ACE MV aced it

Small Business Think Tank explores weathering these times. 

Given that the Vineyard economy depends on a robust summer tourist season and that summer is effectively ‘cancelled,’ on Wednesday, April 29, ACE MV hosted a free Small Business Think Tank for one hour on Zoom to explore what Island businesses can do to stay afloat. Fifty-one people signed up for what turned out to be a blizzard of upbeat, practical conversations about how small businesses are coping, what’s working and what’s not, and most importantly, strategies for the future. The video was recorded and is available on their website.

It prompted at least one participant to get going on her own business plan and move forward out of the molasses of COVID-19 lock down.

The facilitator was Ace Executive Director, Holly Bellebuono, director of Bellebuono Holistic International and former owner of Vineyard Herbs Teas & Apothecary, who kicked it off with more than a dozen possible questions the five panelists might address. If each panelist had talked about each one of those questions, we’d still be there but the questions gave them plenty of room to talk about issues particular to their businesses, and Bellebuono had ammunition to step in with follow ups. And another session is being planned. 

The panelists were Heidi Feldman, co-owner of Down Island Farm and MV Sea Salt; Nancy Gardella, executive director of MV Chamber of Commerce; Samantha Hartley, founder and president of Enlightened Marketing; Ky Keenan, co-founder of Not Your Sugar Mamas and founder of Frankie’s Flatbreads, and Jill Robie, executive director of YMCA-MV.

The questions included how their businesses are doing, what’s working, what’s not working, struggles, challenges, staffing, communications with customers and clients, are they, principals and customers, pivoting, transitioning, shifting, new priorities, and scenarios for the future.

Feldman’s salt business is off 90 percent. Every night before she shuts down, she makes a list she carries forward of what she’ll accomplish the next day, and a successful day means she got through two or three things. She is staying in touch with customers and expects to be able to bring back part-time help when the farmers’ markets reopen, in whatever form. It’s going to take more staff though, because she’ll need one person to handle product and another to handle payments.

Gardella addressed Massachusetts unemployment benefits for the self-employed, which make them eligible for federal benefits. She also talked about Gov. Charlie Baker’s guidelines for reopening specific businesses.

Robie at the YMCA represented the largest employer in the group, managing food service, child care, the teen center, exercise equipment and classes, the pool, and the ice rink. And 2,000 people coming through their doors every day. They kept all employees on the payroll for three weeks after March 13 as they determined what was in the best interest of the employees. The pandemic led her, a people person, out of her comfort zone as a manager and there is no way she could have imagined interacting with members and the public online the way they do now. Like many of us, she’d never participated in a Zoom meeting. Now she and the YMCA are interacting with exercise groups, kids programs, and more, all online. And it’s working as the Y Without Walls, just as it did for the two years before it opened on the Island on June 17, 2010. It will be a 10-year anniversary like none they ever imagined.

Hartley, a marketing guru, had this advice for her clients and all of us. Business will never be the same as it was. We are in mourning. We need to face the fact that things will never be the same and get past the grief. According to Hartley, it is a waste of time looking backward. We need to move more online, and move differently. We need to push the limits of our creativity. Some businesses won’t be able to, but some will pivot. If there are five things you could do but the first three don’t work, move on to four and five. Real answers are going to be at the limits of our imagination.

For those struggling with social media, Hartley advises getting in as a user first. Learn by using, and learn to like it. Follow things you are personally interested in, be it dogs or cooking. Be where your people are. As a great example, her own personal least-favorite social media site is where most of her clients are. So that’s where she is too. Figure it out.

Keenan’s Not Your Sugar Mamas is still selling to Whole Foods but she’s relaunching the business and working on Frankie’s Flatbread’s ingredients as marketable units. She’s hosting social media workshops but she, like other presenters, has paused some business options such as foreign travel retreats and person-to-person workshops.

For Keenan, and all of us, this is a time to uplift, engage, and connect with our community. Don’t sell, just connect, by email or social media, while the actual person-to-person contact is on hold.

Bellebuno prompts us to ask: What is the socially responsible thing to do? And then do it. And the panel agreed. It’s a time for authenticity and increased transparency. Let your client’s know what you’re doing; stay in touch; share.

And lastly, revisit your mission. For nonprofits, the mission is always front and center. But for profit businesses, the mission may be deeper in the business plan. They need to go down to the mission and face why their business is important to clients and how it fills a community need.

The think tank was an inspiration for small business owners to share information with others similarly situated, and their clients, to bring them to new levels of creativity, ideas, and hope. Sharing is unifying.

The Think Tank was sponsored by ACE MV, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the Martha’s Vineyard Cultural Council. Another think tank with restaurant-affiliated panelists will be held in the next few weeks, according to Bellebuono. Keep an eye on acemv.org.