Michael Sellinger of Miami Bayside Foundation recalls the early days of the COVID-19 crisis checking in on small business clients and offering MBF’s help. Bayside is a nonprofit organization that mentors, holds training programs, and facilitates loans for small businesses in Miami’s underserved communities.
His message: “There is nothing you can do about it. You can only adapt. It is time to think about pivoting.”
Now Sellinger, MBF’s director of loan programs, is happy to report on the tenacity and grit of many of these small businesses trying to get through this crisis. “They’re not throwing their hands up in the air. There are some that did initially and you talk them down from the ledge, but they’re all making adjustments and accepting reality.”
HOW SMALL BUSINESSES ARE PIVOTING
Eric Wooden, owner of The COOL Miami, designs his own line of urban graphic t-shirts and opened a store in Liberty City in early 2018 to sell his own brand as well as hats, sneakers and jeans by other brands. During the pandemic, the space next door became available at a good rate and Wooden seized the opportunity. “He didn’t miss a beat. During COVID-19, he expanded next door — it looks great,” Sellinger said. “And he is opening a second location in Carol City.”
Pamela Wasabi Bakery, a vegan bakery that sold its foods to stores, has actually been adding accounts during the pandemic, Sellinger said. What’s more, Wasabi (pictured at top of post) is creating new products, pushing her online sales and building her creative brand. She is also planning a new radio show for the fall. “Pamela took the time to focus on her core customers and fine tune her brand.”
The Copper Door B&B in Overtown has pivoted to become a restaurant, Rosie’s. Jamila Ross and Akino West, the industrious founders experienced in food and hospitality, have always planned to have a restaurant at some point but COVID sped up that timeline. Within their outdoor space, they set up a food truck in order to open up the food business quickly. Hot tip from Sellinger: “Their hand-cured pastrami sandwich is to die for — I’m salivating just thinking about it.”
Then there’s Hot Nails Spa, owned by Tiffany Pham and Tommy Tran. Even though closed, they kept on employees with PPP money and by the time the economy opened up they had already reconfigured the salon. “They had all the PPE, separations and barriers in place so they could hit the ground running, and now they are opening up a second location. The demand is there and they are excited about giving people jobs,” Sellinger said.
‘IT BECAME A RALLYING CRY’
The moral of these stories? “For those who have the drive, pivoting is a necessary thing,” said Sellinger. “Lots of times small businesses just rest on their laurels. They don’t pivot even though things are changing around them. This change was so abrupt, businesses had to think outside the box, and that was scary for all of them initially but it became a rallying cry.”
A key part of MBF’s mission is making 5-year loans at 6% for up to $150,000 to minority and women-owned small businesses in Miami Dade. When the pandemic crisis surfaced, MBF dropped payments to interest-only temporarily for its current loan recipients and there are some small businesses still on interest-only because of the nature of their industries.
And MBF has still been making new loans during COVID, which shows that some small businesses are looking to grow even during these unprecedented times. Let us explain.
MBF has still been making loans, despite all the low interest offerings and grants out there for COVID relief. Case in point: SBA’s EIDL loan at 3.75% for 30 years, no interest for the first year. “That’s hard to beat, right? The problem is you can’t expand your business with that money. So we are seeing entrepreneurs who got that money say, ‘you know what, I see opportunity, I want to expand’,” Sellinger said.
So far this year, MBF has closed 15 loans. It has another 14 approved and ready to be funded with more in the pipeline.
PARTNER IN RISE MIAMI-DADE
MBF is also a key partner in the Rise Miami-Dade Fund, which offers 3.25% loans up to $30,000. “The key thing about Rise is that because it is a loan it creates a revolving pool. That money then builds up for the next disaster and can get quickly activated for the community,” Sellinger said. “It’s about how can we help the small business community today and tomorrow.”
For years, MBF has been running Small Business Training, which is a five-week course delivered in the evenings. The training programs typically run three times a year and covers all aspects of running a small business. “I think for some of the students it’s like drinking out of a firehose,” said Sellinger, who came aboard at MBF 3½ years ago and oversees the curriculum for MBF’s educational workshops.
In the last couple of years, classes have become more structured with presentations and homework; digital marketing has been added and financial literacy instruction has been expanded. “What I find with most small businesses is they’re not coming into this because they’re really good at accounting. That’s the one piece of the puzzle that they are least familiar and least comfortable with,” Sellinger said.
Because of COVID, MBF’s spring Small Business Training ended up being canceled. This gave the foundation time to prepare for virtual classes in the summer. The next workshop – MBF’s 14th cohort of Small Business Training – is set to begin Oct. 22. Applications can be found at https://miamibaysidefoundation.org/workshops/application/
GOING VIRTUAL WITH EDUCATION OFFERINGS
During the summer’s virtual cohort 13, “students were clamoring for more information and really enjoyed the material,” Sellinger said. So the next cohort will be 30 hours of instruction, rather than 25, and contain a couple of new classes.
MBF also received a grant from Truist and used the funding to launch a digital marketing program. The program included not only the basics of marketing strategy, but drilled down on Instagram, Amazon, Facebook and LinkedIn. Afterward, the students had an opportunity to spend one-on-one time with one of the instructors. “And on top of that, they received money to spend on those platforms, so not only are learning about the various social media options, they are given money to apply what they learned,” Sellinger said of the program launched this summer. “We think this program is going to be a game changer for some of these small businesses as they try to pivot.”
There will be more crises to navigate during these unprecedented times and more lessons learned from this pandemic-led recession. But Sellinger and MBF are uplifted by how their small business clients are adapting and pivoting.
“When you make the calls, you are never sure what you are going to hear,” he said. “But most of the time we’d hear, we’re doing this, we’re trying that and that’s what has been really exciting and encouraging – the spirit of the entrepreneurs.”
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Photos were provided by Miami Bayside Foundation and The COOL Miami.
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