How To Prepare For An Uncertain Future

Jennifer McCluskey

Things are slowly, at least in New York state, starting to get back to “normal” or at least semi-functional. However, what I am hearing over and over again from my business clients is, “How do I plan for the future when I don’t know what it will bring?” This is especially a question in communities used to having tourist dollars flowing in every summer. Some businesses are seeing regular customer levels, many are seeing fewer, and some are even seeing more customers than they did before. While it is very difficult to navigate these unclear waters, there are a few tips I can offer that hopefully might help. 

    First off, be careful with your plans. I’m sure you’ve realized this already, but you may have to cut back on business expansion plans you were originally planning for this year unless your business is in one of the few industries that are COVID-resistant. Cut costs where you can. This can be difficult in our area where businesses even before this were struggling, but maybe there is something you can do to decrease your financial burden. Possibly there are areas of waste or lack of profit in your business. 

    Talk to other business owners in your area, both in your industry and in related industries which serve similar customers. We are all in this together, and your fellow business owners may have ideas that you haven’t thought of which will make it easier for both of you to succeed. For example, if you are a retail business in a tourist area, talk to your local hotel owners, B&B owners, and Airbnb’s to find out how their bookings are going for the future to give yourself an idea of how customers may come in. 

    Make it easy for your customers to feel safe shopping in your store. Follow the regulations and rules as they pertain to your business. Make sure your employees are wearing their masks correctly. I have seen several posts going around Facebook of people giving shout outs to businesses who are doing it right, and commenting about ones that are not. If your employees are having difficulties breathing in their masks, possibly look into face shields or one of the newer kinds of masks that are coming out made from better materials. 

    If you haven’t done it yet, get your business online, especially if you have a product to sell. Customers are even less likely than before to shop in person. If you can make it easy for them to order pick up or purchase online, this will make them more likely to shop with you. If you have questions about how to get online or the best way to get your products or services in front of your customers, you can talk to us at the SBDC. 

    Your SBDC business advisor can help, especially if you would like to do budget projections to see different scenarios based on different levels of customers. Or if you just need a listening ear to discuss your own business uncertainty. As always, we are free and confidential, and working as hard as we can to help your business get through this difficult time.  

      You can reach the SUNY Canton SBDC at (315) 386-7312, SUNY Canton SBDC at Clinton Community College at (518) 324-7232, or the Watertown SBDC at JCC (315) 782-9262. 

Taking Care Of Business

Sarah O’Connell

As I write this, we are in the fifth month of the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses in the North Country region have gradually been reopening through the four phases under specific guidelines and with many restrictions. 

    However, for businesses that deal with health and wellness, many are still not allowed to reopen yet due to the level of physical contact or proximity that is part of their normal customer interaction. 

    As the North Country region entered Phase 3, massage therapy businesses were allowed to reopen, as were hair salons and some other personal care services. As we all struggled with the isolation and anxiety produced by the crisis, this was a much welcomed development for those who needed the comfort and care that was beyond essential survival. At the same time, the operators of these businesses had to prepare rigorous safety plans for the state of New York and develop schedules and strategies to minimize risk to their customers. 

    On the other hand, physical fitness businesses like fitness centers and group yoga classes continue to be under additional scrutiny due to the risks inherent in gathering people together in activities that might increase transmission of the virus. Some exercise-related businesses have pivoted to offering virtual or online classes, particularly those with certain instructors who have a dedicated following who are willing to pay through an online payment portal to participate in a Zoom or similar digital meetup. 

    While doctors’ offices and medical clinics were open all along for emergency visits or telemedicine, dentists were not generally allowed to open until June 1 except for emergency situations. However, many of our local providers have noticed that their patients are delaying some appointments like routine checkups until later on in the year. The procedure for entering a medical office often involves waiting in one’s car until called, answering questions about recent health issues, possible contacts with ill people and travel outside the area, and undergoing temperature checks. 

    Some mental health providers who already offered online or telephone counseling have been able to continue to offer that support and have even expanded their customer base due to need. NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) has gathered a pool of volunteer mental health counselors to handle calls from people feeling especially stressed or anxious during the pandemic. (1-800-950-6264). It can also offer connections to local resources. 

    As with all businesses reopened or reopening in the various phases that the state allows, the key to getting customers, clients or patients to return is to demonstrate clear and well-thought out approaches to providing as safe an experience as possible. Surveys and anecdotal evidence have shown that many people are still very wary of venturing out into situations that might expose them to the virus. Reports of uneven or absent compliance will only delay the process of economic recovery. Recent spikes in infection were directly related to unsafe gatherings during July 4th celebrations leading to the reclosing of some area businesses. Enforcement of the safety guidelines needs to be universal to bolster the confidence of the general public. 

    As of this writing, the EIDL (Economic Injury Disaster Loan) program was still open and the application window for PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans was open until Aug. 8. Go to www.sba.gov for more information. The SBDC advisors are here to help you through the application process and beyond. We are also available to help you with any other business needs, whether it’s ideas for recovering, marketing, or opening, expanding or buying a business. We are available by phone and email and can have video sessions as well. As the JCC campus begins its reopening process, we will keep you informed if and when we can resume in-person appointments. 

    The New York Small Business Development Center at JCC offers free, individual, confidential counseling to new or existing business owners in Jefferson and Lewis counties. For more information, contact 315-782-9262, sbdc@sunyjefferson.edu. St. Lawrence County residents can contact their SBDC at SUNY Canton, 315-386-7312, sbdc@canton.edu 

Planning Ahead For Your Business

Jennifer McCluskey

I am proud of all the work that you and all of our North Country business owners have done to make it through this difficult time. We may have a long road ahead, but you have worked hard to get here and have held on through many challenges. One way to be stronger for the path ahead is to take a good hard look at how your business did during this crisis and find out if there are things that you could do better to prepare for the future. This is a great time to figure out a solid contingency plan for your business, since this disaster may have exposed areas in which your business is weaker. You have a chance now to learn and to figure out policies that will allow you to be better prepared in the future. 

    One big area where businesses struggle significantly is cash flow and being able to set aside a “cushion” of savings. Sometimes businesses expand too fast or buy that bright shiny piece of new equipment maybe before they were ready. This pandemic may have shown you that your cushion might have been too small to deal with a possible emergency. Have you ever played the board game Risk? In the game of Risk, if you expand too fast then on the next turn the other players will wipe out all your armies because you’ll be too weak to defend. You have to expand slowly from a solid base that can be maintained. It’s the same in business: you need to shore up your current business and have enough savings to support yourself before you start trying to expand. 

    I know this is hard for businesses that are constantly living on the edge of solvency. But maybe now is a good time to make a financial plan to figure out how you can get to the point where you do have enough of a cushion to get through a couple of months with little to no income. And if you don’t think it’s possible for your business to ever get to that point, maybe you need to make some radical changes, or possibly maybe it’s time to move on and try something new. Talk to your SBDC counselor. We can help you develop strategies, look through your budget and see where changes can be made, and provide support in whatever way you need. 

    Other areas you might want to consider looking at include:  

  • Develop work from home or contingency location plans. You may have found that having some of your employees work from home went OK for your business. If you likely now have the technology capabilities you need to implement this strategy again in the future if needed.  
  • Assess communication between you and your employees. Now that they are back in the office, find out if there could be ways that you all could communicate better in the future. What systems are you going to put in place so people can get access to critical information and can make critical decisions? Does everyone know his or her role in a crisis?
  • Put key business instructions in writing in an employee manual, or consider training employees to be able to do each other’s jobs. What if a key employee or owner gets sick? Would the business be able to function without that person? Are other people than the business owner authorized to speak to the bank, accountants, and attorneys if needed?

If you need assistance with your business during this difficult time, you can reach out to your local Small Business Development Center office. If we can’t meet with you in person, we can talk on the phone, teleconference, or email, whichever works for you. We are free, confidential, and always available to help. You can reach the SUNY Canton SBDC at (315) 386-7312, SUNY Canton SBDC at Clinton Community College at (518) 324-7232, or the Watertown SBDC at JCC (315) 782-9262. 

Your Digital Real Estate

Sarah O’Connell

My February column dealt with businesses that are dependent on the weather and how important it is to have a plan to deal with the uncertainty that comes when the weather doesn’t cooperate. I wrote quite a bit about the extremely high water levels last summer that affected businesses along the lake and river, and in that context, I also talked about the SBA’s disaster loan program.

And now, within weeks of me writing that column, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the north country, along with the rest of the world, found itself in a totally unprecedented situation that in terms of impacting and disrupting our lives makes a snowstorm feel like a single flake drifting down.

As of May 15, the north country is starting to gear up to reopen businesses through a series of phases. As long as the different criteria for positive tests, hospitalizations and testing levels stay stable, we can continue to on this path. I, along with many others, look especially forward to our beauty salons and barbers reopening. But these are very uncertain times, and we know that businesses will have to be operating differently for the foreseeable future.

It would have been unimaginable to plan for a scenario like this. Some of our small businesses had no option but to shut down entirely. Others, like restaurants, found a way to keep some staff and some revenues through meals-to-go offerings, and “curbside pickup,” like social distancing, has become part of our language. Other businesses pushed their online sales to help them get through the interruption.

This brings me back to the need to take advantage of your “digital real estate”. If your business already had a website, an email list and/or a social media presence, you have had the ability to stay in touch with your customers and to stay engaged with them, whether it’s sharing special store hours for seniors, providing a limited menu, offering Internet sales, letting people know about the safety precautions you’ve established or informing them when you are going to be able to reopen, and many businesses, even while closed, shared community news and events or offered words of support and encouragement. Many businesses are also offering comfort in the form of value-added content such as exercise classes, recipe tips, links to helpful sites and of course, cat videos. But if you didn’t already have a digital presence, you may have missed out on an opportunity.

Going back to my February column, I still contend that we Northern New Yorkers are resilient. We’re going to find a way to cope with whatever nature throws at us. It’s not too late to be thinking about how to invest in some digital real estate. The advisors at the Watertown SBDC

(well, working from home, remotely) are here to help you do just that.

Much of our advisors’ time from March through May has been spent assisting north country businesses with the two SBA disaster loan programs: the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) and the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). The EIDL program is similar to past disaster loans except for the inclusion of the Emergency Advance grant that included an amount per employee and owner that did not have to be paid back. The PPP was a whole new creation, part of the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act), and has continued to be refined as time has passed. A key part of that also includes loan forgiveness (does not have to be paid back) if the funds were spent and accounted for in a very specific manner.

The funding for these original loans was depleted very quickly and the payouts have not been swift as the sheer number of applicants overwhelmed the system. They have subsequently been re-funded; at the time of this writing the EIDL was now being offered only to agricultural businesses and the PPP was being refined to address the needs of smaller businesses.

The New York Small Business Development Center at JCC offers free, individual, confidential counseling to new or existing business owners in Jefferson and Lewis counties. For more information, contact 315-782-9262, sbdc@sunyjefferson.edu. St. Lawrence County residents can contact their SBDC at SUNY Canton, 315-386-7312, sbdc@canton.edu

SBDC Offers Assistance To Small Businesses, Disaster Loans

Sarah O’Connell

I had another topic planned for this month, but things have taken a wild swing in the small business world with the COVID-19 pandemic and the efforts to suppress the spread which have included widespread business closures.   Hopefully by the time this issue hits, things will have calmed down, but at this point, we really don’t know how long this challenge will last. The Small Business Development Center however, will assist you wherever possible, and listen to your concerns and your efforts to gear back up to where you need to be. 

     What we do know is that the SBA will be offering their direct loan program called the Economic Injury Disaster Loan.  As of the date I’m writing this, loan applications are not available but should be very soon.  

Here are some key points to consider:  

  1. It is imperative that you keep accurate, detailed records of your revenues and expenses during the duration of the disaster.  Monthly profit and loss statements are one way to generate this.
  2. You will need to demonstrate that there has been a significant drop in profits over the same period a year ago, again, with the best documentation you can provide.
  3. To access the loan program, you have to first apply to a commercial lender and have your loan request denied.  You will then include the declination letter with your application.
  4. The interest rate is 3.75% for small for-profit businesses and 2.75% for non-profits.
  5. Loan terms will be set on a case-by-case business determined by the business’s ability to repay but are meant to be as affordable as possible for the business; thus, some loan terms may be as long as 30 years. 
  6. The loans may be used for payroll, accounts payable, fixed debt and other expenses that can’t be paid due to the disaster.
  7. The applicant will have to provide 3 years past tax returns where possible, a personal financial statement, and a year to date profit and loss.  It is recommended that businesses have completed and filed their 2019 tax returns to accompany the application.

    The SBA noted in its press release that it will continue to assist businesses with counseling through their district offices and resource partners.    The Small Business Development Center is one of those partners. Many of our New York State advisors have worked in the past with businesses impacted with physical or economic loss such as post-9/11 in 2001, Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012.    

    We’d also like to encourage you to contact your bank, your vendors and any creditors to let them know that your business is being affected so your ability to pay will also be impacted.  Don’t leave this important step until you are already behind in payments.  We’re sure that this will not come as a surprise, but keeping the lines of communication open will help them know what to expect. 

    We encourage everyone in the small business community and the global community to stay strong and to stay healthy. 

    For more assistance, get in touch with your local New York Small Business Development Center.  We are free, confidential, and always available to help. You can reach the SUNY Canton SBDC at (315) 386-7312, SUNY Canton SBDC at Clinton Community College at (518) 324-7232, or the Watertown SBDC at JCC (315) 782-9262.  We’d love to help. 

Weather Woes

Sarah O’Connell

Al Roker, the weatherman on the Today Show for the past 40 years, was once quoted as saying, “I don’t make plans, because life is short and unpredictable – much like the weather.” While that might work for Al, it’s not a good general principle for enterprises that depend on the weather to venture plan-less. 

    I suppose we’re lucky that in the north country our weather mainly involves water – either too much of it, or not enough of it. Too much water: record snowfalls, high river and lake levels, road and field flooding, event cancellations, etc. Too little water: low river and lake levels, drought conditions for our crops, event cancellations, and so on. As we smugly say when we’re shoveling snow, sloshing through rain or mowing our dusty, dried-out lawns – at least we don’t get hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, earthquakes or landslides. 

    When weather presents a major economic or physical impact, that’s when the state and federal governments (e.g. U.S. Small Business Administration) may step in with disaster relief loan programs. But for smaller vacillations, business owners, particularly weather-dependent ones, need to develop a backup plan, whether a snow day, an indoor-related activity or off-season events that will bring in other revenue. 

    For example, a couple of years ago a major bass fishing tournaments on the St. Lawrence was impacted by higher water levels, but this ended up being popular with the pro fishermen who enjoyed the access into new areas. These events bring millions of dollars into the area as participants and their families and fans patronize motels, restaurants, gas stations, etc. 

    With snow conditions also unpredictable, businesses that depend on skiing and snowmobiling have had to come up with alternate ways to stay afloat, as it were. Snow Ridge in Turin has established a year-round schedule of events from music festivals to trivia nights to dirt bike races. 

    We Northern New Yorkers are resilient. We’re going to find a way to cope with whatever nature throws at us. A case in point is the business confidence survey released by the 1000 Islands International Tourism Council looking at 2019 where even higher water levels were reported than 2017. It asked local businesses along the lake and river how they felt about the season and their future outlook. In the survey, “73 percent…claimed to be either satisfied, pleased or very pleased with the business they received.” This was more than in the 2017 survey where 63 percent replied similarly. Why, when the water was even higher than two years ago, did business owners feel better? Because many businesses were able to adapt by raising docks or adding docks and pushing better marketing which offset concerns of potential visitors. The “normal” weather of 2018 didn’t hurt either, as tourists left very enthusiastic about their experience and eager to return in 2019 in spite of the high water. 

    As I write, the annual Snowtown USA event is kicking off in Watertown. Newscaster Walter Cronkite was the first to bestow that title on Watertown after the Blizzard of ’77 left the north country reeling under 220 inches of snow in 5 days. The festival, begun in the early ‘80’s featured ice skating, ice sculptures and other outdoor activities. Ironically, the festival melted away in the late 90’s because of poor weather. It was resurrected in 2013 by incorporating indoor activities like the Snowtown Film Festival, bowling tournaments, snow-related crafts at the library, pub crawls, etc. When the weather does cooperate, there are many outdoor events planned as well. 

    And by the way, in November 2014, Al Roker beat the unofficial world record for an uninterrupted live weather report of 33 hours held by a Norwegian weather broadcaster by setting an official Guinness World Record, reporting for 34 hours. 

    The New York Small Business Development Center at JCC offers free, individual, confidential counseling to new or existing business owners in Jefferson and Lewis counties. For more information, contact 315-782-9262, sbdc@sunyjefferson.edu. St. Lawrence County residents can contact their SBDC at SUNY Canton, 315-386-7312, sbdc@canton.edu. 

Five Tips For Starting Fresh With Your Business

Jennifer McCluskey

As we start with 2020 it’s a great time to think about how you can freshen up your business to grow and have a greater impact this year. There are a few simple things that you can do to start your business off right:

Tip 1: Take Care of Yourself
Small business owners are some of the hardest working people I know. Long hours, no sick leave, and being the one in charge of all the moving parts can wear on you after a while. Frequently your needs get pushed to the side so that your business can succeed. While this can be necessary, it also means that occasionally you do need to take care of yourself. Take time out for you, whether it’s an actual “unplugged” short vacation (scary, right?), or a weekly yoga class, or even a Saturday hiking in the mountains with your family, do what you need to refresh yourself. You’ll return to your business rested and more able to see the big picture.

Tip 2: Get Organized
Getting organized will help you cut down on wasted time. Have you found yourself looking for a file for over an hour since you didn’t put it in the right folder? (Speaking from experience on that one). Or do you frequently forget tasks? During one of the slower times in your business, it can be a good idea to declutter, get your systems back in place, or try a new time management technique. I’ve found the yearly file cabinet purge and restructuring is really helpful for when business gets too busy later. There are also a lot of apps that can help you get organized. A couple of my favorites are Quickbooks Self-Employed for keeping track of business income, costs, and mileage; Cozi, a free calendar system; and Colornote which allows you to set Post-it note reminders on your phone. Also see what tasks are “time wasters” and see if there are any that you can outsource. Getting a bookkeeper to keep track of the giant box of receipts, or a Virtual Assistant to help with scheduling and returning emails may be more cost-effective than you think if they allow you to spend more time on tasks that create sales.

Tip 3: Improve Your Customer Service
Take a moment to see if there are any things you can do for your customers to improve their experience. For example, do all of your employees greet your customers with a smile? Now might be a good time to check in about that. Ask your customers if there’s anything you can do to improve, either off-line with conversations or comment cards, or online by getting Google or Yelp reviews. If there’s something that you can improve on, they’ll tell you. More reviews also help bring more people to your website. Do you have really great customers who refer a lot of business to you? Maybe get them something special as a thank you.

Tip 4: Get To Know Your Finances
If you feel like you don’t have a good handle on your expenses or know the streams of income that are most important to your business, it might be a good time to get your bookkeeping in order. Whether you keep books by hand, Excel, or use a software program like Quickbooks, it is very important to know your profit margins and overhead expenses. Making sure you do your data entry in a timely manner can save a lot of headaches at tax time and can help you keep a better eye on changes you might need to make in your business. For example, your prices may have to change to match with different costs. Take a look at your numbers and see how you feel about where you are.

Tip 5: Meet With the SBDC!
Would you like to do some of these, but just don’t know where to get started? That’s what we’re here for! The Small Business Development Center offers FREE confidential business counseling, and we can help you with any of the above tasks, and more. Just contact the office closest to you. You can reach the SUNY Canton SBDC at (315) 386-7312, SUNY Canton SBDC at Clinton Community College at (518) 324-7232, or the Watertown SBDC at JCC (315) 782-9262. We’d love to help.

Which Business Form Is Right For Your Business?

Jennifer McCluskey

People looking to start a business ask me all the time what form of business is right for them, but it can also be useful for owners of an existing business to re-evaluate their business structure and talk to their professional support team of accountants, attorneys and others. It may be advantageous to switch business forms, especially considering new tax laws that have been put in place over the last couple of years. In the next couple of paragraphs, I’m going to go over a quick review of the different business structures; sole proprietorship, partnership, LLC, S-Corporation, and C-Corporation so that you will know what questions to ask your team. 

    The simplest and easiest business set-up is a sole proprietorship (single person or married couple) or general partnership (more than one person). A business becomes a sole proprietorship or partnership by filing a DBA (Doing Business As) form at the county clerk’s office. This registers the business’s name at the county level, but does not provide any protections beyond that. Specifically, it does not provide any legal protections. If a business is a sole proprietor and gets sued, the business is fully connected to the owner so all of the owner’s assets are at risk. A time to consider switching would be if a business grows and creates jobs, or opens a storefront, both of which may make it more likely for a lawsuit to happen. Business liability insurance can protect businesses as well, but it may be important to have an additional layer of protection that a different legal structure can provide. 

    The next step up beyond a sole proprietorship is an LLC, S-Corporation, or C-Corporation. These business structures help protect a business should a lawsuit happen by creating a separate legal entity for the business. They’re not foolproof; someone can still sue the business owner personally, but they often can help. Creating one of these business entities will register a business’s name at the state level. Most of the businesses that I work with are set up as sole proprietorships or LLC’s. 

    Filing a business as an LLC or Corporation at the state level gives the business owner some more choices in how he or she pays taxes as well. All sole proprietorships and general partnerships fill out their business taxes as part of the personal tax return of their owner or owners. If a business owner sets up an LLC, she can choose to continue filing taxes as a “disregarded entity,” meaning she would continue filing taxes on her personal return. However, LLC’s do have the option to file taxes as a corporation, which may allow the owner to take advantage of better tax rates if the business has a high profit. Owners of high profit businesses also may want to consider setting up as an S-Corp. To do this the business owner would file as a Corporation at the state level and then fill out paperwork for the IRS to get the S-Corp designation. This will let the business owner do their taxes a little more simply than a C-Corp, but will let the owner take corporate tax rates for any business income beyond the owner’s salary. An owner of an S-Corp has to be able to pay themselves a “market rate” salary, so this setup would not be as useful for businesses that are lower profit. Finally, a business owner could choose to set her business up as a full C-Corp. This will allow her to distribute dividends to investors and owners and will require tax filing as a corporation. 

    At the SBDC we can only give overviews; we are not accountants or attorneys to offer tax or legal advice. We recommend speaking to your accountant and attorney before making any business structure decisions. We can help connect you with a local support network if you do need one of these professionals to help advise you along your business journey. You can contact the SUNY Canton SBDC at (315) 386-7312, SUNY Canton SBDC at Clinton Community College at (518) 324-7232, or the Watertown SBDC at JCC (315) 782-9262 for free and confidential business counseling. 

Keep your Business Healthy With The Right Funding

Jennifer McCluskey

Having access to the correct type of funding stream at the right time can be very important for keeping your business healthy. Even if you don’t need funding right now, a great regular health habit for your business is developing and maintaining a solid relationship with your bank. When you find that your business is ready for additional capital to be able to grow, you have several options: 

Loans vs. Lines of Credit 

    There are several differences between loans and lines of credit. A loan is usually a large chunk of money that is given to you by the bank to buy something specific, for which you repay principal and interest for a set time period. Loans are usually best for larger purchases like land, buildings, larger equipment, etc. When starting a business, working capital (A.K.A money to start and keep your business going for the first few months) can be built into a business loan, too. 

    A line of credit can be more useful when a shorter repayment term is anticipated. For instance, if a lawn care business needs equipment in the spring and knows they will make enough money in the summer to pay the equipment off, a line of credit might be a good idea. Or another example is if a business is doing a project for a government entity, often the business will not be paid for the project until 30 or 60 days after completion. In that case, the business could use a line of credit to cover materials, supplies, and salaries until the bill from the government entity is paid. Usually, a loan is for something specific, while a line of credit can be for pretty much anything the business owner needs, once it is set up. Another useful thing about a line of credit is that it is a revolving account that lets the borrowers draw, repay and redraw from available funds throughout the life of the line of credit. Payment and interest will only be due on the amount spent. Lines of credit will likely have a higher interest rate, however, and may be harder to get if the business owner does not have good credit or less solid performance. There often needs to be some collateral available to secure the line of credit. 

Other Types of Business Funding 

    You can seek a loan from your bank or from other banks in the area that do business lending, or there are alternative lending sources available. Sometimes your county or your town will have a loan or grant program, so it’s always worthwhile to stop by your local economic development office or SBDC to find out what funding options are available to you in your county. Contrary to popular belief there are not many grants available, and those that are often have stringent requirements like job creation. Most grants available for business owners in our area are obtained by municipalities from the state and are administered on the local level. There are a few others, such as ACCES-VR’s small grant program for people with disabilities to start a business, and larger government SBIR and STTR programs for tech companies. In St. Lawrence and Jefferson counties, there are also some small grants for artists through the SLC Arts Council. 

    Some kinds of businesses, specifically those that are scalable and may involve a patentable product or service, may be of interest to an investor. Local investment groups will usually need a business plan as well as a pitch presentation. Obtaining this kind of funding can be a challenge, but rewarding. Similar kinds of businesses, like those that have a fun product or are in the tech arena, may be able to get some funding through crowd funding, but that requires a very strong marketing strategy and the right kind of product. Loans and lines of credit have a broader application and are (relatively) easier to get. 

    If you are looking for funding for your business and would like to learn more, contact the SUNY Canton SBDC at (315) 386-7312, SUNY Canton SBDC at Clinton Community College at (518) 324-7232, or the Watertown SBDC at JCC (315) 782-9262 for free business counseling. 

Adjusting Business Plan for Seasonal Changes

Jennifer McCluskey

Many businesses, especially here in Canton and Potsdam which have large college student populations, struggle with slower summer months.  Others in more touristy areas, such as near Higley or out in Clayton or Alex Bay, have the opposite seasonal changes.  A survey from Wells Fargo reported that 45 percent of business owners say they reliably have several times of the year that are faster and slower than others.  But no matter when your business’s slow season is there are many strategies for dealing with slower seasonal sales. 

    One strategy is to close up shop during the slow months. You’ll keep having to pay rent, but utilities, employees, and other costs will be gone or minimal.  This is the strategy that is often employed in some predominantly tourist areas.  However, if your product can serve locals as well, possibly staying open when everyone else is closed might lead to some small profits, or possibly large ones if there is an ice fishing derby or some other event. The Wells Fargo survey mentioned previously also reported that 62 percent of small business owners said they reduce their capital expenditures during slow seasons, and 43 percent said they reduce hours for their employees.

    Another strategy is to set money aside during the high sales months.  This is hard for many business owners.  Forty-one percent of business owners surveyed said seasonal differences make it more difficult to manage cash flow.  Planning can be difficult when you don’t know what’s right around the bend, or if you’re just barely making it during the better parts of the year.  If this is the case for your business, you may want to use your slow season to take a hard look at your financials and see if there are ways you can trim costs during the rest of the year so that you can be better prepared for next year’s downturns, or create a financial budget if you’re just winging it.  Make sure you are realistic with your cash flow projections for the future by having a good idea of past trends and sales in both slow and peak times. Update your forecasts regularly to make sure you are on top of any changes in trends.  Your SBDC advisor can help create and analyze projected budgets. 

    You may be able to delay some expenses until different times of year.  Talk to some of your vendors, for example your insurance company, to see if you could pay at a different time of year.  Even if they say no, I’m sure they won’t mind if you pay your bill ahead of time in the spring so that you’re all set when it’s due in the summer.  Another idea to improve cash flow during slow months is to collect a deposit from customers, for example half down and half on delivery.  This works especially well when there is a substantial gap between booking your service and service delivery. 

    Also, develop a positive relationship with your bank.  There are possibilities of obtaining a seasonal line of credit to get equipment and other items you need to get ready for your high season and then pay it off when the sales start coming in.  This could work well for something like a lawn care business which will need new equipment in the spring but won’t have money to pay for it until the summer. During slower times of the year, one in five business owners (21 percent) reported increasing their use of business lines of credit or business credit cards to bridge cash flow gaps. During busier times, two-thirds (64 percent) said they pay down debt or reduce their use of credit.   

    If you would like assistance planning for seasonal changes in your business cash flow, you can get in touch with your local Small Business Development Center office.  You can contact the SUNY Canton SBDC at (315) 386-7312, SUNY Canton SBDC at Clinton Community College at (518) 324-7232, or the Watertown SBDC at JCC (315) 782-9262 for free business counseling.  The Wells Fargo survey referenced can be viewed at https://wellsfargoworks.com/small-business-optimism-reaches-highest-point-in-a-decade.