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SALT LAKE CITY — A new report from IHS Markit states the U.S. economic recovery will be “inextricably tied to the recovery of the small-business sector.”
With over 225,000 small businesses employing more than a half-million people, Utah has long been a place where entrepreneurship has been a staple of its economic vitality. But the COVID-19 outbreak added to what was already a challenging landscape for thousands of fledging startups and even scores of more established enterprises.
While U.S. small businesses employ millions of Americans nationwide, one-fifth fail in their first year and roughly half falter by their fifth year. However, Salt Lake Community College is working to help businesses survive the impact of the pandemic.
“The pandemic really weakened (small businesses’) ability to sell their products and services,” explained Jim Herrin, director of Salt Lake Region Small Business Development Center located at the Sandy campus of Salt Lake Community College.
The Utah Small Business Development Centers are a network of 14 offices located throughout the state that provide free or low-cost “training, tools and access to consultants to help business owners succeed in starting, growing and transitioning their businesses,” the website states.
“A lot of businesses have been able to ramp up a little more, some of them haven’t, some have gone out of business,” Herrin said. “Some really good businesses have just gone out of business because the funding has stopped and their revenue is dried up. It has been tougher for a lot of businesses.”
He said the economic upheaval caused by the pandemic “blindsided everybody. I don’t think anybody was ready for it.”
He noted, however, that the circumstance forced a number of businesses to become creative and rethink how to remain viable.
“They’ve been able to find ways to (develop) different revenue sources (and) some of them have just pivoted completely to a different type of product,” Herrin said. “For some companies, it’s been really good, especially if they’ve been in online retail.”
However, when the business model is not one where virtual commerce is a particularly effective option, then other steps must be taken to keep the enterprise going, he said.
“We know from long experience that working one on one with businesses is the way to help them the most,” Herrin said. “It gives more impact, so we focus on the areas of operations, finance and marketing.
“We’re hitting them with these three areas that will help them become a better business when this coronavirus pandemic gets over,” he said. “It’ll set them up to also be able to grow, hopefully, more than the levels when the COVID virus started.”
The programs are funded and run in conjunction with the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship and nine other colleges throughout the nation, as well as a partnership with the Utah African American Chamber of Commerce and the Veterans Business Resource Center. The partnership raises millions of dollars for small business through available grants and low interest loans, he said.
Jamaica Trinnaman, owner of Hello!Bulk Market, a “zero waste” refill concept grocery market where customers bring their own containers and refill them instead of purchasing single use plastic, was forced to pivot and adjust her business operations following mandates that precluded normal interactions among customers and staff.
“Regarding my industry, (under) grocery store regulations in COVID, we just started worrying about the seriousness of the pandemic and started putting things in place that we felt were a way for us to operate in a more sanitary model for our customers,” she said. “We really had a quite automated process where people came in and weighed their own containers, filled their own containers and checked themselves out.”
Previously, customers may have required some supervision and assistance, she said, but they didn’t require staff to do everything for them.
“Now we actually check them in, we wipe down the outside of their containers with sanitizer, we fill it for them and we check them out,” she said. “We’ve had to change our processes in the store completely.”
Trinnaman said having access to a mentor and getting regular updates on various funding sources like grants or low interest loans has been a exceptionally helpful, especially in the wake of the pandemic.
“If I hadn’t been able to do that, I don’t think I could have made it,” she said. “Just having that line of communication, access to online trainings and panels, then just (receiving) emails with opportunities that might help support us as we try to navigate all this (has been critical).”