“The Massachusetts Small Business Development Center (MSBDC) Network’s Berkshire Regional Office provides free and confidential one-to-one business assistance to prospective and existing small businesses. Services are available to Massachusetts start-ups and existing businesses located in Berkshire County. Areas of assistance include business plan development, pre-venture feasibility, conventional and non-conventional financing, cash flow analysis, organizational and personnel issues and marketing.”
“(Our Pittsfield office is) one of five regional centers and we are part of a network of nearly a thousand across the U.S. and U.S. territories,” says Keith E. Girouard, Regional Director of the Berkshire Regional MSBDC Office. “We’re actually a program out of the Isenberg School of Management at UMASS Amherst and we’re sponsored in part at the federal level by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). We’re also sponsored by the State of Massachusetts through their office of business development, and then of course the University is a sponsor.”
Before the restrictions and closures brought about by COVID-19, the staff of the Berkshire Regional MSBDC Office were meeting with clients individually at the office addressing typical issues such as business plans, access to financing, and management issues. “The majority of calls and emails coming into the Center now are primarily in regards to the various relief programs available through the SBA and local lenders”, says Jayne Bellora, Client Services Coordinator. “Yet, sprinkled in there are those new entrepreneurs who, despite these uncertain times, look at their first steps in becoming a small business owner. I find it incredibly reassuring that the entrepreneurial spirit perseveres.
Our Center has also seen an increase in coordinated efforts with other agencies across the Commonwealth, including our State office, the SBA and our fellow Massachusetts SBDC’s, to ensure that clients are not only provided with the advice and counsel they are seeking, but that the information they are receiving is being acquired from credible sources.”
“It’s been interesting to work from home,” says Girouard. “A good part of our work is connecting with people and our style is to physically meet people and to work with them that way so we’re trying to translate that into audio conferencing and video conferencing and a lot of emails.”
Despite the shift to phone, email and video conferencing, the Berkshire Regional MSBDC Office is still accepting new clients. To set up a free and confidential counseling session, you must first complete the “Request for Counselling” form on their website. Jayne Bellora, Client Services Coordinator, will contact interested parties to set up an appointment.
What is the Berkshire Regional MSBDC Office doing now to support businesses through this difficult time? (see 1:45 in video for more information)
“We’re working with a lot of people right now,” says Girouard. “Our typical week is probably 22 to 25 scheduled sessions and we’re probably responding to another 30-40 emails from about 20-25 clients so it’s very dynamic…. Up to this point people are mostly interested in accessing these programs that they’ve heard about in the media and they’re looking for assistance with that…. We’ve had a few people who are interested in starting businesses and/or are looking to finish their request for a funding cycle for a project they were looking to do before.”
What advice would you give a business seeking assistance right now? (see 2:50 in video for more information)
- Apply for all the programs. “It’s a stall right now because the appropriations have been dispensed but there are actions underway in the Senate and the House to refund these programs (the EIDL [Economic Injury Disaster Loan] and the PPP [Paycheck Protection Program**]). There’s a good likelihood that these are going to be funded, so we are encouraging people to check the eligibility criteria and if they want to talk about it we are certainly available,” says Girouard. **Update: The SBA resumed accepting Paycheck Protection Program applications from participating lenders on Monday, April 27, 2020 at 10:30 am EDT.
- Follow the rules. “Before you sign any contacts or closing documents make sure you understand the rules and also don’t double dip. Be mindful of any sunset clauses.”
- On the planning side, we are encouraging people to consider the next 2 to 5 months as being an acute phase. “The objective here is to get through the next 2 to 5 months as whole as possible and with as much access to capital…. We are encouraging people to use other people’s money if possible. The interest rates on these loans are very low, they’re deferred, there’s no pre-payment penalties…. And then after that, it’s a different kind of planning, and thinking, and strategizing.”
- Consider two parallel timelines: Real Time, which is what everyone’s in right now, responding to the situation in the moment, and Development Time. “Try to move both timelines forward in ways that you can. Look at your feet and where you’re standing and what steps you need to take, but at the same time look at the larger picture of where this all might go.”
- Assume that your business model will change.
- Break down the building blocks of your business paying particular attention to your assets, both your concrete and tangible assets.
- Are your assets deployed well? Are they in alignment with what’s happening? Could your assets be deployed in a way that gives them greater leverage for opportunity?
- Use other people’s money.
Other relief programs to look into. (see 7:10 in video for more information)
- SBA Express Bridge Loan: “meant to be fast acting, 2 weeks or less, up to $25,000, and little paperwork.” Requires a SBA 7(a) approved lender and most banks in the area are.
- Employee Retention Credit: an IRS program, “a refundable tax credit against certain employment taxes that’s equal to about 50% of the qualified wages of an eligible employer.”
Visit the MSBDC’s webpage “COVID-19 – What you need to know as a small business” for additional information!
What is “The Next Normal”? (see 8:45 in video for more information)
“It’s a term we’re using to draw people’s attention to this idea that things won’t get back to the old normal, as much as we want that, as much as it’s hard to say that,” says Girouard. “Through the Great Recession they called it ‘The New Normal’ so we felt we needed to have a term for this one…. We are drawing on our experience of working with people during the Great Recession… It’s presenting very different but we’re trying to apply those things.”
Girouard says based on a number of assumptions, you can reasonably predict a number of things:
- Customer buying behavior will be very different
- Supply chains will be disrupted
- Access to discretionary income will be low
- The concept of ‘marketplace’ will change. We will possibly go from what could be viewed as a single opt-in opportunity to a double opt-in opportunity (the buyer and seller are both opting in; for example, a farmers market).
Final Thoughts (see 12:30 in video for more information)
“Once we get through the acute phase, it’s about continuing to be relevant through the changing environment,” says Girouard.
That will require:
- Agility – in terms of planning, marketing, and operations
- It will take a number of iterations, so you need to be willing to try different things while maintaining a disciplined structured approach.
“Aside from the financial stress small businesses owners are experiencing, there is the emotional component to it as well,” says Bellora. “Due to the current COVID situation, small business owners can feel very isolated. We are here to remind them that they are not alone, our Center is open and available to provide guidance and assistance. It is important to stay steady and be calm, we will get to the other side of this.”
To set up a free and confidential counseling session, click here to complete the “Request for Counselling” form.
Interview conducted by Kimberly Gritman, Downtown Pittsfield, Inc.
Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network
Berkshire Regional Office
33 Dunham Mall, Suite 103
Pittsfield, MA 01201
Ph: 413-499-0933 Fax: 413-499-3005