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Small Business Focus: Pandemic drives transformations to help small businesses

This article was posted on WTOP News and written by Vanessa Roberts as part of BizLaunch’s collaboration with WTOP News on Small Business September.

Although budding businesses in Arlington have long had BizLaunch as a stalwart partner, the county organization radically reimagined itself in several ways during the pandemic. And many of the changes it made to help small and midsize businesses survive are here to stay, says Director Tara Palacios.

“The pandemic I don’t think was on anybody’s bingo card,” Palacios told WTOP during Small Business September. “We did not know that this was going to happen.”

Palacios created BizLaunch within Arlington Economic Development 20 years ago with the goal of providing local government resources to small businesses and startups. “It really is a local municipality wanting to support its local small businesses so that they can thrive, survive, succeed, grow and build sustainably,” she said.

We talked with Palacios about BizLaunch programs and asked how they help SMBs launch and succeed. During the discussion, she shared ways that BizLaunch has evolved over the past two years and where it’s going next to continue its mission to help local businesses grow.

BizLaunch Flex 1: Engage with small businesses and underserved communities any way possible.

BizLaunch is no stranger to using digital and social tools to reach entrepreneurs and business owners in the community. It connects with people on all social channels, even TikTok, Palacios said. But it upped its game during the pandemic.

“We had to get extremely creative,” she said. “We were out putting up yard signs about our grants, about different marketing promotions and programs that we were having. And believe it or not, people were getting in their cars, they were seeing the yard signs, and calling and reaching out.”

It reinforced the importance of being adaptable. Palacios pointed out that it’s unfortunate when a business shares that it wished it had heard about a program or a support service available.

“The way we were using social media prior to the pandemic has shifted, and how you use search engine optimization and how you get your content out there is so different,” she said.

BizLaunch Flex 2: Ensure even the smallest businesses are digitally savvy.

“We were worried about the businesses that were used to having a storefront and people coming to the storefront,” she said. “With the stay-at-home orders, the whole way people buy products and services shifted.”

At first, BizLaunch focused on establishing new programming, webinars and educational materials to help SMBs learn how to market themselves in this new environment. But it increasingly began also expanding technical assistance so the businesses could establish online storefronts and offer other ways to sell and deliver their goods and services.

Given that many small businesses are micro businesses with often just a handful of employees, the organization also partnered with Amazon Web Services to help businesses design websites and ecommerce tools to compete in the world’s new normal, Palacios said.

“It’s very come as you are. Don’t feel that you need to be an expert. We’ll bring the experts to you, and we’ll help you through the process,” she said. “It’s been great. We’ve had about 200 very diverse entrepreneurs go through the program, and they have gone viral. They’ve had influencers come and visit them because now they’re discoverable. That’s been a lot of fun.”

Plus, it’s not a one-and-done program. BizLaunch gives each business a marketing and branding guidance book and a technical tactics book. It also continues to connect with businesses after the initial design and development phase to provide support, Palacios said.

BizLaunch Flex 3: Help SMBs create financial resiliency to pivot and be ready for future challenges.

A continual issue for startups and small businesses throughout the pandemic has been access to capital, Palacios said. It was why Arlington Economic Development immediately established grant programs. But access to funding has continued to be a chief challenge for SMBs, she said, and having a solid financial foundation is critical for resiliency and long-term success.

“On our horizon is looking at programming where we can educate people no matter what background, color, creed you are. We want to be able to help empower women-owned businesses, BIPOC — Black, indigenous and people of color communities — everyone to understand what you need to do to access capital and make that process very transparent and very understandable,” she said “We’re going to be doing a lot of work in this upcoming year on whether it’s debt equity, or venture funds, or whatever it is that you’re looking to do.”

To discover more insights for entrepreneurs, startups and SMBs shared during WTOP’s Small Business September, click here.

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