As America works to overcome the economic and social effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, small businesses are some of the most negatively impacted of all industries. To address this issue and alleviate some of the local businesses’ suffering, the Blue Ridge Community College Small Business Center (BRCC SBC) is working diligently to provide exceptional service in an online format, and helpful advice to struggling business owners.
Traditionally, Blue Ridge Community College’s Small Business Center provides free training for small business owners and entrepreneurs in the form of events, including webinars, seminars, workshops and conferences.
Small Business Center Director Ben Smith says that over the past year, the SBC has really stepped up its webinar offerings, which ultimately worked to their advantage with the outbreak of COVID-19. Because of this, all SBC events were moved online to webinar format.
In the 2018-19 Fiscal Year, the SBC hosted 115 events, and is prepared to host over 150 in 2019-20.
“I think what the Small Business Center offers is great. It’s a combination of webinars tailored specifically for our community dealing macro issues like this pandemic, general small business growth and expansion trainings, and small business counseling,” Smith said.
While part of this counseling involves ensuring entrepreneurs have all the tools they need to kick off a new business, another aspect is focused on existing business owners, who are often experiencing growth issues or diminishing demand. The SBC works with this group to determine where they’d like to go with their business, how to set goals, market their products or services, and get their business on the right track.
When the COVID-19 virus was beginning to gain traction in the United States, Smith said he was expecting a traumatic blow to small businesses.
“With people staying home, social distancing and limiting their exposure, there is a huge impact on almost any small business and its cash flow. It was obvious a vast proportion of small businesses would be suffering,” he said.
Since the outbreak, Smith has encountered a variety of responses from small business owners, including spreading personal finances thin, racking up credit card debt and businesses nearing bankruptcy.
Smith said the first disaster loan released by the Small Business Administration was good and had favorable interest rates, but didn’t fully provide relief to all/most small businesses. Things started improving when Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act or CARES, which changed the parameters of the first loan and offered a new product – the Payroll Protection Program.
The first loan, an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL), is differentiated between a $25,000 allotment and higher. If your approved loan is under $25,000, you won’t need collateral. If the loan amount is larger than $25,000, collateral is required if available, but lacking it won’t prevent you from receiving a loan. The CARES Act allowed small businesses to have a $10,000 allotment up front as an advance, which small business owners did not have to pay back, thus operating as an advanced forgiveness loan, or a grant.
Smith said the Blue Ridge SBC is encouraging all small business owners to apply for the loan, to receive $10,000 to immediately help with their cash flow and buy them much-needed time to stay afloat.
“This is a very good safety net for the short term. It’s very critical, and the turn around is very quick, generally 5-7 business days,” he added.
The second type of loan, the Paycheck Protection Program, may be a suitable option for people who may not meet the requirements of the EIDL. This may be incredibly beneficial to displaced workers from service industries unable to return to work. This program is designed to pay up to 2.5 times monthly payroll costs for an eight week term to businesses who rehire their displaced employees.
Explaining these crucial pieces of legislation has been the focus of at least one SBC webinar, with several pertaining to the various facets of operating a business during COVID-19. Smith reports a boom in attendance, with countless new businesses joining in the webinars.
Working with the Transylvania Business Support Task Force composed of the Brevard/Transylvania Chamber of Commerce, the Heart of Brevard, BRCC SBC, and The Alliance, the group offered a survey to local businesses to determine needs in the community. Most businesses wanted to know what resources were available to them and how they could take advantage.
With this feedback, the Task Force created the Transylvania Virtual Town Hall webinar featuring representatives from sectors related to business owners’ needs; over 175 attended.
Clark Lovelace, executive director of the Brevard/Transylvania Chamber of Commerce and Transylvania County Tourism Development Authority stated, “Our local business owners needed instructions on how to take advantage of various programs and answers to questions specific to their business. We hosted the town hall meeting to have experts provide them those answers. Feedback following the event has been extremely positive, with an indication that the right group of presenters provided them the right information. Thank you to the Blue Ridge Small Business Center for their leadership in making the event happen.”
Of all the advice he can offer, Smith suggests: looking at where your business and industry are at and seeing if you can pivot off your current situation; reducing costs wherever possible; taking advantage by applying for federal loan programs; having a conversation with your bank; and building on current marketing and operational systems such as social media and email newsletters.
“Any time you participate in a class like our webinars, you’re going to walk away with something new you can take back and apply to your business.” Smith added, “Plus, our webinars are free. It’s a win-win for everyone right now.”
The SBC has numerous events scheduled for April, all online. To learn more about the SBC and see what’s coming up, visit blueridge.edu/sbc, which includes a link to more resources related to COVID-19.
Smith can be reached at Blue Ridge Community College at firstname.lastname@example.org or (828) 694-1658.