By Joyce Gannon Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Entrepreneurs are turning to each other for advice, consolation, and hope they will be able to survive 2020.
In May 2019, a group of small-business owners came together to create a support group that could share successes like signing a new customer and challenges like how to jump-start sales or deal with an employee who wasn't getting the job done.
When COVID-19 in March brought many of their enterprises to a grinding halt, the group shifted from monthly meetings in a Green Tree conference room to biweekly Zoom calls where much of the discussion centers on helping each other summon the strength to salvage their firms.
"We've been pulling people out of pajama days for two months," said A.J. Drexler, the group's facilitator and chief executive of the Mansmann Foundation.
The foundation sponsors 14 peer-to-peer business pods in the Pittsburgh region through its Entrepreneurs Forever program. The Green Tree group requested more frequent meetings during the pandemic because members said they crave the feedback and encouragement.
"I talk to this group more than almost anyone else in my life and it has helped me to stay focused and calm," said Lisa Whitney, an architect who owns Eos Studio Arc in Swissvale.
"If I can stay focused and not be so depressed to be in my pajamas all day, I think we'll be OK."
Other members include an interior designer, an event planner, a restaurateur, a human resources consultant, a hair salon owner, an advertising firm executive and a co-inventor of a game that aims to get families talking to each other -- without electronic screens.
Bonding over business EForever assembles groups of diverse entrepreneurs who don't compete in the same industries, but members typically bond quickly over issues common to small businesses. They are referred to eForever by local chambers of commerce, economic development organizations and community groups.
Participants pay $12 a month and Mansmann or the referring agency picks up most of the program costs.
"I feel so adrift being a new business," Lisa Evans, owner of Dimension Interior Design told the group during its May 21 Zoom meeting.
She launched her South Fayette firm in April 2019 and was planning a new marketing push when the pandemic hit. Though she has worked steadily on a project in Virginia where construction didn't stop for COVID-19, she worries about "starting from scratch" signing up local clients.
Group members encouraged her to re-evaluate her marketing strategy, which to date has largely been referrals.
"You have established credentials," Stacey Barlow-Hill, who runs Encore Event Design in the West End, told Ms. Evans. "Maybe go to housing developments and drop a flyer in the mailboxes or find groups on social media."
The opportunity to prop up each other has always been a benefit of eForever's groups, but has proven critical during the pandemic, said Barbara Moore, a retired business owner and founding president of Mansmann.
Entrepreneurs are coping not only with closures or dramatic downsizings of their firms, but have added stresses such as child care and work-from-home arrangements that have "really shaken their view of themselves and their identity," Ms. Moore said.
Peer groups provide much-needed camaraderie and a place where members can, "Tell the damn truth," about how they're feeling, she said.
A daughter and four cats During the last Zoom meeting, Ms. Whitney did just that. A couple of projects have fallen through "and that makes me freak out," she said. "I worry I can't pay anyone."
One of her employees has worked full time through the pandemic and she expects to bring back two and hire another this month.
Eos Studio received a $17,400 loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program and Ms. Whitney expects that will be forgiven since she's using it for payroll under terms of the U.S. government's Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
She also secured a $20,000 Economic Injury Disaster Loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration, which she will pay back in monthly installments of $98 over 30 years.
Living with her 7-year-old daughter and four cats makes it "extremely challenging to have a Zoom meeting ... without someone walking on screen," Ms. Whitney said.
The eForever group helps motivate her to develop new branding and look for new business, she said. "I'm afraid to come here anymore without [the business] looking really good," Ms. Whitney joked to the group. "We're profitable now mainly because of you guys beating me up."
'The phone hasn't rung' During the pandemic, eForever staff and group facilitators "went into full gear" members by assisting with applying for government loans, issuing refunds to customers and "figuring out a pivot," Ms. Drexler said.
EForever also promotes members on via social media. It recently posted Tweets for no-contact balloon deliveries by Ms. Barlow-Hill's events company and masks available from Good Advertising.
Ed Grimes, owner of Good Advertising, a Green Tree promotional firm that provides glassware, awards, office equipment and other products imprinted with corporate names and logos, said sales had dried up during the pandemic.
"The last 90 days I've felt like I'm treading water. The phone hasn't rung."
The firm got a Paycheck Protection Program loan that Mr. Grimes said "should give me some breathing room" to develop corporate-branded masks and other items that businesses will need for reopening.
Going weeks without revenues have made it "tough to get initiative ... and a spark of excitement," he admitted to the group.
Ms. Barlow-Hill reminded him he can deliver balloons for her because he has credentials as a professional clown. Balloon delivery is the only service Encore Event Design has offered since stay-at-home directives forced it to cancel scheduled events.
But orders from its balloon boutique have become a "low-cost ticket item that gets us clients we didn't have before," Ms. Barlow-Hill said.
She plans to use $20,000 in EIDL funding to buy a cargo van that will expand delivery capacity and can be used to haul supplies when events resume.
She also secured a PPP loan, but worries the federal funding sources are "not enough to sustain the business long term unless we are able to pick back up all of the events that we lost due to COVID-19."
'We're here for you' Two members -- the owner of a South Side hair salon and the owner of a North Side cafe -- didn't attend the last Zoom meeting.
Both businesses had to shut down following the governor's order in March and Ms. Drexler believes they are struggling with how and whether they will reopen.
"We probably need to rally around them," she told the group. "Maybe it's just saying we're here for you when you're ready to strategize. That's what we exist for: one another."
She polled the group about returning to once-a-month meetings, but members still want to gather every two weeks for the near term.
With Allegheny County entering the green reopening phase Friday, Mr. Grimes wondered if they can schedule an in-person meet-up.
"In two weeks, can we sit down and have a drink at a bar somewhere?" he asked.
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