Is Instagram a great marketing tool?

What if I can’t get a loan?

Do I really need to plan?

Carina Lopez (right) with Marie Michl of JPNDC

Voices of experience answered these and other questions on March 21st, when five small business owners and experts formed a panel at the #SheMeansBusiness pop-up event organized by Rose JP and hosted by JPNDC at 363 Centre Street.

Moderated by Carina Lopez of Rose JP, the panel included business coach and strategist Ahfeeyah Thomas; Vanessa Marte, Neighborhood Business Manager at the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development; Amy Driscoll, owner of Susanna (a Cambridge clothing store opening a second site in JP); and Paola Liendo, JPNDC Senior Financial Coach.

Carina: Ahfeeyah and Amy, how did you two get started in business?

Ahfeeyah: I started with an idea. I went to meetings like this. I networked and asked questions. I asked people who I looked up to to be my mentor. I invited them to coffee and had conversations with them.

My first business was resume writing, and that turned into career development, then that turned into my business strategy work and helping women build brand and design their businesses. I’m what you would call a serial entrepreneur!

Amy: What Ahfeeyah said reminds me — if you can find someone who has a lot of experience in the field you want to be in, latch on to them and ask questions. That education is priceless.

I had worked in clothing stores in high school, so when I moved to Boston I thought, well, that’s what I know. Luckily, I landed in the store that I now own. I worked under the owner, who had 40 years’ experience, for seven years and then was a business partner and apprentice for two

Left: Ahfeeyah Thomas. Right: Amy Driscoll

years. That was basically like going to college for me. She taught me everything about money, marketing, purchasing, customers, customer service, personalities, and everything else that I would need to know to run the business.

Carina: I love that story, because it’s too easy to just jump into things without planning. Especially the millennial generation. We’re always in a rush! 

Ahfeeyah: I’ve met so many women business owners – and men – who tell me about their issues. So I ask, ‘did you foresee this in your business plan?’ And they’re like, ‘I don’t have a business plan!’

That’s where you can really go wrong. With a well thought-out business plan, you can foresee all issues. But even if you can just dump everything on paper, that will also help you think through what might come up. What if such and such happens? What about seasonal changes? Those kinds of questions.

I write everything down as an idea. I might have sticky notes all over the wall. And sometimes an idea sits there until it becomes something else. You never know what that idea is going to become. Take notes and do your research.

Carina: What’s out there for people who are ready to take that jump?

Left: Vanessa Marte, City of Boston. Above: Paola Liendo, JPNDC

Paola: At JPNDC there are always workshops happening: small business planning, marketing, accounting. And if you’re ready to take the next step, you can receive one-on-one technical assistance. If there is something that we cannot do for you, we will refer you to other service providers who are trustworthy and we know that they are not going to take advantage of you.

If one of the challenges you’re facing is access to financing, or getting organized with your money or your credit, then you can always come and talk to us. We do 1:1 financial coaching that is completely free. We’ll sit down and walk through what your goals are, where do you want to be in the next six months or year. We are not here to tell you what to do, but just to prompt you, to be a partner and support you.

Vanessa: There are a lot of resources at the City for small businesses. One of them is technical assistance. We have 26 consultants on contract and the City will actually pay for the consultant to come and work with you.

We also offer ourselves. I’m one of seven business managers at the City and everybody in my office has a different expertise. One is really creative and artistic. We have somebody else who does food trucks. I’m really analytical, I get into the zoning, the maps. So somebody like me would go out meet with you and ask, ‘what are you struggling with?’ I will do a really deep assessment with you. If bookkeeping is what you need, the City will pay for a consultant to come work with you.

Ahfeeyah: Lots of business women are resources in themselves. I go online, I go to events, I try to figure out what’s happening in my community.

Books are great too. As women we’re often told that we have to be a specific way, especially in business and in corporate. Books have kind of pushed me outside of that zone and allowed me to really think about what I want to do and where I want to go. One of my favorites is “You are a Badass at Making Money”!

Amy: Making connections with other business owners has been really helpful to me. I have a group I meet with monthly or every other month. It makes you feel like you’re not alone. I think business ownership can sometimes feel very isolating and sad at times, because you just feel like you’re grinding and you’re alone. It’s nice to have someone to talk to or throw ideas off of.

Carina: Should you start your business with a loan?

Paola: There is no right or wrong way to start a business. But starting a business with savings is healthier. In any case it’s not easy to access a loan. Most banks are going to ask you for at least two years profit & loss statements.

But if you as an individual have healthy financials, if you have a strong credit score, credit history, that will make the way easier for you. You can maybe access a personal loan, or from an alternative lender like ACCION.

Networking at the #SheMeansBusiness pop-up

Vanessa: Paola mentioned ACCION, and there are other places that we often refer people for alternative lending. There’s JPNDC, Dorchester Bay EDC. LEAF is amazing, iFundWomen is amazing.

Ahfeeyah: I just launched my second round with iFundWomen, which is a crowdfunding platform like Kickstarter. They also offer coaching, help with your campaign page, your video, everything that you possibly need to get started and get the word out about your business. I’m going that route because I want my space to be built by the hands of women entrepreneurs.

Amy: I agree with everyone about how important money is, but I also want to say: don’t let the money piece get you paralyzed. Try not to let it take over your thoughts, or you’ll find it hard to move forward. Kind of push it to the side a little bit, and keep your ideas flowing.

Carina: So now let’s get into marketing, More and more, I see people just rely on their Instagram or their Facebook. Are websites still important?

Ahfeeyah: Websites are still very, very important! Sure, there’s Instagram and Facebook. But you don’t want to rely on someone else’s platform. Where does that information lead? And if Facebook went down today, where would that leave you?

Meeting people face to face is also still really, really important for marketing. Build your email list. If you can just send an email, ‘hey, I saw you at this event, just wanted to check in with you’ – before you know it, you may have 20, 50, or a hundred people! So when you are ready to start your business, or send out information, you can use that list to get in contact personally with each one.

Amy: We’ve been on Facebook maybe eight years now, but we didn’t really utilize it until more recently. I do a lot of videos in which I try on new arrivals, talk about the clothes, the fit, the fabric, anything that brings life to the items that I’m trying to sell. And that’s really propelled my business forward and really made our sales go up.

And when people come in, they’re like, ‘Oh, my God, you’re the girl from the video!’ You know, people want see your face, they want to know who the business owner is. YOU are your biggest marketing tool.

Carina: What is a common business mistake that people should avoid?

Ahfeeyah: I think it’s not having the ability to pivot when needed. If you see something that you can capitalize on, pivot and include it in your business. Or pivot completely and make that your business. Some people get so caught up in ‘This is what I do.’ But if you are so married to this one thing, you might not survive! And when you can pivot, you might end up actually realizing you love something else too.

Learn more about JPNDC Small Business Services and upcoming classes