Over the past 4 months, RuralRISE has interviewed a series of ecosystem builders about 2020 and the changes COVID-19 has wreaked on the entrepreneurial ecosystem. The stories and advice they shared are worth their weight in gold for these tumultuous times.
But what about the entrepreneurs? Without talking to them, our interview series would be missing half of the story.
Along with the challenges of 2020 have come new opportunities. And every entrepreneur knows that when the status quo breaks, someone needs to be there to help people transition to what’s next.
That’s why we reached out to a few rural entrepreneurs to get their take on what’s going on in their area of the United States.
We asked them three questions:
- What is the biggest opportunity or challenge you see as an entrepreneur, at this particular moment in time?
- What have you done to either a) take advantage of this opportunity, or b) thrive despite the challenge?
- What entrepreneurial support or resources have been (or would be) most helpful to you during these times?
Let’s hear their stories!
Reggie & Lori Cole: Owners of Natural Bliss Health & Wellness Store
White Hall, Arkansas
There’s an old adage, “necessity is the mother of invention” so during this time of Covid-19 so many people have been negatively impacted with layoffs and business closings.
This season of distress has resuscitated old dreams and brought to light new ideas, especially in the area of entrepreneurship.
It’s important to use that passion to fuel those ideas and take advantage of different loans, grants and programs geared to small business owners.
We absolutely realized that changes had come. We knew that initially many people were not able to come out as much as before. We knew we had to find a way to increase our online sales so we revamped our website, added more products and even offered pre-shopping by having customers call in their orders pay by credit or debit card and have it ready when they or an appointee arrived (curbside service).
We increased our social media posts to help advertise weekly specials and sale prices. We also took advantage of a new opportunity to upgrade our loyalty program for repeat customers and provide more much needed and appreciated discounts. We love to give back.
One of the most important resources we found was staying connected to our local branch of the Small Business Administration.
They kept us up to date on available resources to help bridge the gap during that initial crunch. We were told what to expect during the wait for federal funds and how to apply when the loans were made available as well. We also were alerted to different grant opportunities, local Business to Business Networking seminars and self help courses via Zoom.
The Generator has been a vital link to us being connected to business-minded entrepreneurs and also helped us stay connected to small businesses who have a desire to not only just survive but to thrive.
There is power in numbers! The Bible even says, “In the multitude of counsel there is safety.”
Jennifer Litteral: President of Coffee Hound Coffee Co.
Major opportunities or trends normally happen over long periods of time and are difficult for small businesses to get into because larger corporations are poised having planned and speculated long in advance for those changes.
However, the pandemic has shaken loose so many new trends and opportunities that are ideal for small enterprises because small businesses are nimble and can shift faster than larger corporations or companies.
Like steering a huge tanker on the ocean they have to plan long in advance for their movements — where smaller boats can steer quickly around or to something in a split second. Small businesses are like the small boats and they are winning the race to these opportunities today.
Having the ability to be open and listen to real-time statistics about your industry is crucial at this moment in time to be able shift or pivot with purpose and direction.
- For the coffee industry the pandemic changed our customers to at-home baristas;
- The at-home coffee market is expected to grow to $15 billion in 2020;
- 40% of people working from home say they will continue to work from home even after COVID and 39% of those are willing to pay more for premium coffee.
So, we were able to shift the focus of our company to meet the needs of our customers for their new normal with national at-home delivery through a new e-commerce platform as well as having our products available in grocery stores throughout Maine through a distributor as well as servicing Hannaford’s local program.
As entrepreneurs and small business owners, we are already courageous, smart and highly adaptable – but COVID has taken this to a level that has left many of us reeling. A normal day for a small business owner is to wear about 100 hats and we often don’t have time to look up and research what resources are out there.
Even with my diverse background, I didn’t find the time to seek out the resource organizations in Maine – luckily one found me. To be included in the 2020 Maine Center for Entrepreneurs TopGun cohort was beyond valuable for our company to be in during a pandemic and while we were pivoting.
I think the resources are out there and in multiple formats across many organizations. The questions are — can they more broadly get on the radars of small businesses when we might not travel in the same circles or online communities?
Is there a way to combine and channel options in a simple to find and easy to digest format that is distributed or found where small businesses will take notice and utilize?
E. James White: CEO of LivestockCity, Inc.
Mount Solon, Virginia
When the pandemic first came, people were stocking up on food, with supermarkets running out of food including meats.
One of the features we wanted to offer even before the pandemic was to provide a way for livestock farmers to sell their meats and animal products through our platform — sort of like “Etsy for farmers.” We call it “Farm Stores.”
Unfortunately, we couldn’t complete this section in time during that food shortage, but as we are seeing an uptick in Covid-19 cases again, it’s possible we will get another chance to offer this service to farmers when there’s a real need. If not, we still think it is a good service to offer, especially for those that are looking for grass-fed or organic food products.
During this challenging time, we have been able to recruit talented interns and volunteers, as many internships were canceled this summer due to the pandemic.
Since we are a remote team, we were able to easily take on remote interns that were a higher caliber than what we’ve seen in the past — and over the summer they really helped us advance our mobile app and web app development.
Our biggest challenge has always been financial, in order to pay for the help we need to develop our platform and products.
We’ve had to be creative in bootstrapping in order to progress LivestockCity, but with funding we could significantly speed up the process and get our services in the hands of livestock farmers quicker. Without funding it will take longer, but we will continue to work towards completion for 2021.
Kanesha Adams: CEO and Founder, EduScape
Pine Bluff, Arkansas
My biggest challenge at this time has been gaining access to capital.
As a startup company, with an alternative learning platform, the market can be very competitive and in the absence of capital, it makes the struggle to grow and scale more challenging.
On the flip side of it, as a minority-female founder, I have a unique lens for investors.
I have been afforded the opportunity to work from home and build my small business, which has been a major turning point for my company. I have a small team, which also makes the work difficult, but I have a mission-oriented team who believe in the work we do, which allows us to combat our challenge.
I have been really intentional about overcoming the areas of opportunities that I have been presented by building a network of advisors, and a support team who value me as an entrepreneur and my work.
I have applied to pitch in a pitch contest and spend time daily seeking out additional knowledge opportunities by way of accelerators or incubators. I spend 2-3 hours a day on LinkedIn connecting with people who may be willing to support my business in any way.
Having a mentor in this space with me has been the most helpful resource for me during this time. My mentor has been in the edtech space for about 20 years, and has shared some amazing resources, advice, and tips as I develop my plan to move forward.
I have also connected to incubator advisors such as The Venture Center and Communities Unlimited (which is a CDFI that supports small business owners). Building a network is a resource that you can’t put a price tag on, and I have been really intentional on using my network.
What Will 2021 Bring for Entrepreneurs?
As you can see from these four stories (and those of entrepreneurs and small businesses across the US and around the world), 2020 has brought its share of challenges.
But these stories also demonstrate how resilient entrepreneurs can be. In a world where pivots were the norm prior to a worldwide pandemic, this kind of quick thinking and innovation is just what we all need.
As 2021 quickly approaches, these entrepreneurs serve both as a beacon of hope and a reminder of the importance of the work we all do. Together, we can make the most of any challenges the next year (and beyond) may bring our way!