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Embracing digital tools key to small business success during pandemic

Steve McDaniel //October 4, 2021//

Embracing digital tools key to small business success during pandemic

Steve McDaniel //October 4, 2021//

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This story was originally published in the Sept. 20, 2021 edition of the Charleston Regional Business Journal.

Innovation often rises from need, and nowhere was that better illustrated than in the way small businesses learned to navigate the coronavirus pandemic.

As well-established business models became suddenly obsolete, and customer behavior pivoted almost overnight, many small companies found themselves at a crossroads of crisis. COVID-19 case numbers surged, schools and offices closed, unemployment skyrocketed, and people hunkered down at home.

Companies that rely on walk-in traffic and large crowds freely assembling suddenly had none. Traditional revenue streams dried up, and small business owners faced the dire prospect of permanently shutting their doors. While that reality did play out for many, others learned new ways to keep money coming in, employees working and bottom lines not bottoming out.

Some of those lessons learned here in South Carolina were discussed in a recent webinar hosted by Charleston-based Connected Commerce Council, a nonprofit that specializes in connecting small businesses with digital tools and resources. The panel included small business owners, Gov. Henry McMaster, Lt. Gov. Pamela Evette and other economic stakeholders from across the state.

McMaster emphasized public-private collaboration as a key to keeping the economy on a forward trajectory. He pointed to the collaborative space at the University of South Carolina, where researchers and students work hand-in-hand with staff of IBM’s data analytics team. Other large corporations such as Samsung, Yaskawa Electric Corp. and Siemens are co-located there.

“We can take advantage of this network of collaboration and cooperation that we have in our state,” he said. “Primarily through our small businesses working to find better ways to do things, to be more efficient, more profitable, to help more people with their careers.”

Staying aggressive while seeking the right path through the pandemic worked for Harold Hughes, founder of Bandwagon. The Greenville-based startup helps the entertainment industry connect with attendees through data analytics using blockchain technology.

“We said, ‘If we’re going to go out of business, let’s go out swinging,’ ” Hughes said. “So we decided to be really aggressive.”

Bandwagon acquired IdealSeat, a small-scale ticket platform, to create a sort of competition to EventBrite, a well-known, global ticket platform used by many large and small event creators. Launched during the pandemic when events were still largely postponed, Bandwagon and IdealSeat have experienced a 212% growth in revenue as event venues have once again begun staging live performances, Hughes said.

Mimi Striplin, founder and owner of The Tiny Tassel, a jewelry, clothing and accessory retailer in Charleston, saw those traditional revenue streams abruptly stop and knew her team had to re-evaluate their marketing strategies.

While online sales and marketing and reaching established and potential customers through social media isn’t new, it became a lifeline for small business during the pandemic, especially during the lockdowns of spring and summer 2020 when in-store shopping wasn’t possible.

“Being able to use all those digital tools like email marketing, finding different ways to reach our customers through social media, that really connected us with our core customers and allowed us to grow our customer base quite a bit,” Striplin said.

Part of the equation for many small businesses during the pandemic was support in the form of federal emergency financial aid and state-level partnerships. Lt. Gov. Evette, a small business founder and owner prior to being elected, remarked about the importance of those partnerships.

“We brought in private businesses, local government, state government, federal government, hospital associations, education, manufacturing. We wanted everybody at the table to tell us what we could do to help them,” she said. “We took all of those suggestions and came up with plans that got our state really moving again. It was public-private partnerships that did that.”

Accelerate SC was the platform created in response to the needs expressed in meetings with small business owners and others. It was designed as an online access point to federal financial aid, COVID-19 news and policies, and other resources and data to help citizens, local officials and business owners make informed decisions during the pandemic.

Carl Blackstone, president of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, emphasized the need to focus on communities outside of the high-growth areas of the state in terms of expanding digital access and infrastructure.

“What we have to figure out over the next 10 years, if we’re going to see success, it can’t be just along the coast or Greenville or urban areas of Columbia. We’ve got to permeate those corridors outside the urban marketplace if we really want to develop South Carolina,” he said. “There are selling points to the rural parts of South Carolina, now that remote working is in. It’s an opportunity for us to think differently, but we’ve got to invest in infrastructure and education.”