Helping businesses weather the storm

Western’s CJ Seitz of the Small Business Development Center offers tips to survive ‘the new abnormal.’
Zoe Fraley
"Disruption drives innovation, and we are blessed to have forward-thinking, innovative leaders in our business community."

As Whatcom County business owners stared down a pandemic that threatened not only their health but their livelihoods, Western’s Small Business Development Center was ready to help, joining the Whatcom Unified Command economic recovery team and serving as the lead agency for economic technical assistance to businesses. “We experienced a rapid increase in inquiries at the highest level of urgency,” says SBDC Director CJ Seitz, whose leadership role rapidly shifted to provide direct help to businesses in need. “Panic was not uncommon.”

From March to June 2020, the SBDC delivered one-on-one services to nearly 500 businesses–nearly double the number of encounters from the same time last year. And the center’s group training activities were in even higher demand, with 846 people attending compared with 130 last year.

At the start of the pandemic, questions focused on applying for COVID-19 financial relief, then managing change and complying with the new social distancing guidelines. As the pandemic has dragged on, though, businesses have become focused on more long-term issues and how to survive what now looks to be an extended period of distress.

“Businesses are adapting to the new abnormal and discovering changing customer needs,” Seitz says. “Disruption drives innovation, and we are blessed to have forward-thinking, innovative leaders in our business community. Some businesses will need to make major changes to remain relevant and some will have relevance thrust upon them.”

To survive this upheaval, and to prepare for future crises, Seitz advises businesses to find ways to conserve cash: apply for recovery grants, the federal Paycheck Protection Program, the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan, and other local opportunities as they arise. She also recommends accessing flexible payment plans available from state agencies and taking advantage of the COVID-19 tax credits offered by the IRS.

“Almost as important as acquiring and conserving cash is being innovative and maintaining agility,” she says. “Businesses will be facing a rate of change we have never experienced, and businesses will need to be able to respond to big changes quickly as the months unfold.”

Her advice for small business trying to make it through the whipsaw changes of the pandemic might sound familiar to recent grads.

“Go into learning mode,” Seitz says. “Learn from your customers, your employees, your vendors and your professional service providers. Everything is new, and we’re not going back to the way things were for quite a while, if ever. Try new approaches, take small chances and above all, keep moving forward. Accept small failures as the price of growth.”

Zoe Fraley , '05, journalism, is social media coordinator in Western's Office of University Communications.