Diane Eby, operator of the Shawnee Inn in Greenwood, Delaware, was referred to SBDC in April 2020 when she experienced difficulty getting her business listed with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as an approved temporary housing location for federal travelers during the pandemic. That’s when she met Cindy Small, an SBDC business adviser.
In true Delaware fashion, where six degrees of separation are often reduced to one or two, Eby learned that Small had been involved with Shawnee Inn back in the 1990s when Small worked as director of tourism in Kent County and the inn was run by Eby’s mom and her six Mennonite sisters as Eli’s Country Inn.
“At a time when things were changing rapidly, here it was that Cindy had a history with us,” said Eby, who also is a UD alumna. Eby earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry at UD in 1992.
Being included on the list of FEMA-approved hotels and motels for federal travelers was an important way to boost the inn’s occupancy, which had plummeted as the governor’s orders and state of emergency shuttered businesses. Small helped Eby get on the FEMA list, as well as secure PPP funding to keep staff employed and to continue operating in a reduced capacity. Impressed, Eby alerted other business owners about the SBDC and its services.
“I told them we aren’t facing this alone. You can get an SBDC business counselor; you can get funding,” she said.
The SBDC is designated by the Small Business Administration as a first responder to assist with disaster relief efforts during economic crises and natural disasters. SBDC delivers training programs and free professional consulting statewide to help innovators, startups and existing businesses with up to 500 employees create and execute strategies to grow and succeed.
From March 2020 through December 2020, SBDC advisers delivered more than 1,500 hours of COVID-related advice to 439 clients, two-thirds of which are female and/or minority-owned businesses. SBDC efforts led these business owners to secure a total $10 million in capital and support over 3,800 jobs. Over the same timeframe, SBDC also provided training and essential information to over 4,400 people, including Andre Dorsey.
In addition to helping him secure a PPP grant, his SBDC adviser Margo Reign made sure Dorsey knew that his business, AD Small Engine Repair, was eligible for a low-interest SBA loan. As an essential business for lawn and garden equipment and repair, it remained open throughout the pandemic.
“[Margo] opened my eyes to a lot of things that we wouldn’t have gone after or thought was available [to our business],” said Dorsey.
Dorsey also worked with students in UD’s Small Business Management (BUAD444) class, an experiential learning course taught by SBDC advisers, over Zoom on a marketing strategy to drum up new business. The UD students recommended an advertising strategy and suggested Dorsey plan ahead for the additional business volume that might result. This led to conversations about possible expansion, in both employees and space, and a search for another mechanic so that Dorsey could focus his time on higher-level business priorities. Today, the Wilmington business owner is saving to purchase property and relocate his shop to eliminate rental overhead.
“The students were great. Having someone from outside, they might give you an idea … it could be one that you have considered but not put in play because you are busy with the day-to-day of running a business,” said Dorsey. “It’s always good to have that different mindset.”
Signs of hope
Like AD Small Engine repair, Jennifer McMillan’s small business JennyGems is growing, despite the rocky ride of 2020. But that wasn’t the case a year ago. The retailer sells custom-designed signs online and at its home décor store in Harbeson, Delaware, about one mile outside of Lewes.
Early last year, McMillan was working with David Root, SBDC adviser, on a plan to transition the company from importing its custom-designed products from China to becoming a Made in the USA retailer. When she struggled to find a U.S. supplier that could keep up with the company’s product demand (the company sold over 150,000 signs online alone in 2020), McMillan and her husband David sold their primary home to buy a special commercial-grade digital printer as a baby step toward making their products in-house.
The ink was barely dry on the delivery receipt, though, when JennyGems sales plummeted 70% amid the growing public health crisis last March, forcing McMillan to lay off the company’s five employees. Instead of folding, McMillan took to social media to share the company’s story. As product sales crept back up, McMillan hammered out a business plan and applied for a small business loan with Root’s help, allowing the company to invest in additional equipment and accelerate the transition from importer to product maker.
Today, McMillan has rehired the company’s original staff and expanded the team from five to 24 people as JennyGems sales increased, landing 30% over 2019 sales figures by year’s end. She credits the company’s remarkable growth to a combination of the world’s need for happy and empowering words during such a dark time, a loyal customer base in Sussex County and online, and SBDC’s unwavering support.
“The best benefit of having a relationship with SBDC is the access to resources. If you go to them with a question, they can always direct you,” said McMillan.
According to Henderson, JennyGems is one example among many stories of grit and perseverance.
“Watching businesses muster up everything they have to creatively respond to what is ultimately one of the worst disasters we’ve ever seen is a source of inspiration,” said Henderson. “Supporting them to navigate the complex maze of relief sources, counseling them on new business models and providing strategic support to pivot to e-commerce … that’s what we do at SBDC.”