When other restaurateurs were using blocked-off streets for outdoor dining to comply with COVID-19 restrictions, Jeff Noffsinger was taking his wine and pizza business on the road.
In what could be called a “pivot,” a business-survival strategy that has become a buzzword during the pandemic, Noffsinger contacted various neighborhoods, took orders beforehand and then set up his mobile pizza oven at a community center or other spot this summer.
“We were basically doing carry out from the mobile oven, and we’d do 120 pizzas in three hours,” Noffsinger said. “It worked out really well.”
But winter, the surge in coronavirus cases and continuing restrictions moved Noffsinger to work on a longer-term game plan for his restaurants: Origins Wine Bar and Wood Fired Pizza in Loveland and Locality Kitchen and Bar in Fort Collins. He was one of 20-some business owners who signed up for the first session of a series of workshops called Pivot Larimer County, paid for by a $200,000 grant from the county and led by Colorado State University’s College of Business.
“I started thinking longer term rather than short-term fixes, thinking about what things are going to look like six months to a year from now,” Noffsinger said after attending the online sessions.
Helping small businesses to navigate what could be a permanently changed landscape was the idea behind the Pivot Jumpstart workshops. Small businesses needed immediate help to keep their doors open and their online commerce humming, but economic development and business organizations saw a need to prepare people for the long haul as well.
“We learned from a number of different business surveys that there was a predominance of the businesses who were relying on the economy to get back to normal in order to survive,” said Jacob Castillo, director of the Larimer County economic and workforce development department. “What we saw on the horizon was that it might be a very long time, if ever, that we get back to ‘normal.’ We need to have programs in place to help businesses pivot to what the new normal could be.”
Questions about the long-term impacts of the pandemic on small businesses raise big questions about workers and the economy, said Mac Clouse, a professor of finance in the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver. He said certain trends, such as online shopping in lieu of going to stores, have accelerated during the pandemic.
“By far the majority of our businesses are small businesses,” Clouse said. “Small business has been the backbone of our economy and it employs more people than the big-box stores and big companies.
“They’re also the ones that just have fewer resources and fewer capabilities to adapt to newer models. We may see fewer and fewer of them,” he added.
A recent survey by the Colorado Chamber of Commerce found that 65% of small businesses, with up to 49 employees, said they’ve been negatively affected by the pandemic. And 53% of Colorado businesses of all sizes expect the economic fallout from the virus to last beyond 2021.
Business owners referred to the first round of COVID-19 vaccinations as the light at the end of the tunnel. However, Clouse said it’s not clear when most people will feel comfortable going back into neighborhood stores and businesses.
“And the longer we’re away from it, the more difficult it’s going to be to get consumers to come back to that model,” Clouse said.
Not the same as it ever was
The approach of the CSU-led workshops is to make sure business owners know what customers want and to deliver on it. The goal is to keep small businesses, which employ about half the state’s workforce, open and viable.
“I think the breadth of need is broader than we anticipated it to be,” said Rob Mitchell, one of the CSU business professors in charge of the sessions.
Mitchell said it’s hard work to commit to developing a business, being willing to study the market and build relationships with current and new customers.
“For some, this may be too late. For some, this may be too early. What has become clear is that the uncertainty, (questions of) where to next, just the day-to-day how do I make this happen are pretty common,” said Arthur Sintas, community impact manager at CSU’s Institute for Entrepreneurship, a partner in the program.
Larimer County has participated in federal, state and local grant programs, Castillo said, but saw a lack of guidance to help people think further ahead to keep their businesses alive “knowing that getting back to normal may take a very long time and may never happen.”
That’s where the pivot comes in, which Mitchell said is just another way of talking about business development. He said there’s a menu of changes people can make to sustain or expand their businesses.
“It’s all about building resilience, future-proofing,” Sintas said. “The reality is that COVID or no COVID, these are things that any business is going to have to do.”
“I’m here to run a marathon”
Peter Vlcek has been in insurance for about 16 years. In 2018, he bought a Farmers Insurance agency that has been in Old Town Fort Collins for more than 40 years. His dream is to keep the business going for another 30 or so years.
“I’m here to try to run a marathon and not just do 300 sprints,” said Vlcek.
A big change since the pandemic is the lack of personal interactions and community involvement that Vlcek saw as integral to building his business. “Because a lot of my marketing and efforts were out in the community, face to face, I have to change the way I’m doing my business, specifically with trying to market and bring new clients on board.”
Like other participants, Vlcek said one of the best things about the workshops has been learning from the other business owners. He got ideas from a marketing consultant. The interviews he did with employees and clients were helpful. He learned to ask the kind of questions that prompted useful information about what people want and need.
Vlcek said he’s hopeful about the economy even though there have been rough spots as some of his customers have shut their businesses or cut back. “We’ve lost a lot. We’ve lost restaurants. We’ve lost candy stores. We’ve lost hairdressers and masseuses.”
But Vlcek said he’s interested in seeing what new businesses will sprout in what he believes is still rich entrepreneurial ground in northern Colorado.
“It’s going to be different, and how we do things is going to be different,” Vlcek said. “It’s a cautious optimism, not a blind optimism, like thinking that we’re going to get back to what February 2020 was or 2019.”
Connecting to customers
Jan Harrison is the founder and principal of the Compass Community Collaborative School, a Fort Collins charter school.
Harrison, who previously worked as a teacher and administrator with the Poudre School District, said Compass students’ education includes solving problems in collaboration with community members. The students, in grades six through 12, have helped with fundraisers, designed animated public service announcements for the city and wrote a mental health curriculum for teens.
“I really feel like one of the things that sets us apart is that we view ourselves as a small business and an entrepreneurial endeavor,” Harrison said. “I feel it is part of my job as a school leader not only to be leading inside the school but to be a leader in our community of entrepreneurs.”
As a charter school principal, it’s also part of Harrison’s job to attract “customers,” students and parents. And like a lot of enterprises, Compass has seen its budget decline.
“School funding got cut from the state and enrollment dropped across the district, so financially the pandemic has really hurt us,” Harrison said.
The CSU workshops have helped her think about her school’s “value proposition.” In business speak, that’s the reason someone should choose Compass over other schools. Harrison said the language business people use might be different, but it’s the same idea.
“It’s a way of thinking that keeps you connected to your customer.”
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