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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Down the Rabbit Hole

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on June 4, 2020. We’ve been in this strange reality so long that we might begin to wonder what efforts will be required to get us back to a semblance of our earlier routines. The prognosticators… 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 4, 2020.

We’ve been in this strange reality so long that we might begin to wonder what efforts will be required to get us back to a semblance of our earlier routines. The prognosticators are already telling us that some aspects of our lives have permanently changed.

We’ve suffered our own personal scars and losses and grieve for the lives and fortunes ruined by COVID-19. We’re likely to be further dejected by the loss of some establishments that have become fixtures in our lives and pillars in our community.

Now it’s time to begin a gradual reopening. We’ll ponder how altered things might be and highlight where there could be opportunities for imaginative solutions.

One step forward is that we’re likely to be much more attentive and mutually respectful during future cold and flu seasons. Ideally, our behavior will comfortably settle somewhere between today’s paranoia and yesterday’s indifference.

Summertime used to mean beaches and vacations.  It also used to be the time for the internships and fellowships that often laid the groundwork for future careers. Industrious youths are now considering volunteer and community service alternatives that could become new traditions with substantial societal benefits.

Predicting consumer behavior is fraught with so much conflicting data that savvy entrepreneurs recognize they’re just going to have to monitor shifting shopper preferences and make adjustments on the fly. Consumers still look for convenience and place value on the shopping and dining experience. Throughout this crisis, innovative business owners have found ways to deliver. Customers have shown how accommodating they are about all sorts of restrictions when they’re for the common good and have become loyal followers of creative merchants.

Generations of younger adults who have shunned individual transportation in favor of mass transit now face daunting choices because many are now reluctant to travel in crowded conveyances. Coworkers are also warry of working alongside those who do.

With more of our population reaching retirement age and still being active and affluent, upscale retirement facilities with amenities seemed to be the wave of the future. That industry now must make creative adjustments.

“Contactless” has become essential for payments, check-in and delivery and it will be intriguing to watch how all businesses revise such processes. It will be especially interesting to see those changes in the travel and hospitality industries.

Office buildings are engaged now in enormous redesigns for physical layout, social distancing for personnel protection, schedule changes and extra cleaning. Remote working is likely to continue as a prevalent option. There is little consensus on when local offices expect to be opened. Some say later this summer, and others in the fall or even into 2021.

These are just a few examples of some dramatic shifts ahead. Both the virus and circumstances we’ve endured for weeks were novel. The reopening and recovery processes will also be novel. 

Alexandria and its business community are engaged in a wholehearted, collaborative effort to thrive again. 

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

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Resilience

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on April 2, 2020. As a breather from our anxiety with all the unknowns and frustrations over changes to our personal and work patterns, I thought it might add perspective if we paused a moment 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 April 2, 2020.

As a breather from our anxiety with all the unknowns and frustrations over changes to our personal and work patterns, I thought it might add perspective if we paused a moment to recognize just how effectively we’ve responded.

Before we do this, however, we cannot overlook the damage to our small businesses and their employees, and there’s information at the end to direct them to the SBDC site for latest information on COVID-19 assistance programs. 

Perhaps you’ve had occasion to remember back to something that occurred two or three weeks ago and have been startled to realize it seemed more like months. Our lives and patterns have spiraled dramatically over such a short span.

Think of the last time that someone tried to shake your hand and you had to awkwardly turn it into an elbow touch. Now we stand six feet apart in checkout lines. We’ve completely changed behavior in a few weeks’ time. We might have considered ourselves set in our ways, but have demonstrated a capacity for reversing lifelong patterns under dire circumstances

As we migrate through this strange period of social distancing and all the other norms that have shifted, it will be fascinating to see how things have changed once we get back to normalcy. How soon will we start handshaking again? How soon will we fly or attend large gatherings? We’ve seen our grandparents who were depression era children maintain their frugality their entire lives.

Under duress, we’ve had a couple of huge accomplishments. For one, we’ve established much healthier public health patterns and future common cold and flu seasons are likely to be milder and better managed.

Another big thing is how we’ve been forced to learn and comfortably adapt the technology that was in our devices all along. We have become remote work mavens with new comfort zones and techniques we can use from now on.

Those changing patters that we’ve adopted are likely to have ripple effects into the economy and provoke owners to rethink their business models. How might retailers and hospitality businesses reconfigure their offerings to include zoom sessions or curbside pickup?  What new services might crop up to remedy the damage we’ve done with hand sanitizer on our steering wheels, wallets, phones and who knows what else? 

As time and fewer pressing issues allow us to refocus more on the future, our American ingenuity will prompt us to develop new products, services, leisure options and ways of doing things that we never considered before. And not just America – the whole world is going through this together and that holds the potential for international shifts that we will respond to here.  

We’ll come out of this living nightmare and weep for the lives lost and the grief and disruption caused, but we are entitled to a sense of accomplishment for the resilience we’ve shown in the face of horrible circumstances and the improvements we’ll make from what we’ve learned.

Business owners can find the latest COVID-19 assistance updates at www.alexandriasbdc.org

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Small Biz Nightmares: Employees and Security

In the last few years we have seen several news accounts of major data breaches involving big businesses, nonprofit organizations, banking institutions, and even government entities.  While this is a major issue for these organizations, they generally have the expertise and means to fix the issue and ensure that the breach does not continue.  But… Read more »

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In the last few years we have seen several news accounts of major data breaches involving big businesses, nonprofit organizations, banking institutions, and even government entities.  While this is a major issue for these organizations, they generally have the expertise and means to fix the issue and ensure that the breach does not continue.  But what about small businesses?  Studies have shown that 90% of small businesses do not use any data protection at all for company information.  However, last year 61% of cyberattacks were aimed at small businesses, and 60% of small companies that experience a breach go out of business within six months of a cyber attack.

What is a small business owner to do?  The Alexandria SBDC recently presented a webinar with two experts to address what small businesses can do to minimize their cyber threats, particularly the very real threats involved with hiring employees, contractors and vendors.  Patra Frame of Strategies for Human Resources, and Elizabeth Moon of Focus Data Solutions set forth in this webinar some concrete and simple steps that all business owners can take today to protect their company data.  It should be viewed by all small business owners and their employees.

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Be Prepared… You Never Know…

We received the following notice last evening from SBDC friend, colleague, and social media guru, Ray Sidney-Smith.  It is important information on being prepared for any emergency, and how being prepared can save your business.  All small businesses and organizations should take note: Dear Clients and Colleagues, As some of you have heard, our office… Read more »

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We received the following notice last evening from SBDC friend, colleague, and social media guru, Ray Sidney-Smith.  It is important information on being prepared for any emergency, and how being prepared can save your business.  All small businesses and organizations should take note:

Dear Clients and Colleagues,

As some of you have heard, our office building, located across from the GMU Arlington campus, experienced a fire last evening. I wanted to send this (hopefully) brief message to explain a few things that will be useful to everyone.

First, the fire was on the fourth floor and so our office suite was not directly in the blaze. Unfortunately, water and smoke we are presuming did the worst it could. It’s an active investigation so we’re unable to enter the building or office suite to see the extent of the damage. No one died or was injured during this ordeal, thank goodness.

That said, thanks to my sometimes manic imperative that everything be done in our Web-based infrastructure, no data was lost or is compromised. Our business operations will continue to function as normal, perhaps with a few delays in responding as we manage around the situation. We thank you for your understanding.

Finally, I cannot impress upon everyone the importance that these “acts of God” (or, acts of arsonists, hackers and other criminals) can and will happen…it’s simply a matter of time. Please make sure you have backups (cloud and offsite) and disaster response and recovery plans in place, as we did. These are always emotional experiences, but knowing what to do and how in writing was a gift from my past self to my present self. I really hope that this experience sparks some of you to do what’s needed to be prepared.

Best regards,
Ray Sidney-Smith
W3 Consulting

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What precautions are you taking for the next catastrophe?

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on September 28, 2017. Lately, our television screens have been filled with scenes of hurricanes and earthquakes, and people struggling to recover their lives – and businesses. For those devastated businesses, survival statistics are especially grim. FEMA estimates 40… 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 28, 2017.

Lately, our television screens have been filled with scenes of hurricanes and earthquakes, and people struggling to recover their lives – and businesses. For those devastated businesses, survival statistics are especially grim. FEMA estimates 40 percent of businesses do not reopen after a disaster, and of those that do reopen, 25 percent fail within one year.

Tragic events dramatically teach us how much of our daily routines are dependent on infrastructure that we take for granted. We expect to reach colleagues, customers and our support network by email or phone. We count on accessing critical financial or operational records electronically or in our file cabinets. A variety of calamities can make those inaccessible – temporarily or permanently. These include hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, severe storms, fires, pandemics, power outages, demonstrations, terrorism and cyber-attacks.

The aftermath of catastrophes is always chaotic. Larger corporations dedicate staff to emergency planning and have established backup procedures, but small businesses tend to procrastinate such pre-planning, and often flounder through the recovery process. Even when federal, state and local resources are made available, it’s often not obvious when and how to access them.

Since hurricane images are fresh on our minds and September is National Preparedness Month, this an ideal time to pause for a moment to think about the most critical aspects of your business and the many ways they could be disrupted. With those contemplations, you can then plot a few basic preparedness steps. Here are some basics:

  • Check your insurance to see what coverage you have. Is it adequate? Do you have flood and business interruption coverage?
  • Establish a communications plan for alternate ways to reach employees, customers and your support system. This might necessitate keeping key lists and records offsite.
  • Have offsite backup for your digital files. This can include a full copy of your encrypted data on an external hard drive taken offsite, and/or using a cloud storage backup service. Note that offsite storage of data, lists and records must be routinely updated.
  • Prepare a handy, waterproof and fireproof survival kit that includes cash, nonperishable food, water, first aid, sanitation, flashlight and battery supplies. Retailers and restaurateurs might add a manual credit card machine, credit card slips and instructions on what to do in case of an outage. If you have perishable items, consider a generator for refrigeration.
  • Make sure all of these contingency efforts are periodically explained to all staff.

Most emergency preparedness recommendations are too cumbersome for small businesses to realistically undertake. SBA has more succinct guidelines and checklists at SBA.gov/prepare.
Alexandria Small Business Development Center staff interacted with SBA and FEMA following the disaster declarations for both 9/11 and Hurricane Isabel. Most of the resulting disaster loans approved throughout Northern Virginia followed the Alexandria center’s direct involvement. We pray there’s never another occasion to use that expertise, but local businesses should note Alexandria SBDC as their go-to contact in dire circumstances.

Preparedness efforts aren’t easy to prioritize, but they can predetermine business survival.

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Cybersecurity for Small Business: It Doesn’t Keep You Up at Night? It Should!

If you want a pleasant Sunday morning read, check out this list of data breaches of major companies, organizations and government agencies. These are entities with IT departments, security professionals monitoring their networks, cybersecurity policies, and a budget to support their cybersecurity efforts. At least one of these data breaches included data about you. And,… Read more »

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If you want a pleasant Sunday morning read, check out this list of data breaches of major companies, organizations and government agencies. These are entities with IT departments, security professionals monitoring their networks, cybersecurity policies, and a budget to support their cybersecurity efforts. At least one of these data breaches included data about you. And, these cyberattacks were not even the primary targets of most attacks in the world. Hackers today find it lucrative to target businesses and, more specifically, North America-based small businesses.

Hackers have breached about 14 million small businesses in the last year, and most don’t know it. Cybersecurity for Small Business might sound obscure if you’re in business on “Main Street” and don’t sell online. However, it’s one of the most important management areas of your business to focus on today. Cybersecurity itself means protecting your digital world from attacks in a variety of forms so you can focus on running and growing your business.

Unfortunately, gone are the days when you can buy antivirus software for your desktop computer and all your digital worries can go away; it’s part of the solution but it’s not the whole solution. There are many ways in which hackers can penetrate your personal, your business, your employees, and your customers’ machines and access data with intent to steal or get access to that equipment for nefarious reasons. Frequently, the reasoning doesn’t make sense on the surface so you aren’t suspicious, and this can be the most dangerous cybersecurity breaches because you are unaware for so long.

I’ll use the colloquial term “cybercrime” throughout this discussion to cover the wide variety of crimes, unethical tactics, and downright immoral practices of individuals and companies against personal and business systems and their data. These cybercrimes include, but are not limited to,

  • hacking your digital devices (which could be your smartphone, computers and laptops, Point of Sale terminals, credit card machines, and similar devices),
  • hacking your digital services (think about your website, email, cloud storage, and online services),
  • blatant physical theft (ergo, larceny) of digital equipment to get the underlying data,
  • data theft,
  • phishing,
  • stalking,
  • identity theft,
  • wire tapping,
  • denial of service (DoS) and distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks against your servers to shut down your websites,
  • email bombing (the equivalent of a DoS/DDoS attack, but with a volume of email messages sent to you instead of HTTP requests to the server), and
  • injection of malware (malicious software), ransomware (taking data to make you pay to gain get it back), and other types of software that do dubious actions to your digital environment.

Now isn’t this a Charlie Foxtrot, eh? I know it’s daunting and it might scare and overwhelm you. It’s understandable that you may feel this way. But, as a business owner in the Internet Age, you must head cybercrime off at the pass, or risk losing time, money, and clients. Thankfully, there are some common sense ways to deal with cybercrime, so you can rest at ease knowing your digital world is safe and get back to running your business.

Physical security of hardware

Every Small Business should have physical security protocols for all digital devices (phones, external hard drives, computers should be secured in place so they cannot be easily picked up and run away with, laptops / tablets / credit card readers should be secured in locked storage when not in use.

Your next best defense since people are fallible, is to have an offsite backup. This can include making a full copy of your encrypted data on an external hard drive and taking it someplace away from the business location, and/or using a cloud storage backup service such as Carbonite, Crashplan, or even Google Backup and Sync.

Something that some businesses are starting to do as well, when all else fails, is to make sure their business liability insurance cover physical theft. And, you should know that there are cyber security risk / liability insurance policies available for damages and losses from digital means.

Physical access to systems (users)

When it comes to physical access to systems, your users should be guided by an effective Digital Device Policy and include protocols for:

  • How to create employee user accounts and assign only the administrative/user privileges needed for them to perform in their role.
  • Give users physical access to systems only at the times needed to satisfy their assignments, and not give access to unnecessary systems at all. If employees don’t need access to your server room, don’t give it to them.
  • For how to allow Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) employees at your business. You should have in place a policy for managing BYOD’s. Employees must use and abide by these security protocols on their mobile devices, if they use personal devices at work.

Separation of personal and business devices

You separate your business and personal finances, because you need to track what is yours and what is your business’, even if only for tax purposes. The same goes with cybersecurity. You need separate personal and business logins for online accounts. This may also include hardware, like the phone you use to make and receive personal or work calls. Will your ISP or telecommunications provider have protections in place if you’re using your consumer service for business purposes? Probably not. The fine print matters here.

Software protections

Since the late 1990s there has been antivirus and anti-spyware software. And, yet, business owners resist installing reputable antivirus software on their business machines. While some have costs associated with them, many are free and built into your operating system, such as Windows Defender. You simply need to activate them. But, if you have purchased a license for one not built into your operating system, please make sure that your license is still valid and the software are kept up-to-date (including your mobile phones and devices). Also, firewalls keep your computer, and any devices or routers connected to the Internet safer, especially your Web browsers (all of them, even if you don’t use them all, all of the time), must have firewall protection. Again, on Microsoft Windows, there’s Windows Firewall that simply needs to be enabled.

VPN when on WiFi on anyone else’s network

If you spend much of your time on other people’s WiFi, then you need to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to secure your business data trafficking across the network. This includes any open WiFi network at your local cafe and if you’re working at a coworking space or even at your client’s site. No network outside your firewall can be trusted to be secure. A VPN product you can try for 500MB per month for free is TunnelBear and if you use more data than that per month across your business, then you can upgrade.

Web browsing and email protections

As a business owner (and advising your staff similarly), don’t open suspect emails and don’t transact any personal or private information about yourself via email. Period.

At the core of most Web and email protection is antivirus and spam-filtering software, so it’s definitely recommended that your ESP (email service provider) and/or ISP (Internet service provider) give you options for protecting and securing your Web and email traffic. However, that’s simply not enough for a business today.

In addition to such protective software, you should also seek out information on implementing SPF, DKIM, and/or DMARC as available through your ESP.

It also doesn’t hurt to enable two-factor authentication (a/k/a 2FA or TFA) on all online services that have the capability. Where possible, use a password manager, such as LastPass, 1Password, or Dashlane, to not only use unique passwords for every online account you have for the business, but also long passwords with unique passwords to increase its resilience to attacks.

Mobile security

As more and more computing happens on mobile devices, security on them will become the dominant concern for small business owners. But, mobile doesn’t simply stop there. With the advent of Internet of Things (embedded “smart” technology in everyday things), wearable technologies, smart vehicle systems (Android Auto, anyone?), and voice assistants (like Amazon Echo devices, Google Home, and, the newcomer, Apple HomePod), cybersecurity needs expand to have to meet those new frontiers.

It’s so important for Small Business to have their representatives’ support when it comes to combatting cybercrime against them and their customers. In April, a bipartisan small business cybersecurity bill was introduced by nine senators—the MAIN STREET Cybersecurity Act of 2017. Sadly, this bill, according to Skopos Labs as detailed on GovTrack.us, has a 3% chance of becoming law. This is a commonsense piece of legislation to get the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), “to disseminate resources to help reduce small business cybersecurity risks, and for other purposes.” Call your congressional representatives and tell them that you support S. 770 and they should support their small business voters by supporting this bill.

Also, if you’re scared senseless and you need help, never fear. Contact the Alexandria Small Business Development Center and we can refer you to professional security consultants who can help you.

Next Roundtable – August 15, 2017 – Sizing Up the Competition: How to Create a Competitive Advantage

Alexandria Small Business Development Center hosts a monthly Business Development Roundtable from January to November. We meet in our main conference at noon on the third Tuesday of the month, and you can bring a beverage or your lunch, for a different business marketing or management topic that’s pertinent to Alexandria Small Business. Join us on August 15, 2017 at noon, when we gather to discuss “Sizing Up the Competition: How to Create a Competitive Advantage.”

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