What do small businesses need right now, and how can we do our part to help them? Those are the big questions that companies like Hello Alice and our partners at Established, the organization which produces Startup of the Year, tackle each and every day.
Below, Established Co-CEO Jen Consalvo joins Hello Alice CEO and Co-Founder Carolyn Rodz to discuss how to run a business during COVID, tips for virtual pitching, and why now is the time to make that Hail Mary phone call to an investor.
How have each of your companies pivoted to serve small business owners over the last few months?
Carolyn Rodz: There was an incredible need for small business owners on multiple fronts, but the primary need was getting immediate cash into their hands. As they were starting to navigate PPP and EIDL loans, we began issuing an emergency grant to small business owners. We've been able to issue millions of dollars to these business owners and help bolster them in a really stressful time. It's something that we're continuing to do going forward. The other way was helping them navigate the outside resources that were available as well and doing things like how-to guides that walk owners through how to close their business, how to reopen, and a lot of the issues that they are struggling with. It's been a tough time for them but we're trying to navigate what's the best advice as the environment around them evolves.
Jen Consalvo: For us, we have two constituents. The first is the people who pay us to connect them with startups. We work with organizations from the Air Force to NASA to Fortune 500 companies. Then we have the startups that we work with in programs like Startup of the Year.
For the first group, all of a sudden, the Air Force needed to go out and find all these companies. What's everyone out there doing to contribute to the COVID response? There were a lot of efforts there. We're also helping businesses move their events online.
Switching over to our startups, it's also about moving things online. With the pitch competitions, we were all lined up to be at South by Southwest, just like Hello Alice. Once that event was canceled, it was OK, we can still do this. We can still serve this community that we love and have cherished for so many years. We brought these events online, and it allowed us to expand the number of events that we have done this year. That's been really exciting.
As Carolyn was saying, startups were in a very precarious spot. What do we do? All of the discussion around investment has stopped. So we started doing more office hours and connecting people through online events.
CR: I think that's a really cool point. There is this opportunity right now for frankly all companies to step up for their customers and audiences and be there in really authentic ways. Everybody needs help right now in some capacity.
JC: Yeah, it's interesting when you're doing something like these office hours. You come in trying to be this expert, but also everyone at this time is kind of raw. I may be on a video call with you, but my child walked in and my dog just started barking and we're all going to do this together even though I'm trying to guide you. You can see that no one's perfect. We all have these crazy things going on.
Other than funding, what are some of the less talked about challenges business owners are facing right now?
CR: It's the details of what this moment means and following along with all the rules and regulations and best practices. If I have a salon, I probably need to put up plexiglass barriers. What does that look like? Where do I get them? What's the best way to implement them? How do I change my check-in processes? It's also the uncertainty. There's a ton of fear from employees about whether they'll keep their jobs. Will their pay be impacted? Now we're hearing a lot about people talking about children and what to do with them regarding school. The team dynamics have shifted so dramatically, and unfortunately I don't think there are clear answers from these business owners.
JC: What Carolyn said — the uncertainty is top of mind for people. There are a lot of startups that were literally about to get a check. What happens when that wire transfer from an investor didn't come through? How do you figure out your path forward? There are so many interesting situations. All we can do is try to help them emotionally, help them connect with new people, think of new solutions.
With the social justice movement that we're living through, we're seeing numerous Black founders saying, 'OK, something really interesting is happening. People that said no before are coming back. They're asking me to meet again. What do I do? Is this good, or is this bad?' In some cases, people are coming back to them but they're still not writing the checks!
There are some really interesting changes and because it's all fast and furious and not fully baked, people don't know how to handle that. We're just trying to help individuals navigate as best they can and look at individual situations.
What advice do you have on pitching investors over a video call?
JC: First, an opportunity is an opportunity. There may be disadvantages, but there are also advantages. We're seeing that in a lot of cases, people can pre-record their pitch, which helps them perfect things and do it in a much lower stress environment. What you're going to miss is that burst of energy before you go out on stage. Go do your power poses and your jumping jacks beforehand and get that energy up before you do your pitch. Try to channel that.
One of the unfortunate things is that usually there's less time with the judges — you lose the backstage networking aspect. So ask! See if there's a capability to reach out through email for a one-on-one.
CR: Also, I think a great way to build those relationships is to reach out to investors and share updates via email. It's one of the things that we've always done prior to COVID that's been really helpful. When there is the spark of a relationship over a video call, it's not just the pitch where you build that relationship. Make sure there are multiple touch points where you are showing growth and progress and traction to build up their excitement about what you're creating.
What's a business that's been really successful forging a path forward right now?
JC: There are two different categories. There are the folks who because of the nature of what they do, it lent itself to the current times. Kamana Health is a company that was part of our 2019 Startup of the Year. They create these online profiles and work with nursing staffing agencies. Perfect timing for them.
On the flip side, there are ones that were just floored by the pandemic. For example, we have a company that's been a part of Startup of the Year, the 2016 winner, ShearShare. They're a platform for salons. Hair Stylists! That is a group of people where it's a really tough time for them. This is an organization where all of the sudden, their revenue was through the floor just when they were taking off. They were able to look quickly at what they can do and they switched to education and really building up the community aspect and really being there to support all of those stylists who are hurting. Now, as communities open up, the business is going right back up for ShearShare. It's beautiful to see that they have a stronger community than they ever had because they really focused on what the community needed at the time.
It's a good lesson for others: Revenue may not be where you want it, but what can you do to put yourself in a better position and be ready for when all of this starts to change?
Can you each speak to the importance of partnerships and how they can be impactful?
JC: Having been an entrepreneur for a long time, I know how hard and isolating and how difficult it is. Entrepreneurs need as many resources as possible. All this glamorous stuff in the media glosses over the fact that you just need to get stuff done. Every single day, you need to move the ball forward. A platform like Hello Alice helps startups find those resources. It helps build those connections, particularly these days when startups start from everywhere. It's great that there are still large centers and hubs in big cities where people can be hyperconnected, but if you look across the landscape in this country, they're everywhere. Innovation knows no boundaries. There are so many people who are innovating but don't have the connections, don't know the organizations, don't have the hubs. Especially in a time like now where even if they are in the hubs, they aren't necessarily going to them. They're not going to a meetup, they're not having the same collision. Having the online platforms like Hello Alice is critical. For us, it's all about how do we find and uncover and shine a light on some of the best startups in the country, and then connect them with resources. It's kind of this perfect marriage.
CR: I couldn't agree more. For us, partnership is key. What I love about the entrepreneurial community is how collaborative it is. Certainly Startup of the Year has been an incredible part of that collaboration. There are so many pieces to building the success of entrepreneurs. No one organization can provide it all. Our goal is to connect people with the right resources that are relevant to them. What Startup of the Year does to get really into weeds and hands on with highlighting these amazing startups that are doing incredible things.
What's something that each of you are excited about right now?
CR: I'm excited about the opportunities. It's these times of major change when you see these incredible ideas and innovations start to emerge. The spotlight that has been placed on small business during all of this, the whole world realized how much we rely on small business owners. I think there's a newfound appreciation for their role in our society. That's only going to grow and evolve and bring more resources to the table.
At the same time, it's going to make them think differently about how they can grow their company and our new normal. They're getting smarter and scrappier and more resourceful about how they run their businesses. When you put both of those together, I'm incredibly optimistic about the way that we're going forward. It's exciting, and I can't wait to see what happens.
JC: That's a really good point. I'm really hopeful. If you look at the broader discussion out there, all of the challenges and change happening over the past few months have exposed so much and opened us up to new opportunities. I think the changes in the way people work will continue to help startups in new ways. I'm seeing people willing to jump on Zoom calls that they never would have been open to do before. People are opening their minds as investors think outside of major hubs and corporations think about the ways they need to extend and work with other organizations.
Specifically, I’m excited that we were able to highlight startups through the pandemic with our online events. We just premiered our Black Founder event which completes our Fast-Track series, where each winner was awarded an automatic Top 100 Spot to our Annual Summit. This November, we have our big 8th Annual Startup of the Year Summit where we get to bring all of these folks together. In addition, our .US sponsor will be awarding a $10K non-dilutive cash prize to a veteran startup participating at the Summit, which is very exciting.
CR: Now really is the best time to start a dialogue. Pick up the phone! Everybody is home and everybody is connected to their computer. Take advantage of that. We're all stuck!