SBDC West Michigan Region has tools to help businesses survive pandemic

This has been a busy year for Regional Director Ed Garner and his small but productive team at the West Michigan Region of Michigan Small Business Development Center (SBDC). The SBDC provides no-cost consulting, business education, secondary market research, and technology commercialization services to Michigan’s new business ventures, existing small businesses, growing businesses, and innovators. The regional office is located in Grand Valley State University's Seidman College of Business in downtown Grand Rapids.

Earlier this year, the office received the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Excellence and Innovation Award for the state. The accolade spotlighted the office’s accomplishments in 2019. That work prepared staff for an even busier 2020, in which they helped small businesses pivot to deal with the economic challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Lakeshore checked in with Garner to learn how the SBDC has stepped up to help small businesses in 2020.

The Lakeshore: West Michigan is a large region with a mix of urban, suburban, and rural communities. How does your office serve such a diverse region?

Ed Garner: Our West Michigan region covers 13 counties, including Allegan, Kent, Muskegon, and Ottawa. West Michigan is certainly a major player in our economy and is probably the second-largest region economically. Our region is diverse economically. We cover the densely populated metro Grand Rapids with more than a million residents to sparsely populated communities in Lake or Mason counties with populations under 12,000 and 30,000, respectively. We kind of cover the whole gamut from urban to rural and each has its own challenges. Small businesses are just as important to communities as larger ones.

TL: The COVID-19 pandemic created an economic crisis that has forced many businesses to change how they operate. How has the pandemic impacted how your team delivers services? 

EG: Historically, we see somewhere an average of 600 to 700 clients a year. In 2019, we saw almost 900 clients. Typically, we help startups get going a little bit faster. That was one of our innovations we received our award for in 2020. We did a program called Launch Now, which expedited the process for people looking to start a business. We saw more clients in that space in the past year. Our goals are set by the SBA, our primary funder. In 2020, we have worked with more than 1,100 clients. This shows people are reaching out for our services. We're trying to assist as many businesses as we can during the pandemic.

TL: Your office was lauded for its innovative approach to meeting clients' needs in 2019. What were the differences in requests for services between 2019 and 2020?

EG: In 2019, the focus was on getting people started. In 2020, we pivoted to meet the greatest need, which was saving businesses. We worked primarily with existing companies, helping them find funding and strategize ways to respond to the different ways the pandemic was impacting their businesses. We ramped up our training roster with new programs. We added a new consultant, who provides training on how to sell products online using platforms such as Etsy and Shopify, and how to better use Google and Instagram. We are trying to help people understand some of the tools available to help them move more of their business online to increase sales as more people are shopping online. We are also helping them work through the cash flows to get through this difficult period. We've done more than 5,000 hours of consulting with our clients in 2020, which is up over 2019. 

TL: Your office quickly shifted in 2020 to meet the emerging needs of clients. What are some of the resources available to small businesses right now? 

EG: We continue to assist companies in accessing capital. In 2019, our region achieved $23 million in what we call capital formation. The capital programs we worked with in 2020 were different. They included the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL). There have also been smaller grant programs through the state of Michigan and local sources that offered grants of $5,000 to $20,000. Normally, the government doesn’t give grants to businesses, but the goal this year is to help small businesses with some working capital during this difficult time. The funds can be used to pay employees, utilities, rent, etc. We're trying to make sure small businesses get access to as many of these resources as possible.

TL: Tell us about your award-winning team that has been innovative in meeting the changing needs of clients. How big is your team and what expertise do they bring to the table?

EG: We have a team of nine people with over 125 years’ worth of combined business experience. Our office also uses a statewide team of Growth and Tech Consultants for larger clients. My background is in financial and economic development. I worked in banking and ran a small business loan program. Members of the team have experience in sales & marketing, small business, finance, human resources, and buying and selling businesses. I previously served as president/CEO of Muskegon Area First, a private, nonprofit corporation serving all of Muskegon County. Everyone does everything, but we do have someone designated to work with minority firms — since those have been disproportionately hit during COVID — and another focused on rural communities. We’ve also launched a new program we’re calling the Entrepreneur’s Toolbox. This is a series of how-to webinars giving instruction on how to improve your business.

TL:  You mentioned your office has pivoted quickly to help clients respond to the economic challenges of the pandemic by expanding services. What services does the SBDC now offer?

EG: Our services are free. We really work to keep abreast of any opportunities people can access in terms of resources, particularly financial resources. We do not loan money or gift money ourselves, but we stay at the forefront of what's available. We help deal with the application process for some of these programs, as well. We are a good resource as companies are revisiting their business model and trying to pivot to respond to the challenges of the pandemic economy. As they are rethinking how their business operates, we can help them do that. We can run an analysis of their financial numbers. We can help them strategize, to look at new business opportunities or new ways of doing business. We're in a good place to help them come up with a plan for 2021. With CARES Act funding, we were able to contract with some private vendors to offer some direct services. We have accountants, attorneys, and marketing and web development people who can provide free assistance. Another resource is the program LendGR, where businesses can receive up to 25 hours of pro bono work from Grand Valley business students. 

TL:  There's no question that 2020 was a tough year for small businesses because of the COVID-19-related shutdowns and restrictions. What do you see your office helping clients in 2021?

EG: We're really trying to help as many people as possible survive this. No one knew how long this thing was gonna last. I think people were anticipating maybe three to six months, but it's dragging on longer than people expected. Hopefully, in 2021, we'll get back to a little bit of normalcy. But some of the changes businesses have had to implement will likely stick, like the demand for takeout and doing meetings online instead of in person. The use of technology has increased for everyone. It's forced us to learn how to operate a little bit differently. 

We've been really trying to keep our finger on the pulse of what's happening out there. Oftentimes, we get a heads-up on some of the programs and stuff that may be rolling out. That's why people should stay engaged with us. We encourage everybody to sign up for our newsletter, because we do weekly e-blast on a lot of these programs and services, as well.
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Read more articles by Shandra Martinez.