Reflections and Expectations

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on January 7, 2021. As we closed out 2020 there was unanimous consensus that it was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year in almost every respect. As we toasted the incoming 2020, we had… 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 January 7, 2021.

As we closed out 2020 there was unanimous consensus that it was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year in almost every respect.

As we toasted the incoming 2020, we had no way of knowing that the virus had already started to spread. The following months saw far too many deaths; families impoverished; community fixtures forced to close; other businesses holding on but under enormous pressure; and special occasions and community celebrations cancelled.

It’s worth reflecting on some of the achievements we’ve made under duress. We’ve become more comfortable with online meetings and processes. Work and commercial transactions will never be quite the same. New habits and practices should keep us healthier during future cold and flu seasons. We’ve realized how adaptive and resilient we are. Most importantly, the notion that we’re all in this together established a new sense of individual and community responsibility.

We witnessed healthcare workers, first responders, research scientists, everyday service providers – like those in our grocery stores, restaurants, retailers and pharmacies – rise to the occasion.

City government and business community leadership undertook swift, bold and creative actions. Business owners pioneered new business models to serve customer needs and continue supporting their employees. The nature of business was changed forever. Those most innovative and adaptive will fare best in the coming months and years.

What can we expect in the coming months? Hopefully, vaccines will ease our concerns about infection, and we can begin to resume contacts and activities. The return to normalcy will be gradual and require a lot of adjustments along the way.

The recently enacted relief legislation was a long time coming and is desperately needed. We’re now waiting for the implementing instructions from the Small Business Administration and Department of the Treasury and participating bank details. Our hope is that the application process will be less cumbersome and SBA communication with banks and borrowers will be swifter and clearer.

There are several things business owners can do to be ready to apply. First, they should monitor developments and be prepared to act promptly once the application process is announced. They should also keep track of their financial records by quarters for 2020 and how those compare to 2019. They’ll need to show a 25% drop in gross revenues for one of those quarters.

Having a banking relationship with one of the participating lenders, such as local banks, community lending institutions or credit unions, is vital. Those that already have those relationships should ask their contacts whether that institution will be participating in the next round of PPP and how they should keep in touch. Those who don’t have banking relationships need to develop them immediately.

Our center stands ready to help Alexandria business owners in a variety of ways. Our staff provides owners objective guidance on business financials and operations and can refer them to timely resources. We also continually update our COVID-19 webpage with the latest relief legislation developments and guidance at: https://alexandriasbdc.org/resources-programs/ covid-19-information-resources.

Alexandria SBDC resources are funded by the city, SBA and local banks, and there is no charge for SBDC services.

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Roundtable Recap: Pivoting Your Small Business in 2021

This week’s post was written by Ray Sidney-Smith of W3 Consulting, social media consultant and facilitator of the monthly Roundtable for the Alexandria SBDC.  As the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, started to circulate around the United States, Alexandria, Virginia small businesses began being impacted around March 14th when the City of Alexandria declared a local emergency…. Read more »

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This week’s post was written by Ray Sidney-Smith of W3 Consulting, social media consultant and facilitator of the monthly Roundtable for the Alexandria SBDC. 

As the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, started to circulate around the United States, Alexandria, Virginia small businesses began being impacted around March 14th when the City of Alexandria declared a local emergency. It wouldn’t be until a day after that a Virginia man passed because of COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, and more followed. Things have certainly changed since those earlier days of the pandemic, and the situation continues to be dynamic.

This sounds bleak, and there are plenty of heightened emotions regarding the loss of lives, loss of normalcy, business losses, and more. But, with great adversity comes the greater resilience of Small Business in Alexandria. On November 17, 2020, Alexandria Small Business Development Center convened its last Business Development Roundtable of the year, which it resumed virtually for Alexandria business owners to connect and share lessons learned throughout this challenging year.

During the Roundtable, it was heartening to hear stories of small business owners making strategic, flexible choices about their businesses—pivoting your small business models and product/service delivery methods, modifying working arrangements for business continuity and staff safety, and new promotional tactics.

Diane Greenbaum was recently in the news about her pivot strategy success. And, she joined the Roundtable to provide some of her advice, having survived and thrived amidst this crisis. Greenbaum opened Kidcreate Studio in Old Town Alexandria on March 14, 2020, just two days before Alexandria City Public Schools would close their doors for the shutdown to stem the tide of the first coronavirus wave. She recounted how she made some smart decisions to change products and services (with Do-at-Home Art Kits, virtual classes and birthday parties), pricing, and working through human resources issues to help parents and children throughout Alexandria and the surrounding area. 

Diane Greenbaum, in her Kidcreate Studio located in Old Town Alexandria.

Other attendees noted that they needed to redefine their target audience, add new products and services to their overall package, and consider how to launch their digital experience (website, mobile, eCommerce, and other online presence components) in the coming year. Notably, Carolyn Alexander, owner of MomEase, has launched a virtual Ask the Experts program for expectant mothers. Bridget Gaddis, retail architect and owner of Gaddis Architect, is considering her overall search engine optimization strategy on her website and blog to attract new retail clients.

While the overall sentiment of the Roundtable participants was that 2020 was a tough year, there was a collective interest to get things back to normal and improve everyone’s businesses in 2021.

Alexandria SBDC resumes its Roundtable program (on the third Tuesdays of the month at noon) in January 2021, and we are available for business counseling virtually for Alexandria City small businesses. In the meantime, you can check out more pivoting strategies small business owners are trying in The New York Times ongoing COVID-19 business series, Small Business: Owning the Future.

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Continuing to Pivot

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on December 3, 2020. This has been a year when familiar terms took on new meaning and significance. Examples – “community spread,” “flattening the curve,” “nonessential businesses” and “pivot.” Let’s explore pivoting. Among the imperatives for… 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 December 3, 2020.

This has been a year when familiar terms took on new meaning and significance. Examples – “community spread,” “flattening the curve,” “nonessential businesses” and “pivot.” Let’s explore pivoting.

Among the imperatives for businesses surviving and thriving through the challenges of the pandemic is pivoting to new approaches. Most have experienced a drastic change in their market. Customers no longer have needs, or might not want as much as before, and fear of infection limits their dealings. Supply chains have dried up. Consumer priorities have shifted, and some central events or celebrations are now deemed too risky.

There’s no template for pivoting because the circumstances differ by industry and approaches are unique for each business. The concept is to carefully consider all the direct and indirect conditions that have changed your market and determine whether it’s possible to adapt your tactics to the new environment.

There are physical aspects such as social distancing and capacity restrictions, but also challenging are the emotional considerations where customers become afraid of involvement with your product or service. Consumers also have pent up urges for luxury, if you can find safe ways for them to indulge.

There are several fundamental strategies businesses can follow to adapt or grow their company. One is to develop new products, services or concepts. Another is to refine the product or service delivery to a level that appeals to the new circumstances or to new customers. Technology can play a key role.

Perhaps you can partner with or outsource to another business, or team up to mitigate one another’s challenges. 

Made in ALX, a new makers’ market, launched on 11/16 with several local partnerships, including local watercolor artist Alexandra Schmeling, jeweler Bonny McMahon, designer Diana Papazian and Torpedo Factory artist Betsy Grady, according to the release.

With shock and awe, COVID-19 unfolded in unpredictable ways, and we had no solutions on the shelf. Aside from the disease itself, coronavirus also precipitated reactions and conditions that took a toll on almost every person and every business.

There’s light at the end of the tunnel with new vaccines and treatments. Scientists are hopeful that we might be able to resume some of our prior approaches within months. We know, however, it won’t be like flipping the switch back to normal. Proceeding purposefully into 2021, it’s essential for businesses to anticipate the possible shock and awe coming out of COVID-19.

Even under the best scenarios, getting back will not be seamless. Restrictions will lessen and opportunities will broaden, but not everybody will be on the same timetable returning to old routines. Those who provide products and services will again have to recalibrate approaches – not doing it like we’re having to today, and not like we did it before. We will be entering an even newer new-normal.

Even while we grumbled, many have become accustomed to working from home and will find it stressful returning to the worksite. We’ve developed new patterns over the last nine months, and it will be interesting to see how we unwind those.

This offers opportunities – but also challenges – for businesses to develop new pivot strategies focused around the circumstance of returning to our earlier lifestyles. 

We are all in this together, and will be coming out of it together!

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The Holidays with a Twist

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on November 5, 2020. ‘Tis the season, but this year we’ll be doing things a bit differently. We’ve started losing daylight and the holiday season is compensating with decorations, lights and the occasional costume. We’ve just… 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 5, 2020.

‘Tis the season, but this year we’ll be doing things a bit differently.

We’ve started losing daylight and the holiday season is compensating with decorations, lights and the occasional costume. We’ve just experienced Halloween with many of the same trappings as in past years, but the personal interactions required a little extra planning and execution. The same is true for the rest of the season.

Alexandria’s charming neighborhoods and iconic shopping districts are the perfect backdrops for seasonal celebrations. That’s not just our own opinion. Oprah Magazine and Southern Living both recently highlighted Old Town’s setting as magical for the holidays. 

Given this year’s conditions, merchants and community leaders have undertaken extensive preparations to retain as much of the spirit of the season as possible while assuring social distancing and safe surroundings. Look for the ALX Promise shield that signals the independent boutiques’ extra efforts to keep visitors safe. Don’t miss the plaid masks to encourage stylish healthfulness!

Below are some ideas to motivate you to experience more of what’s around us and support local businesses in the community. Masks and social distancing are essential for all of them.

Start by driving or walking the commercial streets. Our merchants have gotten into the spirit with great window displays and décor, and many have assembled beautifully landscaped spaces for outdoor shopping and dining. They’re also making provisions for cooler weather. Our shopping districts have never looked more festive and inviting.

Image Credit: M. Enriquez for Visit Alexandria

Visit the residential neighborhoods and look at the incredible door and yard displays. The ghoulish Halloween themes were so much fun, and offered clever ways to feel creepy, yet allow treats to be delivered to little goblins safely. Those same creative yard and door designs are now giving way to stylish holiday décor for the rest of the season. Always worth a stroll or drive-by. 

Seasonal events happening throughout Alexandria include Ice and Lights: The Winter Village at Cameron Run from Nov. 20 to Jan. 2. The venue, a short drive on Eisenhower Avenue, includes ice skating, holiday light displays, retail, food and music.

The Del Ray Holiday Market on Mt. Vernon Avenue on Nov. 28 and 29 features an open-air holiday market with local artists.

A holiday-themed Art Walk from Union to Diagonal – and select side streets –will feature works of art adorning lampposts in Old Town beginning Dec. 1.

Check out the Colonial Winter Nights and Mansion House Christmas at Carlyle House, and Christmas Illuminations at Mount Vernon, beginning in December.

The 26th Anniversary of First Night Alexandria will be a bit different this year, with a drive-in concert experience to celebrate the arrival of 2021. You can sing along, dance and enjoy a night filled with classic hits, local food truck favorites and exciting giveaways. Ticket sales begin late November with limited in-person capacity. It can also be streamed virtually.

Alexandria has much to offer with some great options for family and friends to celebrate the holidays together safely. Let’s make this season a healthy and rewarding experience.

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Gold Standard Collaboration

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on October 1, 2020. While we wince at the scorched-earth chaos at the national level, there’s a contrasting sense of civility, collaboration and productivity in Northern Virginia and in our own community. The Northern Virginia Economic… 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 1, 2020.

While we wince at the scorched-earth chaos at the national level, there’s a contrasting sense of civility, collaboration and productivity in Northern Virginia and in our own community.

The Northern Virginia Economic Development Alliance, a joint effort by 10 jurisdictions to work across borders on business recruitment and marketing efforts, is celebrating its first anniversary. This collaboration grew out of the success of four Northern Virginia jurisdictions who worked together to win the Amazon HQ2 bid.

The concept of highlighting the region’s collective assets quickly adapted to coordinated efforts to weather the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the region’s businesses. The alliance enabled a more agile approach for participating jurisdictions to connect their businesses to resources, information and both national and local loan and grant programs. As for many of us, the alliance’s emphasis is now pivoting to focus on recovery and resilience processes.

The Alexandria community has long established itself as one of the foremost examples of collaboration and coordination of efforts. Collegiality is the hallmark of Alexandria’s economic development, small business, tourism, chamber of commerce, city government as well as business, nonprofit and civic associations. Our focus is not on who gets credit but instead, on sustaining a supportive ecosystem where businesses can thrive.

The severe impacts of this pandemic have necessitated all of us jumping into action, assessing what drastic steps need to be taken and working together to not only mitigate the challenges that seem to escalate daily, but also to implement approaches adapted to the new normal.

Alexandria’s leadership and business community have been at the forefront of responsive action. Some of the most obvious examples can be seen in the thriving outdoor dining scene on King Street, where longstanding right of way policies had to be quickly and drastically adapted. 

Business and economic development organizations have carefully coordinated information and outreach efforts so that individual business owners struggling with uncertainty and severe economic losses get the latest information, learn about assistance efforts and receive pointers on adapting their businesses to new realities. 

One of the realities that is becoming clearer is that the new normal is not a phase, and that social and business practices have likely been permanently changed. To succeed, businesses must make adjustments, and many community organizations are working together to help that happen.

The network of small business development centers throughout Virginia is pooling statewide small business expertise to answer complex questions. The SBDC network has established a Business Recovery site with timely guidance for business revival.

And it’s not just organizations that are working together. Businesses themselves are demonstrating unprecedented levels of collegiality by helping one another and passing along tips they’ve learned or sources they’ve uncovered. 

The pandemic has necessitated many reassessments of the way we used to do things, and it’s become essential to make quick adjustments on the fly. Our region and community are far ahead of others because we’ve practiced collaboration and know how to bring out the best in one another. We are all in this together.

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Alexandria’s Changing Landscape

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on September 3, 2020. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it. Pandemic necessity has become the mother of re-invention of Alexandria’s public landscape.  Nobody expected the pandemic’s ripple effects to linger so long. COVID-19 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 3, 2020.

It’s pretty amazing when you think about it. Pandemic necessity has become the mother of re-invention of Alexandria’s public landscape. 

Nobody expected the pandemic’s ripple effects to linger so long. COVID-19 is still easily transmissible and most analysts anticipate the public will continue to prefer forms of social distancing long after vaccines or treatments become available. 

Outdoor options for dining, shopping or entertainment are healthier, and they’ve given a new look to our sidewalks and streetscapes. What’s remarkable is how quickly and seamlessly it all came together. City staff and elected officials took quick and decisive actions to bypass public right-of-way restrictions to enable outdoor choices. It’s enlivened our streets and helped businesses survive, and everyone loves the convenience, safety and aesthetics of alfresco activities.

Photo credit: Visit Alexandria

With the help of lively outdoor spaces and loyal customers, restaurateurs have achieved sales much closer to prior year performance than they thought possible just months ago. At first, they thought these efforts were short term, but now their hope is to continue outdoor service indefinitely.

When phased reopening limited indoor capacity but offered outdoor options, innovative restaurateurs applied for spaces in front of their establishments. Some built decks and railing, added plants, canopies and even lighting powered by solar panels. Other variations include parking lots and alleys that have been converted for outdoor service with ambiance. 

The loyal outdoor customer following over the spring and summer now has restaurateurs scrambling to find ways to keep it going as cooler weather approaches. They hope that designs and equipment might enable outdoor options throughout the winter. 

The Alexandria Economic Development Partnership and the Small Business Development Center are planning a virtual program to acquaint more business owners with options and strategies for their own outdoor possibilities. The hope is to inspire additional restaurateurs, retailers and even other venues. The intent is that well-planned and well-executed designs might spread this new and functional landscape to all sectors of Alexandria.

The information to be shared will include how to apply for the public right-of-way space, design and construction ideas, compliance with ADA requirements, sources of materials and equipment and lessons learned. With more businesses undertaking these setups, it’s possible they could achieve economies of scale from coordinated group efforts. Panelists will include business owners who have built outdoor facilities and are glad to share their experiences. 

It’s incredible to look back over the past six or seven months at the dire circumstances that have caused so much grief and loss, and yet have not only inspired creative survival tactics, but also solutions that enliven our community. City officials and business leaders deserve kudos for their imaginative thinking and planning under pressure. The public also deserves praise for how readily they’ve adapted to new ways of thriving in the face of pandemic.  

The city is special because we have talented and innovative citizenry, and we must continue working hard and adaptively to keep it that way. We are all in this together.

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Shifting the Goal Post

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on August 6, 2020. We endured the shock and awe at the initial pandemic declaration. Strange new habits of social distancing, shutdowns and face masks became patters we adopted in record time.  We then started 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 August 6, 2020.

We endured the shock and awe at the initial pandemic declaration. Strange new habits of social distancing, shutdowns and face masks became patters we adopted in record time. 

We then started to hear about bending the curve and phased openings, and our expectations shifted to gradual improvements in our economy and personal lives. In the interim the scientists have learned more about the virus and have developed interventions that marginally improve survival statics, but nothing they’ve learned so far promises a quick fix.

We presumed Phase I would be followed by subsequent phases that progressively relaxed the precautions and increased business openings. Now flare-ups in pockets around the nation are causing us to re-think all of that and, quite frankly, leave us completely unsure where things are headed.

It would be more reassuring if leaders at all levels were responding to a common yardstick and offering similar guidance, but politics has become just another irritant during the COVID struggle.

Along with the uncertainty, it’s obvious now that this crisis is driving permanent changes to business sectors, our personal approaches and communities. 

For all the harm COVID-19 has done, many of the collective actions we’ve been forced to take are benefitting us now and will bode well for our handling future crises. Analysts talk about the imperative for individuals, businesses and communities to be agile in the face of this pandemic. We’ve seen examples of our local government and business community readily stepping up to adapt previously entrenched policies to the circumstances. The Amazon win spawned regional collaboration, which is a huge advantage in dire circumstances – now and in the future.

Crises stimulate innovation. All of us were forced to become comfortable with telework overnight. Zoom is now common for business meetings as well as for get-togethers with family and friends. 

Long-resistant businesses were forced into ecommerce. Restaurants have adapted their models to providing meal kits and even cocktails for takeout or delivery. Retailers and service sector businesses have reconfigured their space for safety and comfort of both customers and staff. Parents and schools are developing approaches to children’s’ education online. After pondering the closure of parts of King Street for years we now have a scenic setting for outdoor dining.  

It’s not all roses. There are industries that have no idea what their sector is going to look like going forward and all small businesses with thinner margins are rightfully concerned about where things are headed. 

Lessons from recent loan programs point to the imperative for businesses to strengthen their relationships with bankers and community business associations. In these uncertain circumstances, it’s also advisable to tap into the free resources of the Small Business Development Center for objective feedback and guidance on matters such as cash management, capital acquisition, personnel issues and optimizing operations.

While our goal posts are shifting and much is uncertain, what we’ve had to endure has not been a wasted effort. We’re stronger for having dealt with it individually and collectively. We ARE in this together!

Business owners can find COVID-19 assistance and recovery updates at www.alexandriasbdc.org.

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All Hands on Deck

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on July 2, 2020. We’re making our way through extraordinary times. The circumstances we’ve struggled with for months now have no precedent. Decision-makers at all levels have no off-the-shelf solutions to select from.  The critical choices… 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 2, 2020.

We’re making our way through extraordinary times. The circumstances we’ve struggled with for months now have no precedent. Decision-makers at all levels have no off-the-shelf solutions to select from. 

The critical choices that had to be made quickly held life or death consequences, and they also severely constrained economic vitality. Nobody had easy options. 

Those consequential decisions over the past months have touched almost every aspect of our lives and economy. Community and industry leaders are coming to grips now with just how pervasive those shifts will continue to be. Some have opined that there are likely more changes ahead of us than what we’ve experienced since February. The brightest experts readily admit, however, that none of us truly knows what to expect over the coming months and years.

As we continue phased reopening – learning from glitches here and there – the coming weeks and months are more likely to be a plodding slog contrasted with the adrenalin-surge we felt at the start. The disaster loan and grant programs will run their course and business owners will have to calculate their next steps. It’s hard to be profitable with limited capacity and additional safety costs, and near impossible to predict consumer preferences.

Where employees work and how they work is likely to be as permanently altered as how we shop, dine and seek entertainment. With changed land use demands, communities might have new choices to make and perhaps the opportunity to reshape what had already been planned.

We’re bracing ourselves for the growing list of venerable community icons that are closing. Surprisingly though, we’re also hearing from entrepreneurs with ventures that will attract new markets. 

Alexandria has much to be grateful for. Our community leaders were among the earliest to take drastic distancing steps and involve experts in health policies. It’s reassuring to note how forthcoming everyone has been to pitch in and do what needs to be done.

Alexandria’s tight-knit business community has routinely worked collaboratively and that’s never served us better than now. One of the greatest challenges is always getting the right information and resources to the right people – and at the right time. That could always be improved but Alexandria shares information throughout its business community better than most.

City leadership has also undertaken extraordinary efforts to continue or reinstate services and adapt previously rigid protocols to give businesses more flexibility for serving customers and generating revenue. Even state functions never before considered particularly accommodating have adjusted some of their requirements and granted concessions under the new circumstance. It’s a boost to all of us when people can enjoy al fresco dining on our distinctive streets.

As we plan for the coming phases, we can reflect on just how well the Alexandria community has risen to the occasion. We have seen innovative responses and productive partnerships. The phrase “we’re all in this to together” is a mantra that drives us onward, and it’s reassuring to be in something like this with the likes of fellow Alexandrians.

Business owners can find COVID-19 assistance and recovery updates at www.alexandriasbdc.org.

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