“I encourage anyone out there who is running a business or just trying to make it through this unbelievable time, ‘Don't do it alone.’ You've got to reach out."
“We have been extremely busy this year, but it hasn’t looked anything like we thought it would. We expected 2020 to be like 2019, with thousands and thousands of entrepreneurs walking through our doors and working with the 14 resource organizations that make up our support community here at the National Entrepreneur Center. The Center is like a buffet, with all these organizations and people waiting to help you and no matter what your issue is. And many of these are funded by the government with the sole purpose of providing free assistance. If SCORE can't help you, then maybe one of the Chambers or the Small Business Development Center can. The beauty, and power, of this hub is that it’s one stop shopping. You walk in and you physically see people, face to face, and you get passed from one person to another, to start filling the basket of what you need.
In 2019, our resource organizations trained over 15,000 businesspeople in 2019 and provided guidance and information to thousands and thousands more. When COVID happened, we initially started seeing a slowdown in traffic, but not a lot, because in times of trouble, people need help. They are used to coming to us and asking us ‘What do I do?’ We kept our doors open for in-person assistance for as long as we could. Toward the end of March, we realized we needed to shut down.
All of our resource partners pivoted quickly to online Zoom coaching and we at the Center took on the additional role of being a consolidator of COVID information and resources, from PPP to bridge loans to any tactical and practical information entrepreneurs needed.
At first, we were concerned about how the coaching would work if it wasn’t face-to-face. Pretty early on, though, we found that some of the coaches were like, I like this better. I don't have to spend time driving to the Center. And sometimes the clients would get caught up in traffic and not make their appointment. Well, that doesn’t matter much when you are taking the meeting from home. Some of the coaches were saying, ‘I think this is much more efficient.’ And some of the coaches said they preferred it because it enabled them to coach at night and that it was more convenient for their clients who didn’t want to break up their workday for a coaching session.
So what we found is that there was part of the market that preferred interacting with Center and its resource partners online. Some people love being able to go online and get information without having to be face-to-face, without having to interact. And so, our website is very welcoming. It tells the story of the 14 organizations and explains that the Center is a buffet. Pick what you like. You can do just what you think will work, or you can take a little bit of everything. And that's your choice, we're not making that choice for you.
In addition to the coaching element, I was concerned about how we would deliver our workshops. In 2019, we had 400 business seminars. Moving that to online was a little more difficult. Our long-term planning had called for an online learning platform to be built in 2021, so we just moved that up to 2020. The next problem we ran into was that we didn’t have a robust library of online resources because we had been delivering content in person or through live-streaming. So we partnered with The Lonely Entrepreneur, which already had quite a library of online training. Wells Fargo came to the table and offered to pay for the first thousand users because that's kind of what we thought we would do in a year, about 100 a month. Then lo and behold, we had 600 users in the first six weeks.
We also started a podcast, another 2021 goal that we moved up to 2020. The goal is to meet entrepreneurs where they are, with the challenges they're facing today. Collectively discerning how to move forward and, in some cases, how to prepare for a long term shutdown. It’s important to manage an exit so that you can come back in the future and try again, or try something new. All entrepreneurs have a story of the one that didn't work.
‘Managing the exit’ means letting go of employees in a way that is fair and equitable, and also taking care of your vendors, making them whole. So many people say, ‘Well, I'll just declare bankruptcy,’ but that has consequences as well. You need to think about how to manage your exit, without losing your shirt on the way out. And sometimes you lose your shirt, but you know, if you can keep your pants, then you live to fight another day. The reality of the economy is that businesses start and businesses die. And yet it's that dynamism, that entrepreneurial dynamism, that makes the soil rich for the next business. I had to shut a business down that wasn't making enough money. My next business, though, I was a much better manager, I was a much better leader, because I didn't want to go there again. So it’s important to manage the exit. It's an area we can help with by being somebody outside the inner circle, looking at it and saying, ‘I know this is painful and your family loves you, and they're cheering you to go on, but you need to look at the reality of the situation and manage it to keep yourself whole.’
One of the main things we do is to help people know they are not alone. They don’t need to be out there, trying to run this business by themselves. Engage with your family, engage with your friends, engage with mentors. The only mistake you can make, especially during this time, is to try to do it alone. Entrepreneurship is not a solo sport. It's a team sport. Everything I've ever done that was successful was successful because I had other people involved.
There are a lot of owners who are embarrassed during tough times and want to do it alone. We tell them to think about their employees. They are scared too, and they want to help. I encourage anyone out there who is running a business or is just trying to make it through this unbelievable time, ‘Don't do it alone.’ You've got to reach out, you've got to engage in other people, even if it’s remotely, even if it’s over Zoom, it’s still together. There will be a time when we can get back together. But right now, we need to practice those skills, communicate, engage, not only with our vendors, but with our families, our mentors, our employees, because everybody's going through this, everybody's having a tough time.
I'm a hugger. And the last few months have been hard for me because the elbow click and the fist bump are just not the same as giving someone a big hug. We’re not built to be alone. And, and even in this time, you don't have to be alone.
We've been through tough times before this, it’s not the toughest time our country's ever faced. We've had generations that have faced challenges just as hard as this. We will come out stronger, we will come out better, and we will come out more knowledgeable and hopefully recognize some of those things that we took for granted before.” - Jerry Ross, Director of the National Entrepreneur Center #Florida
Podcast: Everybody's Business