Branding for Success

Sarah O’Connell

In April, Jefferson Community College presented its annual Jefferson Business Symposium for high school and college students and members of the community.  This year’s theme was “Build Brand U” and featured a variety of presentations during the day about developing yourself a brand as a student, a job seeker, a leader or a businessperson.   Keynote speakers for the event were Jody and Doreen Garrett, founders of several successful local businesses.

    During the day, I gave a presentation called “Building a Winning Brand for Your North Country Business.”  I talked about what it means to be an entrepreneur as well as how to choose what kind of business you might want to start here in Northern New York.   Besides the usual “how to start a business” information, I also highlighted determining what local business opportunities exist in our area and then making sure it suits your passion, your personality and your pocketbook. 

    For example, are you the type of person who would be happy with someone else giving you a blueprint for your business model? In other words, would you be a better fit as a franchisee, or as an independent business that creates your own path?  

    Maybe you’re a fan of the emerging disruptor or collaborative/sharing economy.   Uber, Lyft and AirBnB are examples of this, and they are turning many traditional industries upside down (mass transportation and accommodations) and requiring municipal entities to figure out how to capture licensing and taxation revenues from these new models.

    Again, in a broader sense, there are opportunities in the technology fields as the need for new products and services changes rapidly – software, ecommerce, cybersecurity, digital marketing, games, apps and so on.    The retiring Baby Boomers need services in property maintenance, senior care, etc.  The mobile Fort Drum community and young professionals are markets looking for upcoming trends they would like to see here, such as niche clothing shops and different dining experiences. The resurgence of Watertown’s downtown also offers a refreshing assortment of shopping – fashion eyewear, yoga studios, juice bars, an art gallery, craft brewpubs, wine lounges, spas, thrift and vinyl record shops.  Some of these have been around for quite a while but are seeing an uptick because of increased foot traffic from the new businesses and events designed to bring people to downtown.

    Last but not least, take a look at the distinctive enterprises that make our own north country marketable, whether it’s locally sourced foods (meats, cheese, honey) and beverages (wine, beer, cider, liquors), crafts made by artisans (wood items, candles), tourism and agri-tourism venues and winter/summer sports.

    Still not sure what business to start?  Each year Jefferson Community College’s Center for Community Studies undertakes a Survey of the Community for Jefferson and Lewis counties (available on the JCC website).   Viewing the responses to the survey questions on what people feel is missing may just give you an idea of a need waiting to be filled.

    What’s the next step?   Do a target market analysis, come up with a business plan and then develop a sense of the startup costs.  This is where your purse or wallet comes into play, because it needs to be a concept that you can afford to invest in with or without the assistance of a commercial bank and/or a public lender. (Check out what funds might be available through jcida.com under “Financing Assistance Applications.”)  The SBDC can assist you in developing the business plan and creating financial forecasts for your loan package.  Building a strong business brand will point you on the way to success.

    Note: Planning is underway for our 14th annual Business of Women networking conference in June.  Watch facebook.com/BusinessofWomen/ for more information.

    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.

SARAH O’CONNELL is a certified business advisor with the New York State Small Business Development Center at Jefferson Community College. She is a former small business owner and lifelong Northern New York resident. Contact her at soconnell@sunyjefferson.edu.

Opportunities Found

Sarah O’Connell

The federal government and New York state are committed to ensuring that economically or socially disadvantaged businesses have an opportunity to participate in direct contracts or subcontracts with government agencies and/or prime contractors. They have instituted specific programs to give these firms an opportunity to certify and register. For some contracts, there is even a specific percentage goal that must include small businesses from these designations (called set-asides).  These designations may include women, minority or service-disabled veteran firms.

    For specific federal programs, the SBA.gov website is an excellent resource. Specifically for women-owned businesses, the federal government offers the Women-Owned Small Business designation (WOSB). Doing any business with the government requires registration in the System for Award Management (SAM), and women can self-certify their company as women-owned. However, to get access to what are considered “underserved” industries, women must apply specifically to be a WOSB company. These industries are identified in the WOSB section of the Small Business Association’s website. If the company is determined to be eligible (more on that later) it can work its way through the process at certify.sba.gov.

    In the New York State MWBE (Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprises) program, the woman-owned business must already have been in operation for a minimum of one year. The process is fairly rigorous and calls for uploading of a number of documents as part of the application process, followed by an interview by the agency to confirm the business is truly woman-owned and operated. (Note: the OGS – Office of Government Services – oversees the Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Business program.)

    How is a business determined to be woman-owned? Some of the basic requirements include at least 51% ownership (where one partner is not female) and meeting the benchmarks that determine that a company is considered a “small business.” These may include reporting that annual sales fall below a certain mark and that personal assets also fall below a certain mark.

    The business must also prove that the business is truly woman-owned and operated, so that a male owner can’t just designate or add a female owner to take advantage of the system.  It must show that the female owner had financial investment in the start-up and continues to have an integral role in the operation of the business. Being the “keeper of the books” is not enough – the woman owner has to have knowledge of and show control over all facets of the business which may include bid estimating, contract writing, control over ordering, etc.  The female owner must spend the majority if not all work hours involved in the business; employment in another workplace is a red flag and may result in rejection of the application.

    The advisors at the Small Business Development Center can help steer companies through the certification processes for both WOSB and MWBE.  Once the requirements are met, opportunities open up for the woman-owned small business. In Jefferson County, 31 companies are certified in the federal WOSB program (according to the Dynamic Small Business Search at sba.gov). The New York State Contract System identifies 108 women-owned business enterprises (WBEs) in the North country region which covers Plattsburgh to Watertown to Oswego.

    Once a business is certified as woman-owned, it can start exploring opportunities that exist within its service area. Many of our businesses work closely with the local PTAC (Procurement Technical Assistance Center), located at the Greater Watertown-North country Chamber of Commerce to identify potential projects to bid. The north country PTAC will be offering a matchmaker event on April 4 where all small (not just women-owned) businesses interested in government contracts can meet with key people from government agencies and prime contractors to introduce themselves and share their capabilities. Visit http://www.northcountryptac.com

for details.

    Planning is underway for our 14th Annual Business of Women networking conference in May. Watch facebook.com/BusinessofWomen/ for more information.

    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.

SARAH O’CONNELL is a certified business advisor with the New York State Small Business Development Center at Jefferson Community College. She is a former small business owner and lifelong Northern New York resident. Contact her at soconnell@sunyjefferson.edu. Her column appears bi-monthly in NNY Business.

A River between us and the largest population in Canada

Sarah O’Connell

By Sarah O’Connell

Every spring, the Ottawa Travel and Vacation Show attracts over 17,000 people to explore destinations; St. Lawrence County was among them. Caribbean, African, Canadian, U.S. and East Asian destinations handed out brochures, provided tastings and talked with people, spreading awareness, ensuring their destination was top of mind in the traveler’s decision-making process.

    The St. Lawrence County booth included a display on the expanded Ogdensburg International Airport, which caught the eye of many. They were very interested in the low-cost direct flights, the opportunity to clear customs at the border and fly a domestic flight to their final US destination.  For many of them, Ogdensburg is closer than Ottawa, so price and convenience are selling points.  They were interested in the opportunity to spend the night before they flew, to take advantage of park- and-ride opportunities, have a nice meal and then do their shopping on their return drive.  Likewise, they were excited to hear that you can now get to Baltimore from the Massena Airport.

    It was interesting to talk to Canadians about what brings them over the border, what discourages them, and what excites them. Like many of us, Canadians are very sensitive about their dollars. Given the current value of their dollar, they still expressed their continued visits to shop for groceries, gas up their vehicles, and take advantage of discounted retail shopping and shipping! Not everything is cheaper, but some things still are.  The year-round Vermont ski area exhibiting next to us had a sign that read ‘Canadian at Par’. I asked them how maintaining that promise has impacted their business. He said that Canadian customers are too important to their company, they need to continue that loyalty and offering that commitment is the best marketing message they can send.

    Some expressed concern over discrimination at the border, while others mentioned ease. People were especially excited about golfing here, the price and ability to get tee times.  Nearly every rack card promoting cycling was taken. The wide shoulders, minimal traffic and beautiful scenery is desirable to them.  They were interested in the diversity and affordability of live entertainment offered through Ogdensburg Command Performance, the Orchestra of Northern New York, Community Performance Series at SUNY Potsdam and all of the festivals going on. They expressed that the closeness made it possible to take a drive to explore new places.  Several families were thrilled by the idea of a short drive with the kids to get away, and feel like they are ‘in a different country’. Robert Moses State Park in Massena  with the soon-to- be- open Nature Center, the Eisenhower Locks, Hawkins Point Visitors Center, campgrounds and cabins, trails and safe cycling all sounded idyllic as a summer escape from the city.

    Approximately 40 percent of Canada’s population lives within 200 miles of our border. In St. Lawrence County, we have two international bridges (Prescott-Ogdensburg and Cornwall-Massena).  What an opportunity?

Building the North Country Economy

Sarah O’Connell

The American economy has changed greatly over the last half century, and we’ve seen a lot of those changes right here in the north country.  Most of our paper manufacturers have closed down, national chains have changed the faces of our downtowns and our many small dairy farms have merged into just a handful of large agricultural enterprises.   Our largest employers now are the military, the hospitals, the various levels of government and educational facilities.

                So what happens when someone doesn’t fit into one of those types of businesses?  Maybe they decide to start their own business.   Every year we at the Watertown SBDC talk to around 700 would-be entrepreneurs.  Of those, many just want to kick around an idea or need some basic assistance with getting the business set up. Others decide to go forward and obtain a startup or expansion loan. 

                Many of the small businesses we work with are what the U.S. Small Business Administration calls “nonemployer” firms, meaning they are a one-person operation with no employees.  We could call them “starter businesses” – usually they are quicker and less costly to start, and also to close.  The median age of a nonemployer business is six years, about four years less than an employer business.

                Furthermore, startups are less likely than established businesses to create jobs, again because during those crucial first five years, the new business may be just struggling to find its place in the market, much less adding employees.  Less than half the jobs created by startups still exist after five years, while expanding, older businesses account for 60 percent of small business job creation.   The share of employment that microbusinesses (those with fewer than 10 employees upon start up) contribute has declined over the past 30 years – from 15% in 1978 to 11.6 per cent in 2011.  (SBA.gov).

                With all that being said, small businesses are very important to the local economy.  Besides providing employment for a local resident, new businesses may bring new ideas to the area.  They can provide support services or products that free up larger employers to do what they do best.    Small businesses also generate tax income through self-employment, payroll taxes and sales tax collection.  They can also be more reactive and flexible to market trends. Just look at the rise of the craft beverage industry in our area,  or ethnic restaurants and small niche shops; I think they make our community a more interesting and enjoyable place to live than large metropolitan areas that are just lines of chain store after chain store.  

                How about lawn care providers, plumbers, small contractors, or snow plow operators (shout out here to my guy Mike!)?    Small hardware stores, bakeries, crafters, web designers, our local news sources, and professionals like lawyers, insurance agents and accountants are here to provide us with their goods and services; they know their community and may even be our neighbors.

                So sure, you may find the Internet is quick and easy to search for something, order and pay for it electronically; it might even offer a cheaper deal than what you’d pay locally, and hey! – free shipping!    But at the end of the day, what is that doing to help your local economy?  If you want to support the north country economy, it starts with spending your money right here and creating growth and job creation, one local purchase at a time.

                For fiscal year 2015-16, the advisors at the Watertown SBDC serving Jefferson, Lewis and Oswego counties saw 735 clients, spent 5,174 hours counseling, helped them create 167 new jobs and retain 53 jobs and assisted 51 clients in obtaining financing for business startup or expansion in the amount of $15,166,933.

                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.

SARAH O’CONNELL is a certified business advisor with the New York State Small Business Development Center at Jefferson Community College. She is a former small business owner and lifelong Northern New York resident. Contact her at soconnell@sunyjefferson.edu. Her column appears bi-monthly in NNY Business.

July 2016: Small Business Success

In business, school is never on break

Sarah O'Connell

Sarah O’Connell

One of the basic tenets of good small business management is to keep learning as much as you can about the business you’re in, whether it’s watching the horizon for up-and-coming trends in other parts of the country, observing what innovations or new products are being introduced in your industry or scanning trade publications and websites to check out ways to make your business more successful. [Read more…]

May 2016: Small Business Success

Are you ready to open for business?

Sarah O'Connell

Sarah O’Connell

It’s very challenging to operate a seasonal business that’s open only part of the year, but it’s a financial necessity when your business depends on the weather and tourism. At the Small Business Development Center, our new clients often state that they are going to operate their weather- or visitor-dependent business year-round, but after the first year they often realize that it’s not financially viable to maintain payroll, utility and other expenses when the sales are just not there. [Read more…]

March 2016: Small Business Success

Maine-ly business with some extra salt

Sarah O'Connell

Sarah O’Connell

This is part two of my 1,500-mile solo road trip through New England to visit a small entrepreneurial venture way up in Down East Maine. The story begins when it seemed that everyone I knew started touting “Pink Himalayan Sea Salt.” I don’t exactly possess the palate of a gourmet, so I’m thinking, “Isn’t salt just salt?” Because basically, all salt was originally sea salt, whether it’s mined from deep beneath the earth or extracted from the ocean. But connoisseurs of salt believe that there are big differences in taste, mineral content and processing, and they are willing to pay the big bucks to have their condiment transported 7000-plus miles. [Read more…]

January 2016: Small Business Success

It’s Maine-ly business in New England

OConnellWebLast October, I took a 1,500-mile solo road trip through New England to visit a small entrepreneurial venture way up in Down East Maine, and I’ll be sharing his story in my March column.

For now, I want to share a little bit of my adventure through the beautiful state of Maine. What I discovered was, you can take the small business advisor out of the office, but you can’t take the small business perspective out of her. [Read more…]

November 2015: Small Business Success

Ensure your product’s price is right

OConnellWebOne of the decisions a business owner has to make is how to establish the price for their product or service. Especially for a new business, this can be a daunting process. But taking it step by step, it’s just a matter of looking at a number of factors about the product. [Read more…]

October 2015 Cover Story: Leadership

The formula for lasting success

Kevin Richardson, president of North Country Farms, stands beside pallets of flour ready for shipment to Mannhatten. Photo by Amanda Morrison, NNY Business

Kevin Richardson, president of North Country Farms, stands beside pallets of flour ready for shipment to Mannhatten. Photo by Amanda Morrison, NNY Business.

Leadership delivers results for three north country businesses where owners say Perseverance, patience and a willingness to take risks are keys

By Lorna Oppedisano, NNY Business [Read more…]