Alexandria’s Small Business Resource for 23 Years

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on December 5, 2019. As the Alexandria Small Business Development Center enters its 24th year of serving the community’s small businesses, it’s perhaps a good time to describe the center’s role and free resources for those… 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 5, 2019.

As the Alexandria Small Business Development Center enters its 24th year of serving the community’s small businesses, it’s perhaps a good time to describe the center’s role and free resources for those not familiar with them.

The SBDC works alongside the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership and Visit Alexandria to support and strengthen the small businesses that comprise about 90 percent of Alexandria’s total businesses.

The center helps businesses starting up or moving to Alexandria to make the right connections, guiding them through startup and permitting steps or helping them solve problems that arise.

For businesses already in operation, the center has timely and expert resources to help them where they lack in-house expertise. The center has nothing to sell them and is focused only on what is in their best interests. Several owners proclaim that having the SBDC as a free and objective go-to source is among the reasons they choose to stay and grow their business in Alexandria.

Alexandria SBDC Staff

Few communities have such a hands-on, free resource for businesses that is an integral part of the economic development and business community. The center also works to enhance communication and understanding between city staff and businesses, among business groups and among businesses themselves.

Over the two decades, the center has answered many thousands of inquiries about a broad range of business matters. It has provided more than 27,000 hours of objective feedback and assistance to several thousand individuals, both existing business owners and startups. It has also helped individuals obtain more than $80 million in loans, primarily from Alexandria bankers.

Those who work with the center from the earliest stage of their business are typically better organized and prepared for the requirements ahead, and they launch with better connections and more viable and agile operations. With the center’s proactive guidance and ready availability to help owners with challenges, SBDC client businesses’ longevity far exceed national small business statistics.

The center is continually adding resources and contacts to meet shifting demands on businesses. It is also responsive to changing times and community priorities. As an example, the center is now focusing attention on those businesses in parts of Alexandria where redevelopment is planned or in process.

Redevelopment can pose both opportunities and challenges for existing businesses. Incoming new residents and businesses are likely to spend more but demand higher quality and better service. Current businesses can maintain their distinct character but might need to make adjustments and enhance their appearance, products, services and the customer experience. They also must improve operations to be able to afford the increased lease rates likely with redevelopment.

The staff and board of directors of the Alexandria Small Business Development Center have been honored by the opportunity to engage with Alexandria businesses for 23 years. We value the support from and collaborative partnerships with city government and our economic development partners.

Alexandria is a tight-knit and resourceful business community that is better because of the vitality of its small businesses.

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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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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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Timely Connections Make a Difference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Look Before You Lease

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pop-up Retail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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