Somerville Offers Business Coaching Service During COVID-19

Somerville City Hall. Photo by Eric Kilby, Flickr Creative Commons.

As of April 24, Somerville’s Economic Development Department (EDD) received 40 applications to their business coaching service, a new program created to help local businesses affected by COVID-19. Since launching on April 6, the program has already matched 17 businesses with coaches.

“Somerville’s small businesses are a critical part of the life blood of our community,” says Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone. “We are doing everything we can to provide help and ensure that they are still with us and ready to open when the crisis ends.”

The majority of businesses applying to the program are seeking guidance with loan applications, website design, and e-commerce, according to Daniela Carrillo, Economic Development Assistant for the Mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning & Community Development.

Once businesses apply to the program, the EDD schedules a follow-up call to understand the business’ needs. Then, the business is paired off with a local coach – many of whom previously participated in Somerville’s Technical Assistance Program.

“We’ve been thinking about this service for a while…we thought this was a good opportunity to focus on those businesses that are going through this situation but without having the requirements from that other program,” says Carrillo. “The good thing about this program is that there is no deadline to apply. If a month from now a business says they need a financial coach, it’s something we can continue to work on. We are hoping that the program will keep growing.”

One small business that has benefitted from the EDD’s coaching service is All She Wrote Books. The business began as a pop-up bookstore in April 2019, finding success in its first partnership at Bow Market’s Canopy room. While founder Christina Ciampa since built out an online store, the majority of sales were coming from pop-up events.

“I’ve been working longer and harder than ever before,” she says. “The last few weeks I was asking myself: Is this going to continue to still have feet? We had grown some really great momentum and traction over the last year, but how do we get our customers who are passionate onto our online bookstore?”

Adding to the complexity, Ciampa was in the midst of preparing to open a brick and mortar store in May in Assembly Row when COVID-19 lockdowns were announced. She decided to apply to Somerville’s business coaching service for guidance on payments for the brick and mortar space as well as guidance on which grants and loans to apply for.

“My coach Doug was amazing and really helped me distill the information. He was brutally honest with me,” says Ciampa. “Honesty is the best policy with everything going on. It was really about having that open and honest dialogue for my situation.”

According to Ciampa, one of the challenges was understanding the different policies and parts of each grant application.

“It was worth the time because he really helped me understand the differences between the different parts of the CARES Act and what they mean and encouraged me to continue applying for grants,” says Ciampa. “Having someone who understands small businesses and is sympathetic made me feel better about what was going on. Not only was I confused but I was scared. I want to protect my personal assets.”

Ciampa ended up filing for a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan and is in the process of figuring out other strategies to encourage connection and readership. So far, she has dropped her online shipping price to $1 media mail and begun hosting virtual events and reader circles until she can use her brick and mortar space – this includes celebrating the bookstore’s one-year anniversary this week.

“I hope they continue business coaching with Somerville in the future not just for COVID-19 because having resources like this open to everyone makes a difference,” says Ciampa. “One of the questions I get from women who are solo-entrepreneurs like me is ‘How did you get your LLC?’. These resources aren’t being brought up to the face of those people.”

Another business that used Somerville’s coaching service is Myrth Ceramics, LLC. Founders Abigail and Eric Smallwood have owned their business for 4 years and heavily relied on trade shows and local markets to sell their work.

“We just moved into a bigger facility in Union Square to have more room to grow and have our customers in our space. We literally finished construction in the beginning of March and had to shut down,” says Abby. “[COVID-19] shut down our retail. It shut down our wedding registry business because couples are postponing their weddings. It’s a huge income for us in the first half of the year.”

After hearing about the coaching service through the Union Square Main Streets business association, the Myrth owners decided to apply to get loan application guidance.

“We were at a time of confusion and conflicting advice, and information with the situation was changing so rapidly. We were looking for outside advice,” says Abby. “[The coach] gave us some insights into the loan process and reassured us that we were heading in the right direction with which loan we were applying to.”

With coaching guidance, the Smallwoods submitted their federal loan application to the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program last week. A few days later, both the EIDL and the Paycheck Protection Program stopped taking applications after running out of funding.

While the Smallwoods wait to hear about next steps on their application, they are putting their efforts into updating their online store with new photography and considering expanding their offerings to include custom work and collaborations to increase brand awareness.

“It’s exciting to see that folks are still stepping up to support small makers,” says Abby. “We had a little tiny sale, and even after the sale expired people were still purchasing stuff which is really encouraging since most of our web shop had been quiet for the last month and a half.”

Many business associations have been surveying their community to understand the scope of COVID-19’s impact. Jen Atwood, Executive Director of East Somerville Main Streets surveyed her community the first week of the shut-down.

“89 percent [of East Somerville Businesses] said that they were financially negatively impacted by the crisis and 80% had let go staff, I am sure it’s higher now. I did hear that for those restaurants that are still offering take-out and delivery – the income is around 10% of what they were bringing in prior to COVID-19 closures,” says Atwood. “We’ve already seen some businesses file for bankruptcy. The financial impact is severe to say the least.”

The waiting period for financial support is one of the most challenging things, according to Carrillo.

“We’re in a constant wait when it comes to the loans or the grants that are being offered. I think the most frustrating thing is not being able to help more businesses with those applications or if they apply for a program but have not received a response,” she says. “It makes us feel really frustrated to not have answers for the business.”

While the economic impact continues to grow, the situation has also showed how collaborative and connected the Somerville community is.

“On Thursdays we have a business town hall meeting at 3 p.m., and it’s really good to see how some businesses share their knowledge and experiences with loan applications,” says Carrillo. “PCP loan rules keep changing, and businesses may have some additional information that we don’t have, and they’re happy to share with other businesses. It’s really good to see and feel that.”

Another silver lining Carrillo noted is connecting with community businesses that she hasn’t talked to in a while or had the opportunity to work with before.

“We’re all in this together,” says Carrillo. “We’re trying to figure it out every day how we can help each other. And that’s the great thing about Somerville, it’s a really great community when it comes to supporting one another.”

You can find more information about Somerville’s Business Coaching Service and the Somerville Small Business COVID-19 Relief Fund at somervillema.gov.

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