BizFilings Expert Insights: How small businesses are getting back to normal
Greg Corombos: Hi, I'm Greg Corombos. Our guests this week on Expert Insights are Natalie Mendell, director of business recovery at the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, and Alejandro Martinez, a business recovery specialist also with the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce.
As businesses in New York City and beyond try to pick up the pieces and make sure they stay afloat going forward following a year-plus long pandemic, they need all the help they can get in many cases. And Alejandro is actually going door-to-door in Manhattan, finding out what business owners need and pointing them in the direction of different programs and resources that can definitely provide some assistance. And so we want to talk about what is happening here and the impact that it's having. Alejandro, Natalie, thank you both very much for being with us.
Natalie Mendell and Alejandro Martinez: Thank you for having us.
GC: Well, let's begin at the very beginning here, how did this idea of going door-to-door get started, Natalie?
NM: The idea of going door-to-door started because many small businesses have 20 employees or less. So that means they're spending most of their day in their storefront. They have to run their shop. And they don't have time to research resources online, or even check their email half the time because they're so busy running their business. So that's when we had the idea of, let's go to them, let's bring the resources to them, make the process as easy as possible so that they can get the help they need.
GC: You kind of described what the main goal is here. But as you send Alejandro and others out into the community, what do you want to know most and what do you want those business owners to know?
NM: Yeah, so also, I'll just say and in case our listeners don't know, the New York City Small Business Resource Network is the program we're speaking about. This is a city-wide initiative that all five borough chambers of commerce are working on together to connect businesses to resources to survive the pandemic.
So, the main goal is to reach as many small businesses as possible—a small business is 100 employees or less—and get them connected to services and resources that will help them survive these hard times. And the goal is to reach as many businesses as possible and get them the help they need. And, when we're out in the field, we want them to know that this program is completely free. I think that's one of the main messages we're trying to send and that we're here to provide you one-on-one assistance to get you the help that you need.
GC: Quick follow-up on that, Natalie, are you surprised by what you're hearing back? Are you hearing roughly the needs you expected to? What’s been the feedback?
NM: Yeah, great question. I actually, I'm not too surprised. The number one request is financing assistance. I'm sure no one is surprised there. But we also get a lot of requests for legal support as well. A lot of businesses have questions about their lease—they were shut down for a bit, so they have questions about what is required in their lease to pay rent or not. So we do connect businesses to pro bono legal advice. But financing is definitely the first request. A lot of businesses need access to PPP or other loans, grants if they're available, that kind of thing.
GC: Alejandro, you're going door-to-door and I read a fascinating profile of the efforts that you're making here and some of the feedback that you're getting. What concerns are you hearing most from business owners? Natalie talked about a lot of them, leasing and financing, and so forth, but as owners try to ramp back up again, what are they talking about most that they need help with?
AM: Well, thank you so much for reading the article. As Natalie was saying, definitely the first is funding. But it depends on the industry, for example, restaurants and coffee shops, they are more interested in the grant that is coming, the restaurant relief grant. Or they want to know more about the outdoor heating guidelines that are changing constantly; the permits that they need. So it depends on the industry. But definitely, the number one concern is funding.
GC: I also read that some of these business owners are reluctant to speak with you. They think initially you’re from the government, you might be there to inspect or something like that. And so you could be more of a hassle than a help. What's their reaction once they know why you're there?
AM: Yeah, so I think that the concern or the fear is they are skeptical that the help is for free. They are just as skeptical that we are going to help for free that we're going to connect them to resources. And it's a free assistance program. When we arrive and we have our lanyards and our business cards, they are more comfortable, but yeah at the beginning there is like chalk. And we need to do the whole introduction for them to feel comfortable and start sharing their business.
GC: What surprised you the most if anything from these interactions? We've talked about some of the common concerns but what other things have grabbed your attention from all these conversations?
AM: Well, a lot of them think that this program is only for big companies. They are concerned that the support out there is for bigger companies, not for small businesses. So that's a big surprise that when we let them know that there is help for them, and well after that, they think that is going to be really hard to apply. So they get surprised when it's easy when we connect them to the appropriate resources to help them to apply. So yeah, they are surprised with all the help that is available, but they don't know that it is available.
GC: As time goes on, do you find yourself using the same programs and resources a lot? And if so, which resources or programs have proven to be the most helpful in getting these business owners to help they need?
AM: Well, fortunately, we have a database that is constantly changing, and we are adding new resources all the time. So we have got grants that are really helpful for different industries. For example, for the hair salons and barbershops and businesses from that industry, we have had L'Oreal grants, Neutrogena grants.
And we have had also different loan programs with different organizations like the Columbia University, the Columbia Harlem Small Business Development Center, they have a loan program for businesses above 96th Street. So we have different programs and yet these resources apply to different businesses. So it's not the same programs all the time, we are actually curating all the resources for specific businesses.
GC: You mentioned, the hair salons, for example, do you have a different set of questions depending on the type of business or the other conditions that the business might be in? Or do you generally go in with the same presentation each time?
AM: We totally adapt depending on the business. For example, for hair salons, and other types of businesses, we ask them if they are in Google, if the clients can do appointments online, and if they can communicate with them online as well.
We have a tech specialists that help businesses with these types of things. So yeah, that's the type of question that we constantly ask. For shoe repair, same, we asked them if they received the Paycheck Protection Program, if they are online, how can a client get access to their services if they cannot be there physically? So yeah, we totally adapt the questions that we have.
GC: One thing we focus on a lot here on Expert Insights is helping business owners remain compliant with laws and regulations and all different levels of government making sure licenses and permits are up to date. Do you focus on those areas, too? And if so, what kind of help and advice do you provide there?
AM: Well, we connect them to existing resources, like the Department of Small Business Services, they have small business advocates that provide assistance on understanding the requirements to avoid fines and violations, or to connect them to government agencies for permit licenses, or just to solve violations that they already received.
So yeah, we connect them to the city agency. And in another example, we have the design corps program that helps specifically a restaurant to improve the outdoor dining space and complying with all the regulations that the city has.
GC: I imagine with all of these interactions that you've had, Alejandro, that you've got some favorite stories of how you were especially able to help some of these business owners. Is there a particularly good news story that just helps you keep going every day as you go out there and meet with these people?
AM: Yeah, totally. Fortunately, I can give you some examples. One example is a 20-year-old family business. They used to print posters and flyers for all the New York City events. After the pandemic, they lost almost 90% of their revenue. And even though they received the PPP and the EIDL, they were having difficulties keeping open one of their locations. So we referred the owner to pro bono legal counselors. And with their advice, he was able to negotiate partial payments.
We connected him also to marketing webinars offered by the Small Business Resource Network. And he diversified his products and services. He started including products like visual cues for conference calls and social distant displays. So that is one successful story.
And just last week, a restaurant in Morningside Heights and one on the Upper West Side; they were just approved to receive the PPP. So yeah, we have these types of stories constantly and that's great. That's where that is working.
GC: How well do business owners understand the help that is available from the government and from other sources. I mean, when you explain the resources that are available, do most of them say that they're aware of these things, or is it a big surprise to a lot of them?
AM: Well, it is a big surprise to a lot of them. I can say that just a few businesses know all the resources that are available. And that's why this program is very important. So yeah, businesses that already know about resources, they don't know of all the resources available in all the topics that we mentioned, legal services, financial assistance, marketing, business strategy, technology support, they only know a few. And that's because they are connected to merchants associations, or business organizations or community-based organizations. But yeah, they don't have the full perspective of all the resources that are available out there.
GC: When you do make them aware of these resources that are available, but they may need to apply or fill out some other form, are you able to walk them through that as well?
AM: Our first thing is just to connect them and we know basic information about the process. We also have informative webinars with experts that can help walk them through the process of all the applications.
We answer questions, but they need to fill the applications and do the work. But we also connect them to organizations that can help them doing these processes. For example, the community development financial institutions, or as I mentioned, the Columbia Harlem Small Business Development Center, and the volunteers. They have skilled professionals that also help small businesses applying to these resources.
GC: With all the questions that business owners have, in the wake of a yearlong pandemic, I can only imagine how grateful they are for this program. Natalie, I don't know what form this program existed in before now, but will you be continuing this program in some form or fashion going forward?
NM: Yes, we definitely hope to. We, the Chambers of Commerce, will always be supporting businesses and connecting them to resources. However, we really do hope to continue this program and we are working on finding funding to do that.
GC: And lastly, is this something that you think is common either in urban areas or elsewhere? Are you guys kind of setting a trend here?
NM: No, this model—we definitely didn't invent this model from scratch. I've seen city agencies go door-to-door connecting businesses. However, I've never seen a program that has both public and private resources, like we do, connecting businesses to.
GC: Fantastic can't even imagine how grateful, again, these business owners are for all the effort that you're all putting into making sure that they know every option they have available to them as they get back on their feet here.
Natalie, Alejandro, thank you very much for your time today. We really appreciate it. Congratulations.
NM and AM: Thank you, Greg.
GC: Natalie Mendell is director of business recovery at the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce. Alejandro Martinez is a business recovery specialist also with the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce. I'm Greg Corombos, and for more information on this subject, please visit bizfilings.com
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