Seek Advice and Ask Lots of Questions

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on November 7, 2019. One of the common characteristics of highly successful business owners is their tendency to ask really good questions – and lots of them. Even if you consider yourself business-savvy, you can never… 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 November 7, 2019.

One of the common characteristics of highly successful business owners is their tendency to ask really good questions – and lots of them. Even if you consider yourself business-savvy, you can never be sure you’ve checked all the angles, and you just don’t know what you don’t know.

It just makes sense to get expert guidance to avoid costly mistakes. At the earliest stage of your planning there are resources that can provide objective feedback, raise red flags and suggest approaches you might not have considered. The Alexandria Small Business Development Center (SBDC) has experienced staff and expert consultants adept at identifying areas that even the best planning efforts might have overlooked, and entrepreneurs always benefit from fresh insights. With objective feedback early on, your strategies, approaches, and next steps are much better defined. In addition, the services of the center are without cost, leaving you more resources for the startup expenses you’ll encounter later.

Some of the initial and most critical questions pertain to zoning or other locational considerations, licenses, permits, and potential restrictions. Forewarned of these requirements, entrepreneurs can make better plans with fewer surprises, delays and unforeseen costs. City staff can also help entrepreneurs with preliminary and detailed planning – hopefully before leases or other obligations are signed. The City is launching its new “APEX” online permitting and land use system with the goal of improving the customer experience. Give it a try.

The Alexandria Economic Development Partnership (AEDP) has expert staff familiar with Alexandria’s real estate market, rental rates / sales comps, and can assist you with the site selection process for leases, sales or development. Their services are free and an essential stop before anyone considers, much less signs, a lease. Additionally, the small business center has other leasing guidance and a “Leasing Checklist” on its website. Both economic development and small business center staffs can advise you on Alexandria neighborhoods, their business and civic groups, and how to make the best entry with your business or nonprofit.

Financing is another area where entrepreneurs should get advice before making a formal loan request. Every application you make could affect your credit score, and being declined reduces your prospects with other lenders. Meeting with the small business center’s business analyst – a retired banker – will help you strengthen your presentation to a lender, much like being coached before an interview. The earlier that preparation takes place, the better.

There are other professionals whose expertise will save entrepreneurs many headaches – and dollars – if they are consulted early-on. Attorneys and accountants should be part of your management team from the start. Human resources consultants can help you avoid hiring pitfalls. Marketing professionals can advise you on your branding and social media presence. The small business center keeps lists of reliable professionals for a broad range of small business matters, and we welcome your contacting us for guidance and referrals.

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NATIONAL VETERAN SMALL BUSINESS WEEK

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. She was the 2017 Virginia SBDC Small Business Veteran of the Year. Are You Entrepreneurial? Want to Start Your… 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. She was the 2017 Virginia SBDC Small Business Veteran of the Year.

Are You Entrepreneurial? Want to Start Your Own Business? Non-Profit?

The week of November 4 – 10 recognizes veteran-owned small businesses across the USA.  You probably have heard of the many big businesses, like FedEx, that were started by veterans.  But most US businesses are small businesses.  Currently, nine percent (9%) of all small businesses are owned by veterans.

The Alexandria SBDC has helped over 220 veterans start and sustain their own businesses.  These include a wide range of types and sizes of businesses across Alexandria.  

If you have been thinking about starting your own business, we offer a range of services to help you.  Whatever you want to be — a coach, retailer, cybersecurity developer, consultant, physical fitness trainer/gym owner, home health care or theatre founder – now is your time!

Studies show that veterans who want to start a business run into trouble in four major areas:

  • the lack of a professional network
  • the lack of a local network
  • little or no business experience
  • limited capital

You can fix all those problems! Sometimes working for a company/non-profit in your field for a few years will help you address all those. Going back to school – full or part-time to hone technical skills or add business skills may be a smart move. You might also consider starting your business as a side gig while you build capital and expertise.

As a volunteer for veterans groups and at the Alexandria Small Business Development Center, I have seen too many veterans get into trouble because they did not do their homework first. This might be lack of knowledge about the specific business or about basic business practices, it often includes assumptions about some giant pot of ‘free money’ for veterans or about how easy it is to become a government contractor as a veteran. Far too many also do not seek out resources until they are already in trouble or near bankruptcy.

Doing your preparation and being able to adjust your plan as you learn more about the market is vital. For most of us vets, it is also something we learned in the military!

QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF

1. What need or problem are you going to solve?

  • Why does this problem or need interest you?
  • What do you offer to solve it? (Expertise, education, new technology ideas, etc.)

2. What is your purpose in starting this new business or non-profit?

  • What is your vision?
  • What is your definition of success?

3. Do you believe what you want to do is possible for you to do?  Are you ready to dedicate yourself fully every day to building this?

4. Do you have the skills you need to be successful building a business or non-profit?

  • What do you need to learn? How will you do that?
  • Are you naturally curious?
  • Are you willing to actively market yourself all the time?
  • How good are you at seeking advice and help?
  • Are you flexible enough to change direction based on what you learn?

5. How will you use your current contacts (your network) and build new ones to support your idea?

  • Are you active in professional and business organizations that are relevant to your goal?
  • What are you doing on social media to make the right connections?
  • Which groups in the area you want to create your work are worth your time?

START RIGHT TO SUCCEED

Research and Planning:

  • Have you defined the need or problem your business/non-profit will satisfy?
  • How will you be better than others in this space?
  • What makes your vision unique?

Networking:

  • Grow and develop your networks in your chosen field, local area, and business groups. The Alexandria SBDC offers monthly roundtables of business owners and a variety of other services to help you expand your network.  Consider women’s or minority business networks, local business groups, professional and veteran groups. Check out MeetUp, EventBrite, local calendars, community groups, and your network for leads. Later some of these will be good places for you to market as well.

Minimize Risks:

  • Learn the business and regulatory requirements you face – the SBDC is a great support here. Assess where you need an attorney or CPA and find one that specializes in small businesses or non-profit ogranizations.

Finances:

  • Do you have the savings/resources to go without an income for 12-24 months?  If not, how will you build those or do you have a spouse/other who will support you during this time?
  • Grants, loans, crowd-funding, investors are all limited and time-consuming to get. None pay your living or most basic expenses at the start.

The Alexandria SBDC provides a range of services, consultants, and seminars to help you develop and grow your business.  Virginia is one of the top states for veterans and also offers programs to assist and support you through the Virginia SBDC Network.  Contact us for assistance and support, we are here to help you succeed.

Those wishing to start a business in the City of Alexandria can contact the Alexandria SBDC. Complete the short questionnaire and we will contact you to set up an appointment.

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Celebrating the Fall and Holiday Season

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on October 3, 2019. While some grouse about the end of summer, many of us look forward to fall and the approaching holiday season, and feel they showcase this region – and especially Alexandria – at… 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 3, 2019.

While some grouse about the end of summer, many of us look forward to fall and the approaching holiday season, and feel they showcase this region – and especially Alexandria – at its very finest.

The air is crisper and our surroundings are especially picturesque from Halloween through Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Years and George Washington’s birthday. We have the prototypic neighborhoods and shopping streets that lend themselves to a holiday backdrop and spirit.

This is Alexandria’s time to shine – literally, with lights and decorations. Retailers depend heavily on November and December shopping revenues to remain profitable. That’s particularly critical this year because the summer’s Metro shutdown impacted many of them.

With that in mind, Visit Alexandria held a Holiday Planning Summit recently that incorporated a cross section of business, city government and economic development representatives. The theme of the summit was to continue building on Alexandria’s distinctive assets, attractions and charm – but also to take it up a notch for the approaching season.

Alexandria continues to face competition from a broader variety of regional shopping options, and each of them are working hard to attract their own shoppers and diners.

We have new attractions this year such as Alexandria’s own Tall Ship Providence, just a short stroll from the new Waterfront Park at the foot of King Street. Locals and visitors alike will appreciate the connection to Alexandria’s maritime heritage.

Further west there will be skating, music and spectacular light experiences at Ice & Lights – the Winter Village at Cameron Run. The waterpark will be transformed into a winter wonderland.

With merchants and their support organizations investing so much time, money and effort into making the season spectacular, what supportive role can we residents play?

First, we can simply make the effort to get out and partake in the numerous festivals and events over the next few months. These are not just for out-of-towners. You’ll find they offer a new perspective on fall and winter, and make the holidays so much more fun. If you haven’t recently taken in a ghost tour around Halloween, the Scottish Christmas Walk or the Parade of Lights on the Potomac, give it a try, invite friends, and stop for a drink or a snack. You’ll have an incredible time and as a side benefit; you’ll stimulate the local economy.

You can also be welcoming to the tourists that generate hundreds of millions of dollars for local businesses, support thousands of Alexandria jobs, and reduce the tax burdens on our households. If you see someone who’s struggling with a map or looking lost, ask if you can help. If someone’s ever done that for you, you know how it makes you feel, and how inclined you are to recommend that place to others. Also be ready give them suggestions for attractions or places to shop or dine.

You owe it to yourself to make this season a more rewarding experience, and Alexandria has so much to offer.

Happy Holidays!

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Finding Your Passion

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on August 1, 2019. Relatively few adults approach their career choices methodically. Too often we pursue job titles, mimic a friend’s or relative’s career path, or in the current job market, just grab an available job…. 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 1, 2019.

Relatively few adults approach their career choices methodically. Too often we pursue job titles, mimic a friend’s or relative’s career path, or in the current job market, just grab an available job. The average adult changes jobs 11 times and may change careers as many as seven times.

It’s rare when someone’s college major leads directly to a career path and they remain on that path for their entire professional life. Sadly, the few who do too often feel unfulfilled. Others frequently change jobs to try to find a better fit, but repeatedly burn out.

The proverbial “mid-life crisis” is sometimes the jolt that starts us evaluating whether we want to continue on the current path. Perhaps most telling is when we’re asked to describe exactly what we want to do, and we struggle because we’ve never taken the time to ponder it carefully.

There are assessment tools and resources available to help us understand more about ourselves, our inclinations and abilities. At first glance, some of these evaluations seem strange – with peculiar questions and exercises. Interestingly, though, almost everyone who has taken one or a battery of such tests confirms – sometimes reluctantly – that the results seem on target, even if sometimes a bit unexpected.

Each of these evaluations is different. Some focus on aptitude, while others highlight skills, interests, or personality gauges. Some tests even suggest the professions that closely match with your answers. The best part is that there are no wrong answers or bad scores.

People can use this information in a variety of ways. In the hands of professional career advisors, diagnostics can point toward one or several career directions that might not have been otherwise obvious. If you would prefer to undertake this kind of assessment on your own, it might be advisable to take several different types of tests and overlay them to inform your analysis.

So, now that you have this information, what next? If you’re interested in a different field or pursuing a new career, find a mentor in that area to speak with you about that industry. Set up informational interviews to learn more about that area. Volunteer with an organization to learn or hone skills and to make connections with others professionals.

You may also determine that you need to pursue educational courses or training. Several local universities have graduate certificates in a variety of fields. There are also excellent online resources and classes available from a several different sources. Professional certifications may be another way to demonstrate skills and abilities.

While the Alexandria Small Business Development Center does not offer professional or career assessments, we recognize that, many times, this type of self-evaluation can lead one to open their own small business. Once you have a clear vision of your goals, the center can help with your business planning.

Most importantly, we are all creatures that thrive on passion and excitement. If you’re not getting that and a sense of accomplishment from your work, perhaps it’s time to reevaluate.

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Time Wasters

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on July 5, 2019. Our lives are congested under the best of circumstances. We’re constantly stressed to accomplish what’s on our plates. The last things we need are intrusions that waste our precious time or require… 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 July 5, 2019.

Our lives are congested under the best of circumstances. We’re constantly stressed to accomplish what’s on our plates. The last things we need are intrusions that waste our precious time or require us to take extra steps.

In our business lives, we too often encounter unintentional but thoughtless time wasters. It’s frustrating to be on the receiving end of this behavior, and all of us have a responsibility to respect the time of others. Hopefully, describing some of these might deter more of us from inadvertently burdening others. Talk to your employees and colleagues about setting norms that thwart time thieves and become productivity proponents.

Websites: Websites should always consider what people are searching for. Too many sites don’t have key information on their home page and require many clicks to find the basics. Many sites are not mobile friendly, so the functionality is limited for many users. Test your site with someone who knows nothing about your business and pay attention to their feedback.

Email: There are many ways for emails to be time sponges. Some are pointless or do not provide an easy way to respond succinctly. Re-reading your draft before hitting send will make sure you’ve provided clear and easy action steps. That improves chances the recipient will respond. If you’re referencing something in the email, make sure there’s an attachment or link. Always include your title and contact information in an email signature so recipients know exactly who you are and have an alternate way to reach you.

Telephone and Voicemail: Too often, callers launch into details without confirming they’ve reached the appropriate contact. State your purpose up front, then follow up with relevant details. How often have you had to repeatedly re-listen to voicemails to catch the name and number? It’s frustrating and inclines us to ignore the call. Speak clearly and pronounce your name and organization slowly. When leaving a phone number, say it slowly, and then repeat it. Then repeat your name and company.

Referrals: When you refer someone to another individual, it behooves you to make sure you’re doing both of them a favor. Too often people are just trying to get rid of a situation, but blind referrals can waste everyone’s time. Check first to clarify whether the matter is in their wheelhouse before you burden someone else with something that you cannot solve.

Events: We’ve all gotten stuck in an endless conversation without an escape. Don’t monopolize one person’s time at an event. Remember that event planning requires solid headcounts. Not RSVPing is rude and is an imposition when the planner must chase you down. With electronic RSVPs, there is no excuse for not responding.

Avoiding becoming a time waster requires us to be thoughtful and to take a little extra effort. Yes, we might have to invest a little of our own precious time, but making things flow smoothly is not only courteous, it improves communications and responses. It also enhances our standing among colleagues and potential customers.

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Erroneous Zones

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on June 6, 2019. Who among us hasn’t spent sleepless nights or agitated days stewing over something someone said, or something you inferred, that you realize later you had completely misunderstood? Likewise, we might stumble or… 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 6, 2019.

Who among us hasn’t spent sleepless nights or agitated days stewing over something someone said, or something you inferred, that you realize later you had completely misunderstood? Likewise, we might stumble or make a momentary mistake that prompts us to doubt our own capabilities and whether we really have what it takes, only to bounce back the next day full speed ahead.

This column periodically explores variations on this topic, because misperceptions are a pervasive weak link in our productivity and affect everybody from time to time. The solution is to seize the opportunity to gather informed assessments and objective feedback. That applies to every aspect of our lives.

Small business owners are particularly susceptible because they’re isolated. They might not have people around them to check their beliefs and don’t realize that they’re not the only ones making common mistakes. On the other extreme, they might feel smug and think things are rosy until they are dumfounded by unforeseen circumstances.

The Alexandria Small Business Development Center is a resource that can provide objective feedback in its confidential one-on-one consultations. Those might be a discussion of comparative performance measures and best practices, financial assessments or tips on handling thorny business issues.

The center has access to a large network of resources to help business owners make critical connections with experts or other businesses, or perhaps get feedback from peers. These include peer groups, co-work spaces, industry gatherings and targeted networking opportunities.

Business owners might feel more comfortable approaching someone one-on-one. Good advice doesn’t have to come from someone in the same industry or area of expertise. Identify someone whose success you admire, and invite them to coffee to get their viewpoint. These informal sessions might help you to see your business from a fresh perspective.

Objective feedback can come from many sources. Professional coaches offer consistent and insightful observations. Many Fortune 500 companies support their executives engaging coaches to add balance and perspective to their personal and professional lives. Professional coaches are not cheap, but they are are often worthy investments.

Many of us invest time, money and energy into our personal health and well-being. Whether we’re pursuing diets or fitness regimens, it’s very possible we’re following routines we’ve seen in magazines or picked up through casual observation.

Too often those routines are not suited to our particular circumstances or condition. We might not be getting the best effect – and might even be doing harm. For personal health and fitness, as in other matters, it is absolutely essential to get the guidance of a qualified professional.

There are many aspects of our lives where we’re wasting time, emotion and effort. One of my favorite maxims is that none of us is as bad as we think we are on our worst days; but neither are we as good as we think we are on our best days.

Objective, informed feedback can be one of the most important investments in individual and business productivity and is worth careful consideration.

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Celebrating Small Businesses

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on May 3rd, 2019. The week of May 6th is being celebrated across the country as Small Business Week, highlighting the importance of small businesses to the US economy. In Alexandria we are particularly beholden to… 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 May 3rd, 2019.

The
week of May 6th is being celebrated across the country as Small
Business Week, highlighting the importance of small businesses to the US
economy. In Alexandria we are particularly beholden to small businesses because
they are such an integral part of our character and economy.

They
comprise almost 90% of Alexandria’s total businesses and they are ideally
suited to our scale. Retail spaces on King Street and Mount Vernon Avenue are
perfect for small boutiques, intimate restaurants, and specialty shops. In
fact, 78% of retail stores on King Street are small, local, independent
businesses.

Our
commercial office market also includes attractive offerings for small
businesses. Smaller office buildings and historic spaces appeal to businesses
like commercial creatives and small professional service providers.

Alexandria
relies on our small businesses in many ways. First, we know that our citizens
love the variety of small independent shops and restaurants that give
Alexandria its authentic and unique flavor. 
In addition, these owners and their employees often sponsor events,
serve on volunteer boards, contribute time and money to local causes, and have
often provided community leadership through changing times and circumstances.
Alexandria is a stronger and more adaptable city when our businesses are
engaged, because they truly have their finger on the pulse of the community.

Since
our economy and quality of life are so dependent on the success of small
businesses, the question worth asking is whether we are doing our very best to
be inviting and to help them start and grow. City government has worked very
hard in recent years to streamline processes and minimize delays. While there
are still frustrations, city leadership, economic development and business
organizations constantly collaborate on solving challenges.

The
city has a wide array of interconnected resources that encourage and promote
small business. They focus on the infrastructure and business climate that preserves
and enhances Alexandria’s ideal setting for small businesses. After all, the
attributes that made our city and region so appealing to Amazon and Virginia
Tech are also things that help small businesses thrive.

From the Alexandria city government, to the Chamber of Commerce, to Visit Alexandria, the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, and neighborhood business associations, many organizations work together on behalf of small businesses across the city. The Alexandria Small Business Development Center is at the core of these efforts. It helps interconnect the initiatives of support organizations and expedites the communications flow to and from small businesses. It also helps small businesses solve problems, overcome obstacles and make worthwhile connections throughout the community and region.

Robust
small businesses help to broaden the tax base and improve the mix of business
products and services offered in the city. They contribute to a positive
resident experience and enhance our quality of life. The reciprocal role for Alexandrians
is to support small businesses through shopping local.

As
we commemorate small businesses this week, our charge is to make sure
Alexandria continues to be such an attractive and nurturing home for their
success.

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Strengthen Banking Ties Before the Metro Shutdown

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on March 7th, 2019. Savvy business owners are planning now for potential effects from the shutdown of all Alexandria Metro stations this summer. There are many considerations including impacts on your employees and customers, but one… 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 March 7th, 2019.

Savvy business owners are planning now for potential effects from the shutdown of all Alexandria Metro stations this summer. There are many considerations including impacts on your employees and customers, but one of the most productive preparations you can undertake now is strengthening the relationship with your banker.

In the event that sales are impacted and cash flow becomes a problem, you want the ability to turn to your banker as a trusted partner who can work with you to manage your way through the rough patch and be part of your resilience when you come out the other side of the shutdown.

The smartest owners build solid relationships with their banks and bank staffs from the very start and maintain contact to keep them informed of their progress. In good times and bad your banker is part of your team, and the more acquainted they are with you, the easier it is for them to tailor their resources and services to your needs. Under circumstances you could be facing with the shutdown, banks might be able to help you tide the crunch with lines of credit, special credit cards or other arrangements that vary from bank to bank.

 If you haven’t developed that quality of relationship yet, it’s not too late, but the shutdown is just a few months away and this is something that is best accomplished in advance.

This is an ideal time to schedule an appointment with the Alexandria Small Business Development Center Business Analyst, Jack Parker. As a retired banker, Parker knows how bankers operate and what they expect to see from the businesses they serve. Jack will review your financials with you and help you make the best presentation of your circumstances. If your financial records are lacking, he will advise you what you need to do to bring them up to the standard that bankers expect. One of the biggest pitfalls in business banking relationships is inaccurate or inadequate recordkeeping.

Consultations with Parker are conducted in confidence and without cost to City of Alexandria businesses. These sessions resemble coaching before an interview, and are done before your discussions with your banker. Even those owners who feel they have a great rapport with their banker are well-served by candid and regular consultations with Parker.

A distinguishing characteristic of Alexandria SBDC is its banking expertise and long-term partnerships with local bankers. Those bankers often refer prospective borrowers to the center to obtain guidance and have found that center-assisted applicants are typically much better prepared and are therefore much better credit risks. That has enabled the SBDC to facilitate $80 million in capital investments over its history.

Whether a business owner needs financing, a line of credit, or other assistance, it behooves them to have a strong and confidential partnership with their bank. The center can help Alexandria business owners develop such relationships and better manage the financials of their business. We welcome your contacting the center at www.alexandriasbdc.org for such guidance.

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