For six months, Jamie Schwartz and her staff of UNLV Small Business Development Center (SBDC) advisors and interns fielded several hundred inquiries a week from merchants and entrepreneurs wracked with panic over uncertainty from a pandemic that threatened to shutter their doors and shatter their livelihoods.
There were emails from vendors who couldn’t get their products to the masses because they lacked an online presence. Questions from longtime Las Vegas business icons who needed help navigating state or federal government assistance and loan applications. Phone calls at 1 a.m. from restaurateurs and other small business owners who, without bringing in revenue, couldn’t afford to pay employees, much less their mortgages or car payments.
“It happened so quickly and there was so much chaos that it was scary and really emotional for people trying to understand how to navigate available assistance,” said Schwartz, director of industry and business engagement for UNLV’s Office of Economic Development.
“The advisors and I at the end of each day would look at each other and have tears in our eyes, or some days high-five each other because we were able to do something great,” she said. “Every day it took a little regrouping and processing how many stories of despair and helplessness and panic that we had worked through in a given day.”
From restaurants turning their spaces into ghost kitchens, to a real estate business that teamed with a video production company to provide virtual tours, to a human resources consultant who added online workshops to their repertoire, the SBDC offered guidance that helped hundreds of Southern Nevada businesses stay afloat.
A Laser Focus
At the start of the pandemic, UNLV’s SBDC went from counseling about 15 clients a month to several hundred, assisting a total of about 2,500 clients last year. The office — part of a nationwide nonprofit that for 40 years has provided free, confidential guidance to small businesses — offers assistance with business plans, loan and grant applications, and educational workshops. Merchants are typically referred by their banker, accountant, or attorney.
In 2020, UNLV’s SBDC staff of about a dozen — half advisors and half student interns — helped create more than 950 new jobs in Southern Nevada through support provided to startups. They also helped existing small businesses maintain a little over 11,000 jobs by providing guidance that allowed merchants to reconfigure their business models and keep their doors open. About 70% of the office’s work during the pandemic has focused on helping a flood of business owners referred by city and county government offices to apply for and bring in more than $45.4 million in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster loans, grants, or other government assistance.
Advisors frequently interacted with business owners seeking guidance on adjusting to the online environment: Managing employees remotely for the first time. Maintaining productivity while balancing parents’ new homeschooling duties with work schedules. Creating revenue streams for restaurants that previously lacked delivery and pickup options, or a presence on third-party apps like DoorDash.
“One of the biggest challenges we found for micro and small businesses is that they weren’t set up digitally — and if you weren’t online when COVID hit, it was devastating for businesses because how else does the community find you?” said Schwartz.
Another popular SBDC intervention involved matching food and beverage establishments that could keep operations flowing by merging employees, hours, and resources.
“Businesses had to learn to bend and flex,” she said. “We really dug into the nitty gritty with people and taught them to manage their business and juggle life.”
Two other areas that took off? Entrepreneurs who saw layoffs from their 9-to-5 jobs as a sign to finally pursue their passion projects and longtime business owners seeking to revamp their offerings to meet pandemic realities.
Box of Wishes owner Lis Roncato falls into the latter category.
The new media and entertainment technology company — which develops and manages events and projects for nightclubs, touring stage productions, and trade shows — launched in 2014, and experienced banner growth in 2019. But Roncato said she and her business partner were “completely blindsided” when the pandemic forced event cancellations and their revenue plummeted 95%.
The pair turned to UNLV’s SBDC for help navigating loans and grants. With an ear to multiple industries, advisor Holland Wood was able to dispense information about the long-term local- and macro-business environment that prompted them to pivot their focus.
Roncato and her team increased the portion of their business focused on consulting, design, and construction management, and expanded into system integration for permanent installations such as entertainment venues and immersive art experiences. They also took on more international work. In her free time, Roncato continues to immerse herself in a steady stream of free virtual workshops offered on the SBDC’s website.
“One of the hardest things to cope with was your own psychological fears about everything that was happening,” Roncato said.
“When the pandemic hit, everyone for the first few months thought it would be temporary and improve quickly. Talking to Holland gave us a bit of perspective — as he was clearly talking to many people on the federal, state, and local levels as well as people in the industry who’d been affected as much as we had been — and gave us more solid ground to make decisions that we wouldn’t previously have accepted, hoping that other projects would come,” she said.
Without the SBDC’s help, “we would have been a lot more stressed and worried, especially financially. The PPP loans and grants helped put our minds at ease, and gave us a little bit of room to breathe.”
Learning and Moving Forward
Even without pandemic stresses, small businesses — which tend to lack a ton of startup capital and collateral, unblemished credit scores, or expansion know-how — are vulnerable to economic fluctuations. To help, UNLV’s SBDC is partnering with the new North Las Vegas Small Business Connector, which opens Oct. 12, to station two advisors there.
The SBDC is also collaborating with U.S. Bank and Access CDFI to launch a workshop series in 2022 that will provide minority- and women-owned businesses seeking to land government or large corporate contracts with lessons on scaling up legal, payroll, and other rules or resources that mom-and-pop businesses need to master for maximum growth potential.
“As billions of dollars start coming into the region for anticipated infrastructure projects in advanced manufacturing and other new sectors, the workshop series will help small businesses find their place as creators, suppliers, and vendors,” Schwartz said. “It’s encouraging because it means there’ll be lots of new opportunities for these small businesses to be part of that new landscape being built from scratch and not get left behind and, in that way, we all rise together.”