Small Business Matters

Stephanie Dunham paced the length of her office and marveled that she hadn’t worn a path in the carpet after so many trips back and forth over the past few hours. It was April 22, 2020, and just six weeks earlier, she’d planned to spend part of the day out on the town green with hundreds of other Moreland citizens to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. But then a couple new terms entered the world’s vocabulary and changed everything: social distancing and shelter-at-home.

As the Small Business Development Center’s (SBDC) regional advisor for the city of Moreland, Stephanie could certainly work from home. But since the SBDC office was in the city government building which remained open with a skeleton staff, and since her office was located in a far corner on the lower level where she was socially distant even in the best of times, she preferred to be here with her multi-screen computer set-up, her whiteboard, and her favorite coffee mug.

On the return trip across the length of her office, she stopped in front of her whiteboard and stared at the growing list of business owners who’d contacted her in the past few weeks. She was at a loss for how to help them — a feeling that did not sit well with her. For 24 years she’d run a successful manufacturing business then “retired” and become an SBDC advisor for the past 12 years. She’d seen her share of tough times with her own business, and provided guidance to her client companies when they faced their own challenges. She also had an extensive network of business leaders, service providers, funding experts, and local business development professionals who she regularly called upon for advice and support. If she couldn’t answer a question, she could always find someone in her network who could help. But not this time. The COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying economic shutdown were like nothing she, or anyone else, had ever experienced before.

She sat down at her desk and wrapped her hands around a cup of coffee that was long past warm. As she stared at the cold brown liquid, a splash of bright spring green caught her eye. It was the logo on the side of her favorite coffee mug representing Pennies-from-Many, the state-wide crowdfunding platform that had pioneered investment crowdfunding for local businesses four years before. The Pennies-from-Many platform now mostly featured bigger investment deals for growing companies, but Stephanie recalled that it used to do small campaigns, even donation-based and pre-sale programs in its early days. That’s what got the wheels turning in her mind.

“What most business owners need right now is a boost of cash to get their minds off their day-to-day survival so they can start thinking creatively about the future,” Stephanie thought to herself. “I wonder if Pennies-from-Many could help with this…and I wonder if Morelandians would step up with some crowdfunding?” After a few more minutes of pondering, she decided she’d never know if she didn’t try and opened up her hefty contact list to search for the name of an old friend.

Within a half hour, Stephanie had Louisa Williams, founder of Pennies-from-Many, on the phone and by the end of the conversation was feeling downright optimistic. Louisa was instantly on board with the concept and responded to Stephanie’s questions with spontaneous creativity. They roughed out a basic plan and timeline for something they decided to call the Small Is Beautiful Campaign to support Moreland’s small business owners. The name Small Is Beautiful was a nod to E.F. Schumacher’s book of the same name that had been one of Stephanie’s favorites in college. Plus, the two women liked the acronym it formed — the SIB Campaign — which suggested “siblings” and, by extension, the image of community as one big family. Louisa said she’d use that imagery as the basis for all the communications for the campaign.

The SIB Campaign concept was simple: crowdfund small donations from as many people as possible to provide relief payments to small businesses that had been affected by the shelter-at-home order. They decided to use donation crowdfunding since it was easy and fast to set up, and would significantly minimize the legal and administrative costs to get money into people’s hands as quickly as possible. News stories were already starting to hint at the potential strings attached with the monies coming from federal relief packages, so they designed the SIB campaign with this simple “repayment” requirement: do your best to stay in business for the next 3-4 months because your small local businesses are a benefit to the Moreland community through the goods and services you provide, the jobs you maintain, and the future tax revenue you’ll contribute to the city. While the funding would technically be a donation, Stephanie and Louisa saw it as an investment in their city’s future; and they hoped Moreland citizens would see it the same way.

The application process for business owners to receive funding would be a simple on-line form through the SBDC website. The only information required was the business name, tax ID number, address, and number of pre-COVID employees — all of which could be verified with quick searches on the Secretary of State’s website and the SBDC’s database. Stephanie and Louisa decided specifically to focus on small businesses (fewer than 20 employees) and independent contractors since these were the ones struggling to secure funding from federal relief packages and less likely to have relationships with banks, lenders, or investors as a financial backstop.

Getting the campaign set up on the Pennies-from-Many website was the easy part. Like most donation crowdfunding sites around the country, the web-page development and back-end administrative details were fairly turnkey. Donations could be made either via PayPal or Stripe and would go directly into a dedicated bank account of a local nonprofit organization that had offered to be the fiscal sponsor and payment processor for the donations. After getting those details set up, most of Louisa’s effort was focused on readying a comprehensive outreach and social media plan to spread the word.

Stephanie, meanwhile, started working on the funding goals and payout details. She checked her client tracking sheet and noted calls from 28 business owners over the past two weeks. She estimated there were easily three times that number who needed help and set a goal of 100 businesses. To keep things simple on the payout side, Stephanie and Louisa had decided on a two-tier payment plan: one amount for independent contractors and sole proprietors with no employees; a higher amount for businesses with up to 20 employees. The amount each tier of businesses received would depend on the total amount raised. Stephanie pulled out a donation estimator spreadsheet from an old friend in the nonprofit world and determined that a $500,000 fund raised from Moreland’s 72,000 residents was a reasonable expectation.

Within a week, Stephanie and Louisa had all the online forms set up, and an eye-catching, informative webpage and media campaign ready to launch. Louisa had made quick work with her connections at the local radio and TV stations to get the message out, and the Moreland Times was preparing a big story in its weekly digital edition, as well as follow-up email campaigns to all its subscribers. All of the media outlets provided their coverage at no charge since they knew their long-term survival depended on the continued success of local businesses that had always been their biggest source of advertising revenue.

On the day of the launch, the mayor of Moreland held a press conference via Zoom that included Louisa and Stephanie to announce the campaign. The familiar faces of local journalists started to pop on the screen as they were admitted to the Zoom conference, but then a few video boxes came online with names recognizable from the Associated Press, CBS News, and National Public Radio. There was even one participant who introduced himself as a researcher from the Late Show with Stephen Colbert! Louisa’s social media outreach, sent out a week before the press conference, had clearly gotten some notice.

At the end of the press conference, Louisa officially opened the web-page for business, and within 11 days, the Small Is Beautiful Campaign raised $504,000. Nearly 15% of Moreland’s 72,000 residents had contributed in amounts ranging from $10 to $100. In fact, 76% of the donations were in amounts of $50 or less.

Over the same time frame, Stephanie had received and validated 97 applications from small business owners, and as each application was approved, Louisa added the business name to the webpage so that contributors could see who they were helping. Louisa had also created a comment wall where contributors could leave messages of support.

Twenty-four patrons of Sam’s Barber Shop posted messages with different versions of “you do more than cut my hair — your shop is a cornerstone of our neighborhood where I catch up with friends every week.” The Sweet Life Bakery was also a favorite among contributors and received appreciative comments from folks who missed picking up pastries on their daily commute, and from parents who saw the bakery as a safe and fun place for their kids to hang out after school. One comment from an anonymous donor summed up the general feeling of the campaign so well that Louisa elevated it to a headline on the webpage:

Without our unique mix of local businesses, we would just be Anytown, USA.
Our local businesses put the “more” in Moreland!

On May 15, just 23 days after Stephanie’s original brainstorm on Earth Day, she watched 97 checks go in the mail with “Small Is Beautiful” written in the memo line (with no added expense or loss of time). All in all, 56 independent contractors received $3,000 each, and 41 small business owners got checks for $8,000. The remaining $5,000 was used to cover the few administrative costs that had not been donated.

On a beautiful sunny day in late July, Louisa and Stephanie sat on the deck of the recently re-opened cafe across from Stephanie’s office. Since the closing of the SIB Campaign in mid-May, they’d received hundreds of emails from campaign contributors — and many who hadn’t contributed the first time around — asking about more ways to support local businesses as the economy struggled to recover in the “new normal” world. They decided they’d be crazy not to harness the outpouring of community spirit, and Louisa was bursting with ideas for moving beyond donations to an actual investment fund to forge deeper connections between citizens and business owners through long-term investment relationships.  She’d recently met a successful New York City investment banker who’d moved back to Moreland to care for his aging parents. He was working part-time as an adjunct professor of finance at the local university and looking for consulting work with Pennies-from-Many. They’d had an interesting side conversation about a community investment fund model being tested in Vermont, and Louisa was excited to share the idea with Stephanie.

The two women were deep in conversation when their food arrived, and at first they didn’t notice that it was delivered not by their server, but by Jesse, the owner of the cafe. As Jesse set down their plates, he said, “Your lunch is all paid for, including the tip, so don’t even think about getting your wallets out.” The two women looked up at him in speechless surprise.

He went on to say, “Don’t thank me…I was all set to buy your lunch, but that woman over there beat me to it.” He pointed to a tall woman in a tank top that showed off a gorgeous string of tattooed stars that wrapped around her neck and twined down her left arm. She approached the table and introduced herself as Sutton.

“I wish I could give each of you a hug but since we’re still not supposed to do that, I settled for a food hug,” Sutton said. “I’m a self-employed tattoo artist and had a pretty good gig going before this whole crisis, but in the middle of the shut-down, I thought I’d lost everything. That $3,000 check saved my life. It paid my mortgage and put food on the table, until I finally got some unemployment payments from the state. Just knowing that I had a little breathing room helped me to put my focus where it was needed most — on my kids. I was so stressed about money, I didn’t realize what a toll it was taking on them. I can’t thank you enough!”

Stephanie opened her mouth to speak but before she got a word out, Sutton said, “I know you’re going to say ‘it wasn’t us, it was the people of Moreland’ which I totally get. But it was the two of you who had the guts and the good sense to get things started. That’s important.” As she shouldered her messenger bag packed with a to-go container of salad, she looked over her shoulder and said, “And now, I’m very happy to say — I’ve got to get back to work!”

————-

This story is a prequel to one titled “Future Capital” in my new book Moving Mountains: The Power of Main Street Americans to Change Our Economy.  It’s not a true story – but it could be – and the National Coalition for Community Capital can help make it happen in your community. Contact them at nc3@comcap.us to learn more.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *