In an era when the survival of many existing businesses is very much at stake, it’s hard to focus on fledgling companies, or the ventures to come. Arkansas’ entrepreneurial incubators, however, are intensifying their efforts specifically for these firms to help them survive in the present and prepare for the future as the state’s economic backbone.
“We’re seeing a completely different time for small business owners,” said Grace Rains, director of operations for The Conductor in Conway. “If there was ever a time that they need extra support, that they need extra growth, that they need more from us, it’s now.”
The Conductor recently announced it would move forward with its annual cohort, 10x Growth Accelerator, in May. Rains says despite the extraordinary circumstances brought on by COVID-19, the organization has an even greater responsibility to help these businesses survive.
“Instead of leaning back from providing more resources and support for these business owners, we decided to lean forward and provide this program in a way that is as high-impact as it ever has been,” she said.
Rains said while it obvious it’s not business as usual out there, there’s still value in long-held business principles. She said even if they’re applied differently or in different concentrations, expertise in customer communications or adopting new products and services are still critical.
“The surprising thing to me is that as we’ve been having these conversations with some of the clients that we work with, it’s been very similar conversations to what we’ve had in the past,” she said. “We talk a lot about customer discovery, that’s still critical. We talk about communication, making sure customers know you’re increasing safety, you’re increasing convenience, the availability of your product. You’re also changing the way that you deliver your products and services to meet the needs of your customer during this time.”
“It’s really just emphasizing figuring out what your customers need. That’s needed more than ever right now.”
Wayne Miller, executive director of The Venture Center, said the inherent risk of launching a business has always been a consideration for entrepreneurs, pandemic or no pandemic.
“What’s funny about building a business and entrepreneurs as a whole is that as you’re building a startup into a company and trying to validate it and gain customers and so forth, fundamentally you’re working on a pretty short rope to begin with,” he said. “You’ve got this bit of capital, you’ve got a certain runway. You already have this sort of natural pressure that you live within on a day-to-day basis, particularly if you’re leading the company.”
“I don’t know that I’ve ever, just being completely honest, in the course of talking to entrepreneurs says, ‘Well, listen, we’re going to have a lesson around crisis, how to manage through crisis.’ So, I think that’s one of the things that’s changed. Maybe we need to be thinking about that now, as we help entrepreneurs address some of the things they need to be considering moving into the future.”
Miller predicted innovation will grow out of the wreckage of COVID-19, as it has from war, financial collapse, natural disasters and hundreds of other crises preceding it. In fact, it’s already happening.
“What I do see is people taking existing technologies and they’re pivoting them to apply to particular problems that have been created from the coronavirus issue,” Miller said. “They may have developed a software for onboarding customers into checking accounts or spending accounts for a bank, and that same technology can now be used to onboard people who are trying to get access to tests for coronavirus.”
“The point is, there are technologies that have been sitting on the sidelines that people haven’t been compelled to use because there hasn’t been a problem that has been significant enough to apply them.”
As for the environment in which startups will find themselves post-pandemic, experts say that ecosystem is still being molded.
“I could see that after (COVID-19), we will see accessibility go up exponentially,” Rains said. “We’ll see tech start-ups that maybe have brick-and-mortars move to a more remote environment because people were forced to do things virtually for so long, they’ll see the overhead and operating expense versus doing the same thing virtually.”
“I think we’ll see some businesses that will permanently pivot away from doing things in person. You’ll see more curbside pick-up because restaurants have had to move in that direction. They’re seeing that they’re able to do it so they’ll continue to do it.”
“As we entered this decade of 2020, one of the things that was says at the front end was that this decade will ferret out the way in which remote work is truly done,” Miller said. “I know if I was going to start a company today, I could preserve a lot of runway and a lot of capital by not having to pay rent.”
“Now I’m a little bit more old–fashioned and the way I know how to close deals is face–to–face, eye–to–eye. I still think as people, we want some of that. But we’re also going to think differently about how we work with people and this will create a level of comfort (with technology) for many that haven’t had it before and cause people to embrace technology differently.”