Take it from Judy Jones — as bad as things are for small businesses right now, “it’s not a hopeless thing.”
Jones is the Walla Walla business advisor for the Washington Small Business Development Center, sponsored by Washington State University.
She landed at her post in January, the latest step in a career that has included economic development for cities in the Seattle area, marketing a large science lab in the Carolinas, working as chief of staff and operations for World Vision International and running a private consulting firm.
Jones has seen tough times for businesses, including her own, which she operated during the 2008 recession. But she’s never seen anything like the COVID-19 pandemic and concurrent economic crisis.
Although she came to the local SBDC, housed at the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce office, to assist small businesses, she found herself needing succor at the start.
“It really was a shocker and it was very different for a new advisor coming in to Walla Walla, kind of being thrown into the crux of everything,” Jones said.
She soon realized she wasn’t alone. Other organizations were under similar pressure and she says they all dove in to the economic crisis together.
Jones got help from the city of Walla Walla, the Chamber, the Port of Walla Walla and the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation, to name some.
She said it was important to feel that support, especially since she’s now the lodestar for many small businesses in the Valley.
Within months of starting, she shifted from scheduling two-hour consulting meetings with small-business owners to fielding 10 to 15 phone calls and emails a day. She shortened her meetings to 30 minutes to assist more clients daily, in addition to increasing classes and meetings to stay apprised on rules and guidelines.
The days have all looked the same and yet always different.
“Things are changing on a daily basis,” Jones said. “Trying to stay up on that, that takes a good part of my day.”
The constant changes and new rules brought many demoralized business owners to Jones.
She had to keep up with a cavalcade of questions, and understandably so. Many were confused by the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan and Paycheck Protection Program loan.
“Desperate, frustrated, confused … it has been all of that and then some,” Jones said. “Not to mention that they also are dealing with families at home … And many of them at the same time are having to work from home or have a spouse who is having to work from home.
“And then they have this lifelong dream of having this business — they put in their sweat equity and hard work and poured themselves into building these businesses and they are basically sitting back just watching it all fall apart. That’s a devastating thing to see.”
Money was bottle-necked. Government organizations were caught off guard. After all, Jones pointed out, disaster rules were written for floods and fires, not viruses and global shutdowns.
There was some outside relief after a while as the Washington SBDC hired additional statewide advisors and the Small Business Administration hired more workers to operate a call center, to which Jones can now direct business owners for questions.
In recent weeks, questions have slowed down. Money has finally been flowing from the federal government for some. Jones also encouraged the start of a weekly town hall meeting with the Chamber where she and other experts can field more questions in one session. Columbia County, which is also serviced by Jones, started a similar event.
The hope has been to give struggling businesses a least one leg to stand on by strengthening online marketing and sales. For many smaller operations, that leg has seldom seen the treadmill and needs some working out.
Online retail giants are seeing soaring sales these days.
“If (online retailers) can thrive in this climate, then we can bring in the brick-and-mortar businesses into that type of business model and help them to thrive, and that’s our hope,” Jones said.
She’s noted everything from Facebook live videos to TikTok dances have been tried, all in the name of keeping business alive. Jones said there are indicators that delivery, online sales, social media and digital platforms are working, but it still means building a brand new customer base in some regards.
“History has shown that if a business disappears because of disruption for a period of time, then typically those customers will go and find another vendor,” Jones said. “So the key is to stay connected to your customers.”
She implores businesses to see connection as the key: ask questions, get feedback, get suggestions, try new things, interact with customers. Now is not the time for businesses to be shy.
Regardless of the government assistance programs, Jones said the most important thing is for a business to simply be — be there and be ready.
“The outlook overall, I’ll be very, very frank — it’s hopeful,” Jones said. “I can not say it’s a hopeless thing. It’s hopeful.
“It’s just going to cause us to look at business differently. It’s going to challenge us … and I think if we step up to the challenge and start getting our mind wrapped around what the new future will look like … then I think we can make it.”
Of course, she says, things will not bounce back quickly, even if this was just a “typical” recession rather than a global economic shutdown.
Every day costs a new mental toll for businesses these days, as well as their advisors.
The next step for Jones is helping the businesses be pandemic-proof moving forward, especially when considering a possible second wave of coronavirus in the fall.
If businesses are ready next time, then regulators, advisors and businesses won’t have to “live in the house and build it at the same time,” as Jones puts it.
“It’s very mentally stressful, and for us advisors too, we are also in this pandemic,” Jones said. “As an advisor, you take on other people’s challenges and conflicts … it’s been a very, very stressful event.”
Still, she added, there have also been some rewards: seeing new business strategies, strengthening local relationships, seeing a new love for community and creative business endeavors. Rewards that wouldn’t have been realized without the current crisis.
“That I think is what gives us the courage to keep stepping up to the plate,” Jones said.
More about Jones and the Walla Walla SBDC is available online at wsbdc.org/walla-walla.