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Small business owners balance optimism against challenges of growth

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From May 22 print issue of Columbia Regional Business Report

In a recent Bank of America survey, small business owners around the United States said they were optimistic about the state of the current economy, but still hesitant when it comes to questions about economic growth and expansion.

That sentiment seemed to prevail among local owners surveyed during last month’s 5th Annual Small Business Week Conference at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center. 

Dexter Monroe was one of the newer business owners at the conference trying to establish a contract management firm.

“It’s a challenge knowing what to do as a start-up,” Monroe said. “Dealing with licenses and naming, and trying to get established, it’s like reading the encyclopedia as a kid, what do you do with all that information?”

Monroe said he wished there were a simple road map to follow, something with step-by-step instructions. “I guess if it were easy, everyone would be doing it.”

One of Monroe’s major concerns was finding customers that wanted to work with a newer business. “Nobody wants to be that first customer, they want you to have some history, a track record,” Monroe said. “It’s a challenge getting started and having someone trust you from the beginning.”

Finding customers was not just a hurdle for start-ups. Jimmy Chao, owner of Chao and Associates, has been in the engineering consulting business for over 30 years, but still finds it hard for customers to choose his smaller firm rather than going with a bigger company.

“We have to convince the client that we are the best fit,” Chao said. “Sometimes it doesn’t matter the price, they want to know how qualified you are to do the work.”

Chao said his firm employs approximately 20 people, but he’s always looking to expand. He said keeping a reliable workforce can sometimes be a struggle with the qualifications needed for his business.

“We’re looking for people who have graduated from engineering school, that’s the source of our new blood,” Chao said. “We don’t have a big market here of established engineers so we hire fresh out of school, then train them.”

Chao said he runs the risk of his trained associates looking to move on to different, more high-profiled jobs.

Training is also important to Kimberly Price, who owns Clean Metro Inc. The industrial cleaning company sends crews to plants and other environments around the Southeast. Price said she has about 25 employees, but could always use more.

“We don’t have a lot of qualifications, we’re looking for a staff that is willing to work hard and do the job,” Price said. “Our biggest concern is for our employees to have common sense when it comes to their surroundings. We’re big on safety, and do all of our training in-house.”

Price said the atmosphere for small business is changing in Columbia. “It’s been a long time coming, but I’m looking forward to the changes that are being made. There are some new developments happening in the city and a lot of new business is generating, with more people getting into the market.”

Derek Walker works with many small businesses in Columbia as owner of the Brown and Browner advertising agency. Walker has a full-service agency that features between 10-15 employees depending on the size of the job.

“The joy of having a smaller agency is most workers are freelance, or contract,” Walker said. “They can keep their day job or work on their own projects. It’s a great way to grow a business.”

One of Walker’s main issues is the fact that internet has changed how businesses and agencies interact.

“It’s sped up the time work is created and consumed,” Walker said. “Where an ad campaign could go for a year or two, now it is three to four months before wanting to make a change.”

Walker’s challenge is getting small businesses to buy into the concept of advertising all the time, not just when the economy is going well.

“When things get bad, that’s when these businesses should be putting their resources in advertising because they are fighting for a smaller piece of the pie,” Walker said. “Instead, they are tightening their belts and stop speaking to their customer. They have to understand, there is less money on the table, and they have to fight harder for it.”

The Bank of America report, based on a semi-annual survey of 1,000 small business owners across the country, found most entrepreneurs (52%) are confident the national economy will improve over the next 12 months – up 21 percentage points from six months ago. Similarly, small business owners’ confidence in their local economy improving jumped to 50% from 37% in fall 2016.

The survey also found that 48% of business owners expect their revenue to increase over the next 12 months compared with 52% in the fall of 2016, and 56% plan to expand over the next five years compared with 55% in the fall.

In addition, 18% of small business owners plan to hire in the year ahead, down 7 percentage points from fall 2016. Instead, those surveyed this spring say they are focused on retaining existing employees. Additionally, plans to apply for a loan in 2017 are tracking similarly to fall 2016, with 9% of small business owners surveyed planning to apply in the year ahead, the report said.

The survey also found concerns over most economic factors have decreased significantly from six months earlier.

Reach Travis Boland at 803-726-7543.

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