As small businesses pivot in the pandemic, Epicenter and MMDC work to move with them

Small business owners across the country are struggling to survive the economic shock of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Many have reopened, but what about businesses that can't maintain social distancing requirements? 

A Tour of Possibilities is a Memphis sightseeing company that offers a two-and-a-half hour bus tour of significant points in Memphis’ Black and African-American history. Owner Carolyn Michael-Banks started the company in 2014. 

“We had to pivot because we were not able to operate safely within the CDC guidelines. Social distancing was not really possible in a 10-passenger van,” said Michael-Banks.

So Banks recast her business according to the health guidelines.

ATOP now offers a Memphis Caravan Tour. Guests follow the van and hear the tour via smart device or bluetooth instead of climbing aboard a van. A virtual tour is also in the works.

Michael-Banks said Epicenter helped her keep the business afloat while she made the changes needed to safely reopen. 

Epicenter is a nonprofit small-business accelerator that supports Mid-South entrepreneurs with training, funding, and other resources. Michael-Banks, for example, participated in an Epicenter-sponsored marketing course with Cheers Creative, a local brand and web consultancy, prior to the pandemic.

Since March, the organization has been helping local entrepreneurs adapt their business models and secure funding to weather the storm. Michael-Banks said Epicenter approved her for COVID-19 emergency relief in April.

“Epicenter was the first group to step up and help me financially. Funding went towards paying creditors and bills [like] insurance,” said Michael-Banks

“We're communicating with and connected to [an] entire ecosystem of partners to ensure entrepreneurs are getting access to both resources and emerging sources of relief funding," said Jessica Taveau, Epicenter's chief brand officer. 

Epicenter is aware of the shortcomings of technology and limits to owners' abilities at pivot. They're making efforts to keep everyone in the loop through a variety of platforms.

In addition to newsletters and emails, the incubator has worked to provide information to its entrepreneurs including a comprehensive list of local resources, workshops and information that is updated daily. A video component is also being considered.

“We are working internally and with our partners to strategically think of opportunities to record workshops so people can watch them as a video without logging onto Zoom, Google Hangouts, etc.,” said Taveau.

Business owners can also use Epicenter's experts-in-residence service. Business generalists and subject-matter experts are available for 30-minute, one-on-one sessions to address emergency and COVID-19-related needs.

Epicenter has partnered with mental health coach Jackie Oselen to provide wellness coaching sessions to area entrepreneurs during this stressful time. To seek mental health support email Kerri Malone, Epicenter's manager of community engagement, at [email protected].

Like the entrepreneurs and small businesses it serves, Epicenter's offerings and operations haven't been immune to the effects of the virus.

Its coworking space, which in better days was a hub of collaboration for Memphis entrepreneurs, is closed to the public. Only a few Epicenter team members who cannot work remotely still come in.

Taveau said most offerings have moved online, while some have been postponed or canceled.

“We will most likely not be offering any in-person workshops or programs for the near term until we are certain that it is safe to do so for the entrepreneurs and partners that we work with and our team," said Taveau.
 

Meanwhile in the Medical District....

Many of the Memphis Medical District Collaborative’s small business programs are also being offered online. MMDC is a community and economic development organization that works to promote locally-owned business, jobs, and housing within the Medical District. 

They've long offered grants to businesses in the district for facade improvements, events, planning, and other basic needs. Now they've launched their Small Business Remobilization Fund. The goal is to connect businesses with the resources necessary to purchase inventory, re-hire staff, or cover other hard or soft costs during the re-opening process.

“We reorganized our budget and programming to provide even more support to entrepreneurs, as well as local artists," said Vonesha Mitchell, MMDC Program Manager. "We did not scale down, we just pivoted. We are offering support in different areas and our traditional support is still available as well."

It's HUSTLE Summer Workshop Series was offered online through the end of August. The virtual series focuses on various aspects of running a business during a pandemic.

The MMDC maintains a few public indoor and outdoor spaces in the district. They are still open but require masks and social distancing. This includes the BOXLOT retail experiment, which reopened in July.

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After flirting with a half-staffed office schedule, its own staff also returned to fully-remote work around the fourth of July.

Mitchell said some business owners aren’t comfortable with a virtual environment and are going to scrap any plans until it's safe operating again. 

“Many small businesses do not have the technology infrastructure that allows them to bring their operation into a completely virtual world," said Mitchell.

"If you have a service-based business built off of human interaction, technology might not suit your current business model, which means [they must] change drastically or fail,” said Mitchell.

Read more articles by Jim Coleman.

Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.
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