during the startup phase when prospective entrepreneurs struggle with many unknowns. They might not know how to calculate the costs of going into business, or how to effectively apply for a loan. They likely aren’t familiar with real estate, how to find a business location, negotiate a favorable lease, or gauge the qualities of potential landlords.

Too often, fledgling entrepreneurs don’t adequately research regulatory requirements to understand zoning issues, permits required, how much time and money it will take to meet conditions for a certificate of occupancy, and whether they will have to obtain special licenses or authorizations.

Existing businesses too can benefit from timely connections. It might be for fundamentals such as finding reputable professionals – attorneys, accountants or bookkeepers. Maybe they’re looking for collaborative marketing opportunities or smart practices to improve operations. Perhaps they need strategic guidance to move into new markets such as government contracting or international trade. It could be for HR guidance for expansion hiring or to solve a thorny personnel issue.

Alexandria’s unique business support network can step up to be helpful when owners encounter these or other similar questions. Economic development and business support organizations in Alexandria are particularly attuned to small business challenges because small businesses are such a vital part of our economy and character. Quickly responding to businesses when they need answers creates an environment where they make their necessary contacts and still keep their focus on core activities.

Alexandria’s economic development, business, and city government organizations are more closely coordinated and integrated than in most other localities. That coordination is not perfect, and Alexandria businesses still encounter frustrations, but our business support network meets at least monthly to identify problems and work towards improvements. Those engaged include the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, Visit Alexandria, the Small Business Development Center, the Chamber, city government staff, and neighborhood business associations.

The Alexandria Small Business Development Center operates at the core of that small business support network. Through its staff and website, and the relationship with our economic development partners, we can help entrepreneurs find resources at each step of their life cycle. We see this as one of our most important functions for business productivity.

The Kauffman Foundation highlights the importance of communities fostering entrepreneurial connectivity to enhance economic vitality and create an environment in which entrepreneurship tends to thrive. Stakeholders include entrepreneurs, government, banks, investors, nonprofits, academia, veterans and the support organizations critical to business daily needs.

The ideal entrepreneurial ecosystem also encourages connectivity among businesses, whether its clusters of interdependent businesses or affiliations of entrepreneurs who like to know and network with one another. Continuing to focus on how to best foster entrepreneurial connectivity is important as we look to the future of our city. As a community, we create the connections that make Alexandria great for businesses and citizens alike.

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Look Before You Lease

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on September 6, 2018.  Some of the chief disrupters to businesses momentum involve real estate. First there’s the challenge of finding the ideal location – appealing and convenient for customers and where your business activity is… Read more »

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This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on September 6, 2018. 

Some of the chief disrupters to businesses momentum involve real estate.

First there’s the challenge of finding the ideal location – appealing and convenient for customers and where your business activity is permitted. Too often businesspeople make these decisions emotionally and rush to sign a lease without due diligence. Real estate matters are complex, and it behooves us to get expert guidance.

The first stop should be the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership. Nobody is more conversant with the city’s real estate than the staff of the city’s economic development program. Describe to them your ideal space needs and target market, and they will share their expertise on what types of businesses work best in which neighborhoods and have synergy with other types businesses. They will also discuss how those neighborhoods and businesses – and others you might not have considered – are likely to evolve over time.

The next essential is a well-connected commercial broker, and the economic development staff can make those referrals. Tenant brokers go beyond just being “space finders” but, even in that capacity, they are likely to produce more options for you because they have access to many more properties than you’d find through a Google search. And they cost you nothing – their commission is folded into the transaction costs that the landlord pays.

A knowledgeable broker will do a careful needs assessment, drilling down to the characteristics of the property most essential to your business while considering your budget constraints. They will then begin a targeted search, freeing you to stay focused on your business.  Another area where business owners sometimes get tripped up are the actual costs of occupying space.  The utilities, insurance, taxes, sewer, and trash, for example, vary from building to building and can be complicated. A qualified broker can break those down so you can compare one property with another.

Property owners usually hold most of the market knowledge, but when it’s time to negotiate, the broker knows market rates and has the expertise to get the best deal for you. They also pay attention to things you might not otherwise consider – the landlord delivering the property in good order; rent concessions if you need to manage construction costs or your occupancy is procedurally delayed; and provisions to better position you for lease renewals or changes to market conditions.

Some of the costliest business heartaches could have been avoided had business owners used a commercial broker in the search and negotiation process, an attorney to review their lease and possibly help them through permitting hurdles, and an architect for planning purposes. Small business owners are typically short of cash, but these expenses are sound investments that save money down the road.

One final suggestion is to consider consulting with the Alexandria Small Business Development Center. We can provide objective feedback; connect you to commercial brokers, attorneys, accountants, insurance agents, city facilitators, and qualified architects and contractors; as well as put together a solid financing plan for your business. And our services are without cost!

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Are you Ready for the Holiday Marketing Season?

This blog post was written by Ray Sidney-Smith of W3 Consulting. It may come as a surprise from Small Business owners to start thinking about holiday marketing planning before Labor Day. But, now is the time to start planning the holiday marketing campaigns you want to be successful for this coming fall and winter holidays… Read more »

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This blog post was written by Ray Sidney-Smith of W3 Consulting.

It may come as a surprise from Small Business owners to start thinking about holiday marketing planning before Labor Day. But, now is the time to start planning the holiday marketing campaigns you want to be successful for this coming fall and winter holidays season. Alexandria Small Business Development Center hosted a series in partnership with Visit Alexandria about holiday marketing planning, as well as the Business Development Roundtable (which happens every third Tuesday at noon at the SBDC) just passed this week on “Planning Ahead for the Holidays.” Here are some of the vital thoughts about early holiday marketing planning.

Walkable towns: Alexandria, Va.

Choose Your Holidays Widely and Wisely

There are holidays happening almost every day of the year. (See also this list of holidays.) While some business owners might find some of these holidays off-putting, the importance of celebrating milestones and other timeframes throughout the year might be more palatable to them. Either way, there are times of the year when you need to be taking advantage of the marketing opportunities that avail themselves.

The most important holidays are the ones that pertain to your business/industry and directly include your target audience culturally, and hopefully also emotionally. For these holidays, choose wisely what you will do to be culturally sensitive (e.g., don’t post cat videos on National Dog Day to your dog-loving clients!?) and effective. You want marketing campaigns that will be highly effective for your goals (as we’ll discuss in a moment). While, you may wish to do smaller campaigns for holidays of lesser importance, where the holiday is not about your business/industry or your target audience, specifically, but more general that everyone can enjoy it (like World Wildlife Day).

Know Your Goals

“Know your goals” is not some fluff, self-improvement trope to dismiss immediately. (Okay, it can be in the wrong context.) But, here relating to your business’s bottom line, it’s not. You need to manage your goals and expectations as a small business owners, so you can manage your resources better and learn from your experience to succeed at business over time.

Knowing that the goal of increasing awareness and acknowledging the holidays to clients appropriately, as Peter Baldwin, MarketForce Strategies, noted during the Roundtable, provides him with clarity about what he needs to do for the holiday marketing season. This is important to understanding what kind of communications to send and other offerings a company like Peter’s wants to commit to and execute during the holidays season.

For retail business owners, this may be a prime selling opportunity, if your products or services cater to holiday buyers for gifts in honor of the holiday. So, your goals may include hitting a certain sales metric, bringing in particular amount of foot traffic, or donating a number of your products to a charity for good publicity. Whatever the goals are, now you can make a plan.

Map Out Your Plan and Share It With Your Team, Vendors and Other Stakeholders

Plan early for the holidays as the seasons come up on you too quickly. And, trying to plan and execute at the same time usually leads to shoddy campaigns that are ineffective, demotivate your marketing efforts for next year, and make holidays a chore instead of a celebration for you personally.

Plans for holiday marketing typically revolve around a timeline, so a calendar format for holiday marketing plans are usually most effective. You can choose a paper calendar posted in your office or shop for you and your staff to see together, or you can do so using digital tools like a shared Google Calendar or another online calendar of choice. Remember to include everyone who needs to know about the holiday marketing campaign(s) in the calendar, which can include not just staff, but also vendors, volunteers, family members, and other stakeholders who are responsible for helping execute the plan.

You can also set milestones in your plan, for every few weeks. These are opportunities to take stock in what has happened, correct course on where things might need to catch up and/or improve, celebrate successes, and then map out the detail for the next few weeks. This is helpful because it keeps everyone focused on short-term, achievable actions with each longer-term goal in mind.

These are some of the things you can think about for getting ready for the holiday marketing season(s). There are many more, that you can think about, and find other articles online that discuss this. Good luck with your holiday marketing campaigns this season! We hope you’re getting ready for them now.

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Pop-up Retail

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on August 2, 2018.  You no doubt are hearing more about pop-ups, and for good reason. It’s a trend that isn’t new but is really catching on because it offers win/wins for everybody. Pop-up retail began… Read more »

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This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on August 2, 2018. 

You no doubt are hearing more about pop-ups, and for good reason. It’s a trend that isn’t new but is really catching on because it offers win/wins for everybody.

Pop-up retail began to appear in the 90s in the world’s major cities. The trend spread in the 2000s and can now be found in one form or another in almost every community. Pop-ups come in every shape and size and are ideal for products from fashion to tech gadgets to art to makers and food.

Early versions saw major retailers clearing space in their stores for outside vendors to set up specialty shops. Sometimes they held receptions, cocktail parties or festivals to highlight a new product line or designer. Years ago, Target rented a boat at a New York pier for a holiday pop-up, and you’ve likely noticed major furnishings retailers using temporary shops for floor sample sales.

Most of us are familiar with pop-ups around the holidays. Christmas markets and fireworks stands have been around for years. Halloween shops will appear in a couple of months, and ugly Christmas sweater shops are becoming icons for holiday fun and quirkiness. Clever retailers always find ways to monetize holidays, festivals, anniversaries and the spectrum of annual and seasonal occasions. Pop-ups broaden those opportunities.

For vendors, makers and artists, pop-ups give them an easier and more affordable way to test a concept or product and determine whether there is a viable market. If their items sell, they can consider options for expanded pop-ups or perhaps moving into brick and mortar. Pop-ups enable them to fine-tune their approach and make less expensive adjustments because of the manageable scale. If their approach falls flat, their risk was minimized and they can more affordably retool and come back to try again.

The community also benefits. Fewer vacant storefronts convey greater vitality, and the increased foot traffic helps neighboring stores. The community and its consumers also get to experience brands and approaches they might otherwise never know.

Landlords have much to gain from pop-ups. It’s not only a way to monetize vacant space, but also exposes their real estate to prospective permanent tenants. Even if the space is slated for development or waiting an incoming tenant, a pop-up could bring in extra revenue and be tailored to the circumstances.

The Alexandria Economic Development Partnership (AEDP) is proactively promoting pop-ups to add vibrancy and strengthen the local economy. Their Pop-up website welcomes vendors searching for space and provides landlords templates for pop-up leases and a way to list their space.

 AEDP also welcomes community suggestions for pop-ups to attract.

AEDP and the Small Business Development Center are presenting a Pop-Up Retail workshop on August 15th that will highlight opportunities and discuss how to approach the pop-up process.

There’s magic in pop-ups because we all enjoy being part of something that’s special and unique, and because it’s a fleeting experience we get a greater sense of urgency. Ideally we can look forward to more pop-up excitement in Alexandria.

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What Does your Network Want to Know?

You have social media accounts, but do you ever run out of ideas to write or talk about? At last month’s Small Business Roundtable attendees brainstormed ideas for social media posts, from Tweets to Podcasts.  Each participant gave a very brief “elevator speech” about their business, and others told them what they would want to… Read more »

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You have social media accounts, but do you ever run out of ideas to write or talk about?

At last month’s Small Business Roundtable attendees brainstormed ideas for social media posts, from Tweets to Podcasts.  Each participant gave a very brief “elevator speech” about their business, and others told them what they would want to know about their business, their industry, etc.  It only took about five minutes of brainstorming for each attendee business for every one of them to walk out of the Roundtable with several ideas for new posts.

Many of the best ideas came from people who knew little or nothing about the ‘target” business. We are often so wrapped up in our business that we forget that what seems simple or obvious to us would be a great nugget of information for someone who is not living in the day-to-day experiences of our world.  You do not need to wait for the next SBDC Roundtable Brainstorming session to do this.  Everyone has a network of friends or relatives who would be willing to sit down for an informal discussion – especially if a little pizza and beer is included. The less they know about your business in the beginning, the more creative their ideas may be!  Those who have never calmed a dog frightened by fireworks or a thunderstorm would be interested in the tips and tricks that a dog day care business owner could provide.  That’s a great tweet or short blogpost for this time of year!  A staffing agency might want to write about the differences between W-2 and 1099 “employees” as well as part-time and full-time employment.  These are just a few of the many ideas that were generated at the Roundtable and that you can generate by hosting periodic brainstorming sessions yourself!

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Small Business is a Community

This blog post was written by Alexandria small business owner Carol Supplee following last week’s fatal attack in Old Town. I never want to see crime scene tape again. The Alexandria business community lost one of its own today.  “Man found slain in Alexandria business,” read one headline.  It’s shocking and sobering and terribly sad…. Read more »

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This blog post was written by Alexandria small business owner Carol Supplee following last week’s fatal attack in Old Town.

I never want to see crime scene tape again.

The Alexandria business community lost one of its own today.  “Man found slain in Alexandria business,” read one headline.  It’s shocking and sobering and terribly sad.  It’s an event that reminds us of our vulnerability.  It reminds us that we must always be looking out for our colleagues, friends and neighbors.  It traumatizes those immediately involved.  To passers by it was mostly a curiosity or even an annoyance.  There were yards and yards of crime scene tape all around the 1200 block of King Street and the block was closed for at least eight hours on Friday, July 13.  The Alexandria Police Department took a suspect into custody at the scene, so we are calmed by their quick response, their interviews at the scene and the idea that there is no immediate and lurking danger out there.

Then I am remembering.   Many business owners will have experienced some threat to personal safety or loss that now comes back to haunt us.  We get through those experiences again by being there to support each other.  That’s what the community does.  And business will go on as usual.

Then I come back to the event and the loss of a life never to be returned which is an entirely different matter.  The victim, the victim’s family, the murderer and the murder’s family are now one in a tragic loss.

This one was up close and personal.

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Start ’em Right: Ensuring New Employees Succeed

This blog post was written by Patra Frame of Strategies for Human Resources. Patra has offered workshops and individual counseling on human resources and employer issues for Alexandria’s small businesses through the SBDC for many years. Whether you call it on-boarding or orientation, you need a process to help a new hire become a valuable… Read more »

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This blog post was written by Patra Frame of Strategies for Human Resources. Patra has offered workshops and individual counseling on human resources and employer issues for Alexandria’s small businesses through the SBDC for many years.

Whether you call it on-boarding or orientation, you need a process to help a new hire become a valuable part of your team. Yet, I have seen far too many businesses which were not really prepared for someone to start. No-one is there to welcome the person the first day. There is no plan for the day and other things take priority, so the new person is ignored. Equipment is missing. There is no training on how to access computer systems, much less the software in use.

An advantage of being a small organization is your ability to treat a new hire well from the first moment. Doing so helps you both succeed! Plus it helps retention.

In AdvanceLoan Application Assistance

Make a plan for the first week, first month, and 90 days. Start with a review of the actual work to be done. Use a job description if you have one. Create some specific steps and goals for the person. Figure out who will show the person how your systems work and have a login ready. Ensure any equipment and entry keys, if needed, are ready.  Define what ‘success’ looks like at each period’s end.

If you have hired a more senior person, be sure you talk to anyone else whose role will be changed in advance. Explain the reasons you have added this new person and position to the staff too. This helps everyone understand the organizational goals and feel as if you are keeping them up to date.

The First Day

Welcome the person yourself or have their manager do so. Show them the layout including basics like bathrooms, coffee machines/refrigerator, or employee rest areas. Start the welcome process by reminding the person why you hired them and why you think they can succeed, based on interviews and their resume. Talk about the actual work to be done. Be sure you describe needed results and actions. Give them something that shows what must be done, such as a current job description.  Explain your organization goals, mission, and values. Describe the ‘success’ looks like this measures you have defined so they have a roadmap.  Tell them how you like to work or have their manager do this if they do not directly work for you.

Add in introductions to other employees, starting with those the person will work closely with and describe that interaction. Notify your whole staff of the new person with a little about their background and what their role will be.

Do all required paperwork – tax forms, I-9s, benefits, etc – on the first day but make this something you do later in their shift. Include physical access, security issues, systems access and security in this discussion.

The First Week

Set up some specific work objectives. Your goal here is two-fold. You want to ensure the person understands how their work impacts others by meeting and working with those employees. And, you want the person to begin to feel productive almost immediately. Check in informally during the week to see what questions the person has.

Going Forward

Plan a review with the person in the first few weeks. At it, ask what issues they might have, what else they need to know to do their job well, and what questions they have. Keep it short and simple but be positive and show how their role is important.

Make sure you have some formal check-in points. Many small businesses do a 90 day plan for what has to be learned and achieved, then use that as a review at the 90-100 day point. Depending on the role of the person and your culture, you may do this at 45 – 60 days or add a second check at 180 days.

These simple steps make a large difference in ensuring employees have what they need to succeed.  Most failed hires in the first year are due to management problems. You can significantly decrease job turnover by learning to hire well and then:

  •           effectively welcoming and supporting new hires
  •           ensuring they know what is expected of them and how to get information

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Fitting small businesses into Alexandria’s priorities

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on June 7, 2018.  The good news for those that care about small businesses is that they poll very high in candidate stump speeches. That’s likely because Alexandria’s economy and character are so dependent on them…. Read more »

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This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on June 7, 2018. 

The good news for those that care about small businesses is that they poll very high in candidate stump speeches. That’s likely because Alexandria’s economy and character are so dependent on them.

Small businesses comprise about 90 percent of total businesses and contribute most of the city’s commercial tax base. It’s not just their job creation and fiscal clout, those independent businesses that fit so nicely into our historic and quaint spaces also help form Alexandria’s distinctive sense of place.

The charm and proximity of our commercial districts are blessings, but they also pose unique challenges for both businesses and nearby residents. Restrictions have been imposed to preserve the character and history that distinguishes Alexandria. Any property owner, resident or retailer can tell you that making changes or adding to a building can be challenging, expensive and time consuming. But residents and businesses alike take pride in preserving the aesthetic that makes this such a great place to live, work and visit.Retail

At election time, we often hear about the need to reduce burdens for small businesses. Almost everybody wants to help small businesses and agrees in theory with reducing burdens on them.

In every survey of small business owners, regulatory compliance ranks at or near the top of the list of their greatest hinderances. Small business owners struggle to understand and respond to these requirements and doing so unfortunately takes their focus away from their products, services and competition – the core of their operations.

Red tape and delays have particularly harmful consequences for owners at the very fragile startup stage, when their resources are thin. Entrepreneurs desperately need to get their doors open to begin collecting revenue. Startup delays due to regulatory processes can be expensive, and a weak cash flow at the start may lead to failure down the road.

City staff recently identified zoning ordinances that were costly and time-intensive for small businesses. They focused on ordinances that seem excessive based on their limited community impact. These ordinances were typically put into place with good intent and without recognition of the unintended consequences for small business owners. Proposed changes also aligned with business trends that were not anticipated when the ordinances were originally written.

The almost universal agreement to reduce burdens for small businesses somehow ceased when specific regulation revisions were proposed. Some citizens and citizen groups perceived that the floodgates would open and their protections would be eroded.

The integrated nature of our community often brings together stakeholders with differing viewpoints, from residents who fear that nearby businesses will bring noise and traffic, to proprietors who are doing everything possible to help their businesses thrive. It takes smart and decisive leadership to understand the complexities of cutting red tape while engaging with stakeholders to carefully craft meaningful responses.

Our economy and quality of life are enhanced by the success of small businesses, so it’s worth considering whether we are all doing our very best to welcome and support them.

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