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'Secret Shoppers' and sage business advice – The 2018 Launch! workshop

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By Terry Hagerty – Contributing writer/photographer

An all-day workshop and luncheon for startup and ongoing businesses – “2018 Launch!” – offered sage advice from area business and financial experts at the Bastrop Convention Center on March 20. The informative event was sponsored by the Bastrop Economic Development Corporation, Bastrop Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Bastrop, and First National Bank.Business planning panelists (from front to back) Cam Chavez, Bill Thompson, and Phil Loeb. (Terry Hagerty photos)

Business Planning – Leading off the workshop was a panel-led discussion, “The Do’s & Don’ts of Business Planning.” Panelists were Bill Thompson, Certified Business Advisor III with the Texas State University Small Business Development Center; Phil Loeb, Certified Small Business Mentor with the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE); and Cam Chavez, Divisional Wine Manager for the Hahn Family Wines, and current Chair of the Bastrop Economic Development Corporation’s Board of Directors. They gave advice for starting a new business as well as keeping it profitable. The trio concurred that developing a detailed business plan beforehand is crucial. “Where do I get the money to start (the business) up” and “helping you find your market” are key elements that Thompson said he helps entrepreneurs answer through the business development center. Also, “How are you going to brand your (business) and penetrate the market” are imperative to know. Chavez said certain elements of “the idea” that leads a person to open a business need to be addressed beforehand: “Is that a great idea?” for the business, and “What is the market you’re after?” Chavez queried. He added, “You need to create ‘noise’” about your business,” referring to publicity. Loeb said while “it’s important to keep your customer base” once open, an entrepreneur must also know “how to acquire new customers…with a plan to create those new customers while staying in touch with existing customers.” He added SCORE offers to mentor entrepreneurs free of charge.

Audience members at the "2018 Launch!" small business workshops.Cash flow is another vital element for both opening the doors and sustaining any business, the panel agreed. “All businesses are cyclical in (revenue made), so a monthly cash-flow statement will tell your seasonality” of performance, Thompson advised. Loeb said “few (businesses) step back from their day-to-day operations” and analyze “the far-away perspective. You have to analyze ‘what are my (revenue) cycles’ and how to operate in the future.” When it comes to marketing one’s business, Chavez said a business must first ask, “What is your advertising trying to accomplish?” He also advised, “Make the advertiser (which a business employs) give you the information of where your customers are.” Loeb said, “Television ads are very expensive, and print ads as well.” He recommended making use of social media as “an inexpensive way to reach out to customers.” Thompson added, “It’s important to know where your customers are” and “How are you going to reach them.”

Financing Your Business panelists (from left to right) Amber Kani, Michael Moctezuma, and Miguel De La Riva.

Financial Advice – A panel of financial experts participated in the discussion “Financing Your Business.” The panel was composed of Miguel De La Riva, Business Development Officer for LiftFund; Amber Kani, Director of Advancement & Education for PeopleFund; and Michael Moctezuma, Lending Director with BiGAUSTIN. The panel was moderated by Kent Lock, Vice President for Lending at First National Bank. When it comes to seeking business loans, Kani urged entrepreneurs to “be transparent about your business…and let us figure out” whether a loan is appropriate. Moctezuma said, “We’re not ‘selling you’ our product unless you can use it.” De La Riva added, “We want to see a business plan” that details “where you’re going” and “what you need to invest in order to open.” When considering loan applicants and potential collateral, De La Riva said, “We’re flexible” and will consider “if something is marketable. We don’t accept homestead property or vehicles not operating…but otherwise, we’re flexible.” Kani said PeopleFund wants owners to be onsite, adding “for absentee owners, we can’t fund them.” Moctezuma said loan applicants must “be truthful with us…and then we can help you the best we can.”

Keynote Speaker Alysia Cook shared her "8 Secrets of a Secret Shopper."

Secret Shopper – Alysia Cook, who has designed training programs for businesses and civic leaders and gone “undercover shopping,” gave a riveting talk on “8 Secrets from a Secret Shopper.” She said for starters, businesses must have a consistent experience for shoppers and that it’s crucial to “greet me within 30 seconds” of having entered a store. Even if the store staff is busy it’s important for them to “Wave, say hi to me…give me a smile” as a customer. It signals the client that they are “about to be waited on,” Cook said. Store, and especially restroom cleanliness, are also paramount, Cook said, adding restrooms are “the key to your reputation.” An empowered staff is also important. She gave an example of a store clerk who had to call the owner – instead of okaying it herself – when Cook requested $4 off on a blemished purse. The clerk called the owner, who then directed the clerk to text a picture of the purse, which showed the owner didn’t “trust me or the employee,” Cook said, adding, “You think I’ll ever shop there again? It was too much of a hassle.” Cook also spoke to such “team building” activities with staff as volunteering as a group within the local community. Rewarding staff, providing training, and giving the customers a ‘five senses experience’ are also critically important.

(From front to back) City of Bastrop staff Wesley Brandon, Dave Gattis and Trey Job talked about city regulations.Knowing City Regulations – A panel of City of Bastrop department directors gave valuable advice on how to navigate City regulations/ordinances. The panel included Director of Public Works Trey Job, Director of Engineering & Development Wesley Brandon, and Interim Planning Director Dave Gattis. The panel was moderated by the City’s Chief Storyteller Colin Guerra. City Manager Lynda Humble gave introductory remarks. Humble emphasized it was the City’s task to be an active listener when it comes to serving the public. But she added that sometimes the greatest compliment the City staffers receive is “not hearing from you all,” referring to operations going smoothly. For new businesses, Brandon recommended seeking a meeting with City officials “so that we have a good grasp of your plans.” This plan of action could save businesses time and money by learning about pertinent regulations and ordinances regarding buildings, subdivisions and zoning. “All codes are there for a reason,” the three panelists concurred. Job said since the City oversees 72 events per year, it’s crucial for event organizers to check with the City beforehand for pertinent regulations and requirements, especially since those events often impact parking or street closures. Brandon said the City sets aside three one-hour blocks on Tuesdays for businesses to schedule a meeting with planning, engineering, public works, or related departments. One can schedule a meeting by calling 512-332-8840; for special event permits, call the City’s Parks Department (Job also heads that department), by calling 512-332-8920. “We are partners with you all,” Gattis stressed. The afternoon also saw informative panels on “Legal Accounting Tips from the Pros” and “One-on-One with the Experts.”