Content sponsored by Tipmont Wintek, Eleven Fifty Academy, and Indiana University Kelley School of Business

In IBJ’s Thought Leadership Roundtable, experts from Eleven Fifty Academy, the Indiana University Kelley School of Business and Tipmont Wintek talk about the resources small businesses need to successfully emerge from the pandemic.

What critical resources do small businesses need to thrive coming out of the pandemic?

Ron Holcomb: As a critical infrastructure provider, we make sure the broadband and electric services small businesses rely on are reliable and affordable. We recognize that these resources are essential for our small business customers. Tipmont Wintek’s primary contribution to them is peace of mind. For these businesses to thrive, they need to know that the services they rely on are going to be there for them and will fit their budget.

Chris Hutchinson: Maintaining and increasing support for small businesses is crucial for a full post-pandemic recovery. Aside from access to financial resources, human capital is a major concern for fast-growth companies, especially as it relates to meeting their technology demands. Eleven Fifty Academy works hard to jumpstart careers in tech 16 times faster than a four-year degree. We work with our corporate partners to ensure our graduates are equipped to help meet the demand for tech jobs, especially for small businesses.

Bipin Prabhakar: Small businesses thrive by being active in their communities and offering face-to-face interaction, but the pandemic dramatically impacted this model. Indiana University responded by launching the Kelley HOPE Digital Project to help businesses thrive in a new and different environment using highly skilled graduate students from our MS in Information Systems program. We quickly realized that the critical capabilities they needed were all technology based, and that their business processes had to be digitally enabled. Although initially focused on reaching and retaining customers, digitization provides businesses with opportunities to dramatically increase their reach, both within their communities and in the world at large.

How accessible and equitable are these resources?

Chris Hutchinson: Resources for small business are accessible—if you know where to look. There is definitely room for improvement to ensure resources are equitable for all. When companies, especially those with technology needs, require access to resources, the first step is identifying which resources are needed at each stage of growth. With Eleven Fifty Academy, we engage with corporate partners on our Advisory Board who provide critical input to ensure that our curriculum in our coding bootcamps meets the demand for available jobs.

Ron Holcomb: Plainly stated, accessibility is a problem. And it’s not just a problem in Indiana or in our region, but across the country. Certainly, the pandemic has made that painfully obvious to all those who depend on reliable services, particularly broadband. And I think solving the broadband accessibility problem for Indiana might be the most important economic stimulus that the state could ever invest in. This is an effort with untold benefits. From an improved tax base to supporting education and telehealth, we see so many things today that depend on a reliable and affordable connection. Providing that access is essential.

What type of funding opportunities exist for small businesses in the Indianapolis ecosystem?

Bipin Prabhakar: The Indiana Small Business Development Center provides significant resources and levels of support to Indiana small businesses. The ISBDC has been an integral partner for Project HOPE and a source of additional financial support for small businesses. Project HOPE provides the technological capabilities, training and expertise, while the ISBDC, working through its network of local small business development centers, provides funding to acquire the necessary technologies.

Chris Hutchinson: Programs through the Indy Chamber (including TIF grants), the SBA, Indiana Department of Workforce Development, Elevate Ventures (if a tech company is seeking venture capital), regional economic development organizations, and angel investing (friends or family) are all sources of funding outside of banks. Depending upon the type of business, any of the aforementioned options could apply.

Employee recruitment and retention is a common challenge for small business owners. How can small business owners more effectively meet this challenge?

Chris Hutchinson: Small businesses save money in the long run by building employees, not buying them. Internal training helps to create team members who will stay with an organization longer. Eleven Fifty Academy is designated as an Apprenticeship Program for application developers by the U.S. Department of Labor. Apprentices are a perfect example of a new hire who can be molded and mentored. Our grads often use our large alumni network to help find additional team members when their employer expands. Besides apprenticeships, Eleven Fifty Academy works with businesses of all sizes to provide internships based on company needs.

Ron Holcomb: Whatever you do, don’t roll the dice. I know from experience that you’ve got to find the folks who share your values. The hiring process too often revolves only around skill level. At Tipmont Wintek, we hire for what’s in your heart. We can teach you the rest. We also believe you should be creative about the perks you offer. Don’t just stitch your logo on a sweatshirt; people—especially younger employees—are looking for more experiential things.

What can be done to improve talent acquisition and availability of jobs in Indiana’s small business ecosystem?

Ron Holcomb: Employees need to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They need a mission; they need a purpose. They don't just need a job. So, positioning what you do and what your company delivers … that can really inspire people. The younger generation wants to contribute. So, we have an obligation to figure out how to show them how they can contribute their talents.

Chris Hutchinson: There are some wonderful programs to assist with talent acquisition in Indiana. Eleven Fifty Academy works with DWD’s WorkOne offices across the state to help individuals find jobs, mainly with small businesses in their area. Right now, CARES Act funding is providing a critical bridge for individuals wishing to skill up into a tech career, which benefits small businesses. Also, Gov. Eric Holcomb’s Next Level jobs program includes Employer Training Grants to help defer the cost of hiring and training new employees. Ascend works to bridge the gap between job availability and eminently qualified Hoosier candidates. TechPoint is also a great resource for potential new hires through its XTERN program. 

What should small businesses do to create a more diverse staff?

Chris Hutchinson: A small business should have a desirable culture that is inclusive. Your team should feel great about where they work and want to share the experience with friends. Partners help, too. The Advisory Board for Eleven Fifty Academy is filled with desirable employers of all sizes. The Academy is proud to partner with each one, because it’s in the best interest of our students, the company, and our community to encourage diversity when and wherever we can. Most importantly, Eleven Fifty Academy has partnered with The Indianapolis Recorder, as well as other minority-led organizations, to expand its diverse hiring initiatives.

Ron Holcomb: I think the first step is, you’ve got to recognize that we have a problem. I'm not sure that that's a really popular thing to say, but it's true. Everyone should have an opportunity in this country to be able to participate. And yet we find still, in 2021, so many people left on the margins, and I think that's wrong. I know my team believes that's wrong. I know my board believes that's wrong. We work as diligently as we can at Tipmont to try to improve that condition. We try to cast a wide net as we look for talent, and it's our firm belief that diversity in the workforce is a competitive advantage.

What new technical capabilities do small businesses need to survive and thrive in today’s environment?

Bipin Prabhakar: It’s not just the technology but knowing how to use it. At Project HOPE, we recognized early on the necessity of spending adequate time on training small business owners and employees to use the technology we were deploying. We wanted to make sure we weren’t just throwing technology at a problem, but rather that we were fully integrating technology with their business processes so they could seamlessly provide their goods and services and engage with their customers.

Ron Holcomb: Small businesses need to understand that being small doesn’t give you an out where technology is concerned. The ease with which your customers can do business with you is benchmarked by Amazon, for example. Sometimes that seems a little daunting, but that’s the reality. It’s important to recognize how critical that is to growing and sustaining the business. It’s also important to recognize that there are solutions out there in which tech can be cost-effective on a range of different platforms.

Chris Hutchinson: Web development, applications (contact management software, inventory applications, internal communications), IT, and cybersecurity are all foundational components of a business. Cybersecurity is a broad term that encompasses credit card and payment processes, and online security, to name a few. It is challenging, if not impossible, for small business owners to know best practices for all of their technology needs in order to make their business thrive. Hiring tech-savvy employees is part of the solution. Technology rapidly evolves, and Eleven Fifty Academy adjusts its curriculum to meet these ever-changing needs.

Given the cost of technology, how can small businesses make the most of their technology investments?

Ron Holcomb: You really must do a needs and risk analysis on technology based on what’s important to you and your business. This is such a broad topic that I’m just going to pick an example: Say your IT infrastructure is a rat’s nest and ended up in a spare closet. The universal power supply hasn't been checked in three years. And yet your entire customer database, your mailing lists, your website, perhaps even other infrastructure is all hanging on everything that’s been shoved into your closet. It’s not until disaster strikes that you recognize you don't have the proper backup or cybersecurity or that your computer has been constantly overheating. It’s expensive to solve all of this, unless you’ve stayed ahead of it. In that case, these things can usually be solved relatively inexpensively—and you’ve avoided a lot of risk.

Chris Hutchinson: Prioritizing needs, knowing best practices, and hiring people who are proficient with technology. With a secure technology infrastructure, a company will spend less in the long run even though the investment up front may come with a hefty price tag. No business can survive without technology, especially in 2021, when every company is a tech company. Don’t be afraid to ask for a small business discount on technology. Perhaps there is a beta-test option over several months prior to purchase. It never hurts to ask, and you would be surprised at how much flexibility some account managers have when trying to work with a new partner.

Bipin Prabhakar: Traditional technology requires significant upfront investments, so we decided to use cloud-based technologies as much as possible. This enabled us to significantly reduce the technological requirements that we were imposing on the small businesses we worked with. If they had a smartphone or a reasonably capable computer, laptop, or even a Chromebook, they would be able to interact, in the cloud, with the capabilities that we created. Another big advantage of moving into the cloud is that payment for cloud services is on a subscription basis, and the monthly subscription rates are reasonably affordable. So, in many ways, the cost of technology really was not a significant barrier for small businesses because of the cloud-based services and the user-friendly interfaces that we built.

How can small businesses compete, even locally, in the digital world of search engines and social media?

Chris Hutchinson: Search engine optimization (SEO) is a data-driven, algorithmic process that can seem daunting to a small business. Knowing how to optimize your website through strategic utilization of key words that are repeated with social posts is a good place to start.

Bipin Prabhakar: Many of Project HOPE’s initial projects involved creating a web presence or a digital storefront, which included a significant level of work on SEO to make sure the new online presence would actually be visible to clients. We used social media to announce to the world that the business was now available to engage with customers on a digital platform. During the design process, we paid a lot of attention to user-experience design, not just on the customer side but also on the back end, which was used by the small business to manage the site itself.

Ron Holcomb: With SEO, it's really not about volume anymore. That was the problem previously, when you're trying to compete with, say, an Amazon or an eBay or somebody who has millions of pages on their website. Now it's about reaching the right person at the right time. If you understand your target demographic and the data that you have available, you can take advantage of that. One thing we did at Tipmont Wintek was use our GIS data to geotarget ads on Facebook and Google for our fiber internet service. Fiber internet service is only available in very specific places, so we wanted to hyper target those ads to only and exactly where that service is available. It’s much better than just blanketing a larger area and crossing your fingers that the right people will see your message.

Small businesses make their communities—whether densely populated urban neighborhoods or small towns—feel like home. What responsibilities do small businesses have to the communities in which they operate?

Ron Holcomb: I would sum it up in one word, and that’s engagement. And I don’t mean a direct, customer-chasing kind of engagement. What I mean is, if you truly engage in your community and understand the broader context of what's going on there, then it's going to be easier to find ways to add value—and to grow your business and build your relationships. Some of that, of course, may not be directly tied to the bottom line, and that’s fine. It still enriches the environment in which we all work.

Chris Hutchinson: Community engagement is important for any business, regardless of size. It’s even more important for small businesses to be involved in their community, as it builds trust and creates awareness. Eleven Fifty Academy is a non-profit involved in leveraging tech to lift vulnerable populations out of poverty. We are a small organization, but we find ways to make an impact on our community. Underserved populations can use our tech resources to lift their community and transform lives.