Small businesses have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the pandemic began in March 2020, Blue Ridge Community College’s Small Business Center (SBC) has worked tirelessly to support entrepreneurs in this unprecedented time.
For years, the SBC has served local entrepreneurs through free consultations, trainings and networking events. To address the challenges small businesses faced during the pandemic, the SBC expanded its services with the Reboot, Recover, Rebuild (R3) Program, which ran from June through December 2020.
Working with regional partners, the R3 Program paired subject matter experts with local business owners to support stabilization efforts in areas like pivoting operations, digital marketing, rebranding, legal, accounting, financial planning and more.
“In the spring of 2020, many businesses were struggling to keep their doors open,” says Ben Smith, director of the Small Business Center. “As we moved into the summer months, we saw many clients were confused about what resources were available and how to make sense of their market. Through funding from the CARES Act, the State of North Carolina appropriated disaster assistance funding to each Small Business Center in the state.”
These professional services would normally cost a small business hundreds or even thousands of dollars, says Smith.
In total, Blue Ridge’s R3 Program served 69 businesses with 422 consultations and more than 600 hours of one-on-one counseling.
“To put that in perspective, on average, each business that enrolled in the program returned for additional consulting services at least six times and received roughly 10 hours of one-on-one counseling from our subject matter experts,” he says. “These services were essential for most of the clients in the program.”
R3 Program helps local entrepreneur rebrand, improve social media presence
Deborah Harville, co-owner of Red Oak Integration, an integrated fire and security solutions company based in Transylvania County, participated in the R3 Program, which she says helped her business immensely.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, we went two months without any work,” says Harville. “I’m thankful for Blue Ridge’s Small Business Center. In a moment where I felt like everything was falling apart and I didn’t know where to turn, all of a sudden, I had people explaining to me what was happening and who I could contact.”
Harville secured a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan through Mountain BizWorks and an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL).
“I was panic-stricken, but the Small Business Center helped me come up with a solution,” she says.
The SBC also connected Harville with Gary Heisey, an R3 counselor who helped clients build, grow and market their brands. He also supported several entrepreneurs in their startup efforts.
“I didn’t understand anything about social media at the time, but I do now,” says Harville. “Gary worked with me since the beginning and helped me understand how social media works, how to post regularly, where to post and how to make my messaging consistent, so people start recognizing our name. I’m utilizing every aspect I can – Instagram, LinkedIn, Google My Business. These are all things I would never have thought of doing before I started working with Gary.”
Harville also participated in a monthly roundtable with other entrepreneurs, led by Heisey.
She says she already sees results from social media marketing and the community is becoming more aware of her company.
In addition to ramping up Red Oak Integration’s social media presence, Harville is rebranding her business, redesigning her website and diversifying her product line, all recommendations from the Small Business Center and R3 team.
“The Small Business Center is on the cutting edge of everything that’s going on, whether it’s about the virus or small businesses in this area,” says Harville. “They know who to get you in contact with. They’ve been very helpful and work so hard for the community and for small business owners to be successful in the community.”
R3 helps entertainment venue owner connect with customers during pandemic
Hope Grier, co-owner of Timber Axe Throwing, an axe-throwing venue in Hendersonville, has worked with the SBC since the pandemic began. Her industry – tourism and entertainment – was hit particularly hard at the beginning of the pandemic and is still feeling some of those impacts. Resources like R3 have been essential in revising her marketing and communicating to her customer base to generate business.
“The hardest part for us was that we had only been open for a short time when COVID hit,” says Grier. “It was rough. The first two years in a new business are never easy and the pandemic didn’t help.”
Timber Axe Throwing had to shut down in mid-March and reopened in June.
“Since we reopened, it’s been slower than we’d hoped,” she says. “When COVID happened, the bills didn’t stop, so we had to reopen as soon as we were able to so we could pay the bills and get our employees back on the job, so they had income as well.”
Grier worked with Heisey on social media, marketing, search engine optimization and public relations. She says his consulting services through the R3 Program were instrumental in helping helped her improve her company’s Google presence.
“I do all of our social media and PR, so Gary gave us suggestions and tips for how to make our presence even better and get more attention in the community,” says Grier. “He also convinced me to participate in the Paycheck Protection Program. I wouldn’t have signed up for it without his guidance and we benefitted from it.”
Grier says she highly recommends other entrepreneurs work with Blue Ridge’s Small Business Center.
“It was a great resource and, because of the grant the Small Business Center received, we were able to benefit from these services at no charge to us, which was a huge help with everything that’s going on,” she says. “I highly recommend the Small Business Center to other businesses.”
Grier’s advice to other small business owners?
“Stay positive,” she says. “We have a really great community. We’re all in this together as small business owners. We can support each other and not be afraid to look and ask for resources, like the Small Business Center. We’re going to look back and say that this was hard, but it also made us stronger and more assured in our businesses. If we can get through this, we can get through anything.”
Small Business Center resources in 2021
Though the R3 Program expired in December, small business support resources still exist through the Small Business Center. Free business training courses covering all of the support areas previously listed can be accessed through the SBC’s website at blueridge.edu/sbc. Additionally, small business counseling through the SBC continues for businesses in need.
“We’re grateful to have had the opportunity to offer these services to the business community during this crisis,” says Smith. ¬