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Building Small Business Resilience in Good Times and Bad

The LISC Institute spoke to several organizations working with small businesses in New York City about the supports small businesses need in order to cultivate resilience before, during, and after a disaster. The major themes that emerged were knowledge, relationships, systems, and communications.

Small businesses are part of the lifeblood of healthy communities. They provide essential goods and services for residents, create jobs, and attract visitors that contribute to the local economy. For individual entrepreneurs and business owners, they are also a crucial means of building wealth and equity. In more intangible ways, they contribute to the “feel” of the neighborhood, making it the unique place that people call home. Eva Alligood, Deputy Director of LISC NYC, explains the unique value of neighborhood business clusters: “Corridors are not just places where you shop and do business. They’re also where you gather, enjoy civic life, and where community culture can be celebrated and made visible. I think corridors are a really big part of how you experience your community.”

But going into business can be a risky proposition, even in the best of times. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 20 percent of small businesses fail in their first year and fully 50 percent fail within their first five years of operation. Entrepreneurs that have a passion for their product may not also have the skills needed to run a successful business. Local governments and community-based organizations recognize both the importance and the vulnerability of small businesses, so they operate a variety of programs to help them succeed and grow. Such support is critical to maintaining a healthy local economy during and after challenging events such as natural disasters, economic downturns and, as we learned in 2020, pandemics. It is also important to build small businesses’ resilience and ability to weather hard times even before disaster strikes.

LISC works with local community-based organizations and public sector partners to build robust small business ecosystems in urban neighborhoods and rural areas throughout the country. “We’re helping businesses to stay competitive in changing times,” explains Alligood. LISC NYC helps local partners provide assistance based on the needs the businesses themselves identify. One way of pinpointing those needs is through a tool devised by corridor expert Larisa Ortiz  called the Commercial DNA. The Commercial DNA toolkit was developed based on field work by LISC partners and consultants. It was further refined for the NYC Department of Small Business Services into a tool the City calls the Commercial District Needs Assessment (CDNA).

The tool guides local business associations and business leaders through self-assessments of their neighborhood commercial areas, focusing on four areas: adaptive capacity (such as leadership, organizational capacity and partners), business environment (such as density, tenant mix and anchors), the physical environment and market demand. The tool instructs local business leaders, city government agencies, community-based organizations and other stakeholders in how to gather and analyze useful data about their business districts and areas where there might be opportunities to improve conditions.

“This approach is about really making sure to bring the tools and resources to neighborhoods that usually don’t get that kind of assistance and it’s about meeting people where they are,” says Alligood. “It’s a community organizing strategy: creating a merchant association and finding common ground and advocating together on issues they care about, such as cleaning up streets and improving safety and infrastructure. You can learn to be smart about what you sell or what you make your business look like.”

“The corporate and municipal engagement and funding for this capacity building work ideally happens before disaster strikes,” she adds, noting that undertaking the assessment process and garnering community buy-in puts neighborhood commercial districts in a better position to weather difficult times. LISC NYC, Citi  and NYC SBS formed an initiative called the Commercial Corridor Challenge to implement the Commercial DNA tool and start creating an infrastructure of community-based organizations that are knowledgeable about their neighborhood business districts. Those organizations are now able to use that data to help businesses during the COVID-19 crisis.

“Neighborhood commercial corridors provide local jobs and help create economic growth across New York’s diverse communities,” said Colleen Galvin, SVP, Citi Community Investing and Development. “Unfortunately, COVID-19 has created new barriers to sustaining local economic activity. During these unprecedented times, the community-based organizations in this program are essential to helping small business clients access financial support and adapt their business models to help maintain financial stability.”   

LISC spoke to several organizations working with small businesses in New York City about the supports small businesses need in order to cultivate resilience before, during, and after a disaster. The major themes that emerged were knowledge, relationships, systems, and communications.

Knowledge

The NYC Department of Small Business Services (SBS) uses a three-pronged approach, connecting New Yorkers to good jobs, creating stronger businesses, and building thriving neighborhoods.  Kethia Joseph is the Director of Neighborhood Planning for SBS. She partners with community-based organizations to support commercial district planning and development in neighborhoods throughout New York City.

SBS and its neighborhood-based partners rely on the CDNA as a key tool to understand the issues facing small businesses throughout the City’s diverse commercial districts. Every organization funded through SBS’ commercial revitalization programs –– Avenue NYC and Neighborhood 360 ­––  is required to complete a CDNA within the first year of funding. In addition to providing valuable information, this process helps the neighborhood-based partners begin forging relationships with the businesses in their districts and start building a baseline of data on the businesses in their district, where they are located, and what their needs are. Joseph explains, “That’s a lot of the fundamentals of building resiliency as a district manager. If you don’t know who is in your district and their needs, any downturn can exacerbate an existing weakness. By building fundamentals, you can really identify those soft spots and vulnerable businesses in advance of disaster striking, and post-disaster, you know which businesses are top priority to connect with.”

The information the CDNA collects is valuable during times of crisis. Many community-based organizations that provide business support had to pivot the current work they were doing, from planning special events and marketing their districts to helping businesses stay alive amid steep losses. The information they collected during the CDNA and maintain on an ongoing basis now serves as a directory to communicate with businesses. Joseph: “They now have contact information for the different businesses to reach out and make them aware of resources, and are also able to offer the one-on-one technical assistance (TA) businesses need to submit applications [for aid].”

In addition to knowledge about the existing businesses and neighborhood conditions, there are often critical gaps in the knowledge small business owners have, and these can become glaring challenges in a crisis. Shrima Pandey, of Chhaya CDC in Jackson Heights, Queens, notes that language barriers can exacerbate capacity gaps for immigrant small business owners. The neighborhoods Chhaya serves are home to large South Asian and Indo-Caribbean communities and connecting to city resources often proves difficult for neighborhood businesses. “Even if a workshop is already ongoing [from the city], we knew it was not happening in our community, in translation in Nepali, Bangla, [and other languages common to the neighborhood],” notes Pandey. “The city gets information out by internet and a lot of our business are not online or not in the same sites or feeds.” As a result, many small entrepreneurs are not aware of city requirements and opportunities, so Chhaya works to connect people to resources they may not even know they need.

For Chhaya’s clientele, this can also mean gaps in knowledge about their legal rights. “For businesses, all of their rights are in the lease,” says Pandey. But she notes not all leases are set up to serve the business owners. “Some are oral agreements, some are subleases. They can be very complicated and make it hard for businesses to advocate for themselves. The landlord holds all the power.” Chhaya advocates on a citywide scale for more standard rent practices and rent control, and also helps individual business owners with the technicalities of their leases. Entering into a fair and favorable lease agreement is important prior to disaster, notes Pandey. “It would help ease a lot of the burden” when times are tough.

A lot of smaller businesses don’t have the capital or know-how to hire an attorney for help with the lease. Some of the businesses in Jackson Heights are very small, and may not even occupy an entire storefront on their own. Recognizing that small business owners often “don’t know what they don’t know,” Chhaya connects businesses to New York City’s pro bono commercial assistance lawyers and provides translation services to help them work together. The city lawyers can provide a standard letter for businesses to modify and send to their landlord to discuss rent relief when they are experiencing economic difficulties.

Relationships

Chhaya kicked off its small business assistance program a few years ago by undertaking a neighborhood needs assessment through the CDNA. SBS, in partnership with Chhaya, released the Jackson Heights CDNA report about the commercial district after a year. Jackson Heights is not only where people in the South Asian immigrant community live, but where they buy groceries and access professional services, like those from lawyers and doctors, who can serve them in the languages they speak. “We’re working to preserve and improve that community,” says Pandey. Chhaya focuses on economic justice, making sure the businesses in Jackson Heights have access to resources that everyone else in the city has. They also focus on helping the small business community to be more engaged with one other and with what is happening in the community.

Businesses are naturally competitive, Pandey notes, “but in a time of crisis we want to be working together.” In normal times, it can be hard to convince businesses to be transparent with others about their business practices, leases and other information. But during a crisis, that relationship work pays off, she says. “I just talked to a business owner who is in a group chat with nine other businesses. They’re talking together about what they’re doing [about the COVID-19 closures], whether they’re able to get deliveries and talking to their landlord together.”

Building relationships with other businesses can provide small business owners greater negotiating power than they would have operating as individuals. “We are advising that it is more effective to approach landlords as a group rather than as individuals, for example, being in conversation with other businesses and signing a letter collectively,” says Pandey. “It shows if [the landlords] are not able to make adjustments for one business, they might lose rent from the whole block.”

Pandey hopes the relationships strengthened during this crisis will continue when times are better. “Everything that happens during the crisis should continue to happen afterward, even as folks return to work or school.” After the COVID-19 pandemic ends, Pandey foresees businesses will need help bringing back or recruiting new employees. “A lot of folks have lost their employees. I’m not sure they will be able to bring them all back. And some people will lose employees to the virus.” She is already thinking about how to help businesses hire and retain new workers.  There, too, relationships can help. “For example, there may be one business where a lot of people are applying to work. Can they be directed to other businesses that are hiring? It would be good if the businesses continued to connect and share information with each other.”

Systems

WHEDco is a 28-year-old community development corporation serving the South Bronx. Its most visible work is affordable housing, specifically three developments in different South Bronx locations that are home to more than 600 families. Those buildings serve as anchors for WHEDco’s approach to service delivery that is focused on community residents as well as entrepreneurs and community partners. WHEDco also provides several supports to small businesses in the corridors near their housing developments, including a home-based childcare microenterprise program that helps individuals start, license and grow their businesses; a food business incubator with a commercial kitchen in their flagship building near Jerome Avenue; and a commercial revitalization program that helps more than 500 small businesses along the corridors surrounding WHEDco buildings organize, connect to vital resources, and thrive.

In addition to the CDNA process, which collects information about the physical and market characteristics of a district, WHEDco also recently performed a survey to identify and aggregate the needs of the businesses themselves, many of them run by people of color, immigrants and women. The survey showed clear gaps in capacity around business systems and infrastructure. Says Kerry McLean, WHEDco Vice President for Community Development, “We know from what we found that the businesses were not in the best shape in terms of bookkeeping and capital access.” She explains, “many of the businesses are using paper systems or keeping track of things in their heads. They don’t have the resources to invest in a computer or they haven’t made the connection yet to how essential technology is to their businesses’ future growth.”

SBS’s Joseph sees similar concerns citywide. She notes that many community-based organizations that partner with SBS are bringing on contractors to serve as bookkeepers and accountants for the small businesses in their neighborhoods. These services will help the businesses prepare the necessary documents to apply for federal loan and grant assistance programs, which require them to quantify and substantiate their losses and provide other financial documentation.

According to McLean, “When these relief resources come in, it’s normally too late for the very small businesses we serve to find out about those resources, get their paperwork together, and apply. This situation is made worse because many business owners can’t even be in their stores because of COVID19 mandates. It goes back to a lack of infrastructure that would enable them to get a fair shake at getting those resources. The ones who can respond [quickly] are the ones who already have the access to technology and systems in place. Many of the ones who really need the resources are left out.”

Chhaya’s Pandey is also concerned about equitable access to relief funds for businesses in Jackson Heights. “Some businesses may not qualify for funds because they are not able to submit payroll. We have undocumented businesses who don’t qualify.  Some don’t have their paperwork in shape. [We need a way to provide] access to that funding and make it easy to translate or provide assistance. We’re not able to sit side-by-side with owners and not everyone has a level of technological literacy” to do it themselves online.

The pandemic crisis has highlighted the importance of technology, Joseph notes, “whether that is recordkeeping – transitioning from having financial records on paper, so you always have access to them and they’re not damaged in a disaster – or having the digital footprint to attract new customers or communicate with existing customers.” She sees a role for SBS to provide more support for small business technological literacy in the future.

Obtaining relief resources is not the only difficulty for small businesses. Everyday access to capital is a challenge. In the South Bronx, business owners have found it hard to get financing for inventory and other working capital needs, says McLean. “It has been very tough for them to get that consideration, [even] from the banks where they may have their money.” She notes that typical bank requirements around financial statements and minimum credit scores may stand in the way, “so grants are really needed, in hard times and every day. They can help a small business owner get to the next day and get a return on investment and move forward.”

Another systems issue McLean cites is understanding the importance of accessing legal services early. WHEDco helps connect small business owners to pro bono legal services.  “Understanding the lease and contract terms, and choosing the right business structure can mean the difference between staying open or closing,” she says. “Our small business owners are resourceful and proactive about advocating for themselves. What we find, though, is that when they’re having issues with a lease, vendor, or other agreement they’ve already entered into or signed, seeking legal help can be too costly and too late.” To get ahead of such concerns, WHEDco advertises its SBS-funded free business legal services widely among the business community it works with.

McLean and Joseph agree that insurance is also an important tool for businesses to build resiliency for any disaster. Joseph recalls many businesses encountered challenges following Hurricane Sandy in 2012 because they had inadequate or incorrect types of insurance for the situation. “That is something I think people need more resources and education on,” says Joseph. And while financial resources are always needed, she explains that many small businesses are family-run, using their own capital, and it is very unlikely they will have six months of cash on hand. That makes it all the more important for SBS and community-based partners to work with owners on business continuity plans to help protect those scarce resources.

Communication

It is always helpful for small businesses to be able to communicate with CBOs, one another and with their customers, but in times of crisis, it is especially critical. Larisa Ortiz, Managing Director of Research and Analysis for Streetsense, explains, “one of the issues that always comes up after an emergency is not having contact info.” Therefore, she recommends establishing and maintaining methods of communication, creating contact lists before an emergency starts, and creating an emergency preparedness plan that businesses and partners can use immediately. “After every emergency, there’s an ‘I should have…’” she says, advising that those missing pieces should be priorities when businesses and business associations reestablish operations after an emergency. She notes that avenues of communication, particularly cellphone-based communication, continue to increase and apps that facilitate group conversations can be particularly useful in this context.

Once a crisis has passed, Ortiz recommends businesses find ways to communicate as widely as possible that they are open. “Communicating with your customers that you are open for business is really key.” She recommends investigating all the ways in which people are communicating – from social media to listservs to elected officials’ communications – and joining those networks so businesses can spread the word they are open and consumers can shop local.

Recovery

No one knows what the small business landscape will look like when the current crisis ends. No one knows when that end and the beginning of a new normal will come. But with unemployment claims reaching 22 million by mid-April, what is clear is that it will look very different from the prosperity of the last decade. Federal assistance is not sufficient or timely enough to cover the universe of businesses that need help, so nonprofits like Chhaya and WHEDco will have a significant role to play in the small business recovery for their communities.

Alligood of LISC NYC sees continued value for the CDNA tool. “We have the baseline data they collected before the crisis and there are already efforts underway [as a result]. Seedlings of civic infrastructure, organized merchants’ associations and nonprofits are coming together to figure out what to do. What will be needed is to take another inventory to find out what needs are and what there is to build upon.” A follow-up to the Commercial DNA can find out what businesses residents and visitors want to see a return to the corridors and inform the merchants about what they should focus on and local business leaders about what to try to attract to fill vacant spaces.

The networks LISC and others have already built through the Commercial DNA process will help in recovery. “Remember,” says Alligood, “that destination neighborhood corridor didn’t get that way by accident and it will need help to come back after a disaster. Resilient neighborhoods include neighborhood infrastructure like a healthy small business ecosystem that is there to help weather any storms.”

COVID-19 Resources for Small Businesses