CT Small Business Development Center Supports Businesses During, After COVID-19

The Connecticut Small Business Development Center, housed in the UConn School of Business, saw demand for its services soar during the pandemic

The School of Business building on October 1, 2020.

The UConn School of Business is redesigning its highly regarded MBA program (UConn photo/Sean Flynn).

As the state begins to move into a post-pandemic phase, the Connecticut Small Business Development Center (CTSBDC) expects another busy year helping small businesses recover and grow in 2021 and 2022.

Housed within the UConn School of Business, the CTSBDC receives funding from the federal and state governments, enabling a team of 18 advisors to offer no-cost, confidential counseling and support for a wide variety of small business needs.

In its last twelve-month period, the CTSBDC provided advising services to more than 9,200 small businesses and helped secure 700 emergency loans and grants. Advisors worked to help their business clients revamp their operations in the wake of mandated closures, and to make sense of the often-confusing maze of federal emergency relief funding and deadlines, logging more than 15,500 advising hours in doing so.

Last September, CTSBDC restructured a formerly geographic-based advising focus to one based on business need, with four teams focused on the areas business owners most often seek help with:

  • The customer acquisition team works with business owners to more effectively market their product or service and understand consumer behavior.
  • The capital access team assists owners and entrepreneurs to build out financial assessments, projections, and lender-acceptable plans to secure funding and review appropriate financing options.
  • The pre-venture team supports individuals seeking to launch a business.
  • The operations team strategizes with owners on optimizing business management and performance.

“Like the businesses we serve, we changed our business model to respond more effectively to our clients’ needs,” CTSBDC director Joe Ercolano says.

The CTSBDC also provides clients with inexpensive or free access to valuable market research, including industry, demographic, and consumer spending data at the national, international, and local levels.

The COVID-19 pandemic negatively affected many small businesses in the state. Customer-facing businesses, like restaurants and retail outlets, which were unable to open, or could only open with reduced operating capacity, suffered greatly from decreased sales.

“They were really squeezed with less revenue, but expenses generally remained at pre-pandemic levels,” Ercolano says.

Ercolano says the number of businesses the CTSBDC served skyrocketed when the pandemic hit. Federal CARES Act emergency funding allowed CTSBDC to hire five new advisors in April 2020 to accommodate the increased demand.

(Everyone at UConn) quickly understood that UConn could make a tremendous difference in the small business community. — Joseph Ercolano

The CTSBDC also hired Paula Schenck, a research associate in the Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and adjunct instructor in the Department of Medicine. Schenck, who has been an advisor to physicians at the UConn Health Occupational and Environmental Medicine Clinic on environmental contributors to illness, helped businesses understand the pandemic, and how to make the work environment safe for employees and customers.

“UConn was phenomenal in helping us respond quickly to the need that was there,” Ercolano says. “Everyone from the grants pre- and post-award, to HR, and of course the School of Business Administrative Office, were super-concerned and supportive. They quickly understood that UConn could make a tremendous difference in the small business community.”

As part of UConn, the CTSBDC has access to the wealth of resources UConn provides for small business owners. The CTSBDC often taps into student talent from the School of Business through such programs as Verge Consulting with the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, where graduate students advise startups and small businesses.

This mutually beneficial relationship gives businesses access to valuable consulting resources and provides students with the chance to work hands-on with a small business or startup, something many students do not have the opportunity to do through traditional internships.

The CTSBDC also provides a variety of web-based resources, including online classes and webinars on financing, search engine optimization, intellectual property, and many other topics. It offers many of these courses in English and Spanish to accommodate the diverse needs of the business owners it serves.

Looking forward, the CTSBDC will work diligently to support small businesses as they adjust business strategies to deal with a post-pandemic world. After the damage the pandemic caused to many small businesses, the CTSBDC’s resources will be even more important as businesses begin to recover and move forward.

“Business owners are optimistic going forward, as a group,” Ercolano says. “They see the potential for rebounding. We share that view and will do our best to help them get there.”

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