Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Illinois SBDC Salutes Happy Up As Business Success Story

Hard-working co-owners Shawnta’ Ray and Rick Harmon are living examples of entrepreneurs who can toughen up when life throws them a steep challenge. They also know how to “Happy Up,” which is why – eight years ago – they incorporated their toy store business under that moniker.

The duo’s successful business, which currently includes storefronts in Glen Carbon, Ill. and Clayton, Mo., are solidly operational due to their own tenacity, extremely loyal customers and the support of the Small Business Development Center.

Ray, who worked for 10 years as a sales clerk and later as manager for the company’s previous owner, bought what was then known as Once Upon a Toy (Edwardsville) and LagoonaMagoo Toys (in O’Fallon, Ill. and St. Louis). The Small Business Administration (SBA) provided Happy Up with a guaranteed loan on their business.

In 2008 the recession hit, adversely affecting the nation’s small business community and especially independent toy retailers. After three years of anemic sales - combined with months of careful consideration - the pair made the difficult decision to close two locations and consolidate operations.

“The recession hit us hard,” said Ray. “We regrouped in Edwardsville and opened our Clayton storefront in June 2012.” All of these critical business decisions were not the only thing Ray had on her mind. “I was nine months pregnant at the time,” she added.

The birth of their healthy new baby was a burst of sunshine for the couple, right before having to face their biggest storm. Upon returning from an annual toy vendors’ expo in New York City, Ray and Harmon were notified by their local bank that it was calling their loan on the Edwardsville store building – despite the fact that the owners had kept pace with their loan commitment.

“We were blindsided,” she said. “We shared this news with the community, never imagining what would happen next.”

What happened next was that Ray’s smartphone began ringing with scores of long-time customers and fellow business owners in Illinois and Missouri who wanted to help keep the toy store’s doors from closing. Hundreds of families came into the toy store and pleaded for it to remain open, according to Ray.
“It was incredible,” Ray remembered. “My phone began exploding with calls from generous people who appreciated not only our stores but also our community outreach.” The owners regularly host no-cost game nights at schools and retirement homes across the greater St. Louis region.

 “In three days, about 1,000 people had collectively raised $80,000 through an online crowdfunding site,” Ray added. “Although we were initially reluctant to accept it, we ultimately decided it was okay and very necessary to continue keeping our business and our stores operating.

“The show of support, combined with the loyalty of our employees, was overwhelming to us. Concerned business leaders, long-time customers and kids with piggy banks full of coins reached out. It was truly amazing.”

The community’s generosity gave this small, independent retailer a glimmer of hope but did not get them completely out of the storm. Suppliers had become aware of their situation and many of them demanded upfront cash payments. The building’s owner sent notice of a rent increase. This is when the Small Business Development Center stepped in with an offer of help.

Metro East SBDC Director Patrick McKeehan helped analyze the business’ financial situation and strategize how to use the community’s contribution. He connected Ray and Harmon with an experienced real estate professional to review the lease for a new retail space in Glen Carbon. SBDC staff explored low-cost marketing options and alternative financing to improve Happy Up’s cash position. Ray and Harmon were introduced to Justine PETERSEN – the region’s SBA-designated microlender – and secured a small loan to help finance holiday inventory.

 “We’re grateful to Patrick for sharing their expertise with us,” Ray said. “The SBDC and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville provided us with marketing expertise and options for accessing additional operating capital.”

In June 2013, what had been known as Once Upon a Toy moved to a brand-new space in Edwardsville Crossing, changing the name of its storefront there (and in Clayton) to Happy Up.

The bright, sun-filled 4,000-square-foot space is attractively stocked with a wide selection of wooden toys, games for kids and adults, classic jigsaw puzzles, science experiment kits such as Build a Catapult, a Geyser Tube that launches soda with a single roll of Mentos and much more.

“We’re positioned as a go-to store for creative, quality birthday gifts for as little as $10, and that includes free giftwrap,” said Ray. “The Rody Horse (a hippity hop ride-on horse made of brightly colored, super-strong vinyl) is our best seller.”

Patrons will no doubt be attracted to the Glen Carbon location’s 14-foot rubber chicken replica, suspended in mid-air over a neon-green sofa in the store’s play area. Both are cherished holdovers from the Once Upon A Toy days and now constant reminders of the joy in being “Happy Up.”

The Metro East SBDC assists start-up ventures and existing businesses headquartered in the nine-county Metro East region of Calhoun, Jersey, Madison, Bond, Clinton, St. Clair, Washington, Monroe and Randolph. It is a service to the community supported by the SBA.

By aiding entrepreneurs and companies in defining their path to success, the SBDC network positively impacts the Metro East by strengthening the business community, creating and retaining new jobs and encouraging new investment. It enhances the region’s economic interests by providing one-stop assistance to individuals by means of counseling, training, research and advocacy for new ventures and existing small businesses. When appropriate, the SBDC strives to affiliate its ties to the region to support the goals and objectives of both the SIUE School of Business and the University at large.

To learn how the SBDC can help your small business, contact the Metro East SBDC at (618) 650-2929 or

Find your local SBDC today!

Friday, April 18, 2014

SBDC Client is "Economic Artery" of Indiana Town

Cathy Hale, Madison Railroad's CEO, has been with the company for 36 years. The Madison Railroad operates a 25-mile mainline extending from Madison to North Vernon, Indiana. The railroad offers daily train service, and interchange is accomplished with CSX Transportation at North Vernon. The Madison Railroad also owns and operates 17 miles of railroad track within a 3,400-acre industrial park, offering a team track and rail car storage facilities.

Cathy is very passionate about her position at the Madison Railroad. She loves utilizing the revenues the Madison Railroad earns and stretching them to accomplish the most she can. She finds pride in knowing that communities believe in the Madison Railroad, and when they offer to help, they do so as a hand up not a hand out.

The mission at the Madison Railroad is to provide economic development to the communities they serve. They are preserved to be an economic development tool. The Madison Railroad has a nine member board of directors made up of businessmen and businesswomen. Although all the board members each have a broad range of backgrounds, they all have the same mission of making sure the railroad thrives. They believe it is important to maintain jobs and create new ones.

Cathy enjoys the fact that every day she has a new task at the Madison Railroad. She loves creating and learning new things. When asked what Cathy enjoys least about her career at the Madison Railroad, she couldn't come up with one answer. She says that she has grown with the railroad over the years and has a strong passion for her job.

Madison Railroad has experienced tremendous growth. When they first took over, they accommodated 200 car loads, and now they have 1000 rail cars that carry freight. Polyethylene, what a lot of the cars carry, is a huge part of the rail industry. Cathy says that the rail car is a warehouse on wheels. The business has also expanded employees. At one time, there were only four employees, and now there are six employees plus the volunteer board of directors.

Madison Railroad has made many contributions to the community. The railroad has helped grow and maintain business. Some businesses do not locate in cities unless rail service is available. Because of this, Madison Railroad has encouraged businesses to locate in the Madison area that wouldn't have if not for their services. In addition, Madison Railroad enjoys giving back to the community. The Santa Express Train Ride is a staple in Madison. This train ride runs through Madison and North Vernon and provides children and families with a fun, low-cost activity during the holiday season. Last year, 1200 people participated in the express ride, and 900 rode in Madison. The express ride, which the community seems to really appreciate and enjoy, sells out every year. The money collected from the Santa Express Train Ride is donated to a worthy cause.

Cathy Hale has been a client of the Southeast ISBDC since 2012. She says that her advisor, Eric Kranz, is very professional and knowledgeable. She believes that Eric adds a great level of professionalism to the Madison Railroad and is always willing to help.

"Cathy has spent countless hours working to improve the quality and capacity of the railroad. She has explored and taken advantage of every opportunity she can to make Madison Railroad a vital economic artery for the city and surrounding communities," Kranz says of Cathy.

Find your local SBDC today!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Website Best Practices, Friday 15: Small Business Tips

Let’s get back to the basics. I’m dedicating today’s post to helping you make the most of your website. In these two Friday 15 lesson spotlights, we’ll teach you about 1. choosing that perfect domain name for your website, and 2. tips to develop a game plan to make sure your website helps you achieve your business goals.
Sit down, grab a cup of joe, and enjoy these Friday 15: Small Business Tips to help your business succeed online.

Lesson Highlight: Choose the right domain name for your business
A domain name is your online address. It’s important to think carefully before selecting a domain name for your business website because this is how people will find you on the web.

Domain names usually start with a “www” and end with an extension like “.com” or “.net.” This lesson covers tips for choosing the words that fall in the middle, like Some highlights:

Choose a domain that is on the shorter side, easy to spell, and easy for people to remember.

Choose the “.com” extension if available. It’s usually easiest for people to remember.

Once you register a domain, don’t let the registration expire. You can register a domain for a year or more. But, if you forget to renew, someone else can register it, and use it for their own website.

Through the Get Your Business Online offer, you can get a domain name free for one year by creating a website. Just visit:

Want to learn more? Check out the full video lesson here.

Before creating your website, make a list of your business goals. The list might include things like “sell this super-cool toy” or “fill every table at my restaurant, every night we’re open,” or “start booking appointments through my website.” Whatever success means to you, your website should be an important tool in helping you get there.
This lesson talks about how to make your website part of your marketing strategy, not simply an online brochure. Even if you have a website already, this lesson can give you ideas for improvements. Even simple changes, like putting your phone number at the top of each page, can make a big difference. You’ll also learn about Google Analytics, a free tool for tracking and measuring success.

Learn more by watching the video lesson here.

Check out these lessons, and view more tips for growing your business online at Don’t forget to sign up to receive new lessons directly in your inbox, and make it a habit to grow your business online with Friday 15: Small Business Tips.  

If you missed our March blog post about hashtags, check it out here.

On behalf of the entire Get Your Business Online team, I wish you great success growing your business.
Whitney Lemon - Friday 15 Host, Google Small Business Engagement

Whitney hosts Friday 15: Small Business Tips, Google’s series to help small businesses succeed online, in 15 minutes or less.  Friday 15 is part of Google’s Get Your Business Online program, providing small businesses with a custom domain name and web hosting- free for one year.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Why You Should Consider Having a Blog for Your Business

As a small business owner, you have plenty of things to do on a day-to-day basis. The last thing you need is to have another item added to your to-do list. That’s probably why you may not be overly enthusiastic if I suggest you start a blog for your business.

But what if I told you that starting a blog could actually help you alleviate some of your most pressing marketing challenges and enable you get more from the work you were already doing?
For example, if you already create email newsletters, chances are you’re already hard at work, planning and writing content for this month’s scheduled mailing. You’re thinking of content ideas, going through a few different drafts, and eventually you’ll have everything ready to go — just in time to start planning for what’s coming next.

Let’s say instead of just plugging that content into your email newsletter, you published it on your blog first. Better yet, instead of trying to pack every article in its entirety into your newsletter, you use your blog to trim down the amount of text within your email newsletter and link to your blog to read more.

Right away you can identify a few important benefits. The design of your email becomes a lot simpler. This means an easier creation process for you, but also a more enjoyable experience for your readers — especially those email contacts that are checking email on their smartphone or tablet.

There are also benefits that you might not think of right away. One of the biggest benefits comes from how you measure the effectiveness of each piece of content. By providing a link to an individual blog post, rather than packing the entire article into your email newsletter, you’ll have more insight into which content generates the most attention. All you’ll need to do is look at your click reports. This provides a new level of insight that isn’t available with open rates alone.

You’ll also have the added benefit of having engagement and feedback features that come with using a blogging platform. Readers will be able to share links to individual blog posts on their own social networks, or post responses to your content in the comment section of each post. This is a great chance to answer questions and build stronger relationships with the people reading your content.

And finally there are the benefits that last long after your email newsletter has been sent. By publishing content on a blog, you’ll immediately extend the lifespan of the content you create. Because you’re not only publishing content, but also driving people to it with your email newsletter, you’re content should start to generate traffic quickly. This will catch the attention of search engines like Google or Bing.

Content that is available on a public page, that gets viewed, consumed, and shared on a regular basis is the exact content these search engines want to provide to the people searching for answers online.

By posting the content that you’re writing for your email newsletter on a blog, you’ll open your content up to the public and give your business more opportunities than ever to be discovered online.

Adding a blog to your marketing strategy doesn’t need to happen overnight. If you’ve been sending a regularly scheduled newsletter, you’ve already taken some important steps to building customer relationships. Now it’s time to get more from all that hard work!

Gina Watkins is a leading expert on e-marketing for small business – and has a real passion for helping businesses to succeed. Her ongoing series of dynamic lectures are filled with real-world examples, humor and results-driven wisdom garnered from more than two decades of sales, business development and marketing experience. In addition to owning her own business, she is an award-winning direct marketer, has been featured on WUSA Channel 9's Mind Over Money show, Dr. Gayle Carson’s Women In Business radio show, Morgan State’s Briefcase Radio program, and in numerous other media. In her role as Constant Contact Regional Development Director, she’s presented to more than ten thousand seminar attendees about the keys to success with easy, affordable, highly effective technology tools that grow trusted business relationships.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Missouri SBDC Helps Secure SBA Loan for Brewery

It's a bright, cold day in January. Traffic is sparse and sunlight glitters on freshly fallen snow. Inside the industrial-zoned building on Fay Street just northeast of downtown Columbia, sparks fly and construction workers grind, weld, nail and otherwise ready the former meatpacking plant to become Logboat Brewing Co. LLC in February.

Tyson Hunt, CEO and one of four partners of Logboat, graciously points out the offices and a conference room and the tap room, where thirsty patrons can sip at tables. He explains the purpose and location of steam generators, a glycol cooling system and the huge stainless steel tanks trucked in from Oregon.

Every beer lover knows it takes a combination of hops, barley, malt and water mashed together and cooked to make beer. But there's much more to brewing than that. The resulting fragrant mash, blended to exacting specifications, must then be steam-heated and vented through stacks that will carry the steam out of the brewery, giving the whole building that intoxicating, malty-sweet aroma of beer in the making. The beer must then be pumped and cooled into fermenters, mixed with carbon dioxide, aged and then finished before it can flow from a tap or keg into a frosted glass.

Tyson Hunt inspects a stainless steel tank; click to enlarge
Tyson Hunt, Logboat CEO and partner, inspects a 930-gallon stainless steel tank.

This is an extremely bare-bones description of the process. Logboat head brewer Josh Rein knows much, much more but mostly just nods as his partner points out the gleaming new equipment's salient features. Rein didn't start brewing professionally until about four years ago when he began working at Broadway Brewery. In 2011, he became assistant brewer at Flat Branch Pub & Grill. He has since studied brewing technology at Siebel Institute in Chicago and in Munich, beer's homeland.

Like any business, however, it takes more than the right equipment and know-how to make good beer. It takes passion. And Rein, Hunt and co-owners Andrew Sharp, Judson Ball and Gardell Powell are all passionate craft beer enthusiasts who decided several years ago to transform their love of good beer into good business. And they are confident mid-Missouri is ready for a full-scale craft brewery. The city's two current brewpubs (Flatbranch and Broadway), and another, already operational production brewery (Rock Bridge Brewery), says Hunt, have been enthusiastically received.

"I think this town is ready for us," Hunt, who lived in Portland, Ore., for four years and was exposed to that city's craft beer cornucopia, says. "Craft beer is exploding! People are paying more attention to artisanal beer now. There's plenty of room for everyone."

It's worth noting that Logboat is a brewery, not a brewpub. The partners decided early on to not become a brewpub with its requisite restaurant, health code and server requirements. Logboat will employ outside distributors, Hunt says, strengthening an already strong business plan.

With MO SBTDC help, the partners perfected that business plan sufficiently to raise outside capital and secure an SBA loan from a local bank. SBTDC counselors also provided the partners detailed ESRI geographic information systems research into mid-Missouri, its demographics and disposable income spending patterns and facilitated vital business connections.

"We had the business plan down cold, we thought!" Hunt says. "Then we met with the MO SBTDC. They helped us edit the business plan and add pieces the people on the money side would need to read, then took our finances and grilled us line by line to make sure we had thought everything through. They helped us sell the company and get people behind it. They have been a huge part of building our confidence and getting us to where we are now."

Ball adds, "It's been a crazy process and each new relationship has turned into another opportunity to learn something new from business folks in our community, even family members and friends willing to share their experiences. All of them have been instrumental in getting us to where we are today."

Client contact information

Logboat Brewing Company LLC
504 Fay Street
Columbia, MO 65201
Find your local SBDC today!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

What the technology you’re using says about your business

By Cindy Bates, Vice President, Microsoft U.S. Small and Medium Business

Did you know the technology you use has an impact on what current and potential customers think of your business? Those are the findings of a survey we recently conducted, in which 90 percent of respondents said they would – or would consider – taking their business elsewhere if a company uses outdated technology.

About 60% of respondents said they consider a 5-10 year old operating system or desktop computer to be “outdated.” That means the estimated 30% of small businesses that are still using the Windows XP operating system (introduced over 12 years ago in 2001), are running their business on technology that definitely falls into the category of “outdated.” On April 8, 2014, businesses running Windows XP will no longer receive security updates or technical support, leaving them vulnerable to potential security threats.

Businesses that are using outdated technology are not only exposed to reputational and security risks, but are also missing out on some amazing capabilities that have finally become accessible and affordable to SMBs only in the last several years. There is a wide array of versatile, touch-enabled Windows 8 devices, from slates and tablets to All-in-Ones, now available to match every mobility and productivity requirement. And cloud services like Office 365 offer all of the well-known Office apps like Outlook email, Word, Excel and PowerPoint, as well as cloud storage, IM, and voice and video conferencing, for as little as $6 per user per month.

If you want to learn more about what it takes to modernize your technology and why it matters, download this free e-guide. And let me know in the comments below how using modern technology has benefitted your business.

Cindy Bates is vice president of U.S. small and medium business at Microsoft, leading the company's efforts to help SMBs realize their full potential through the use of technology. For more SMB stories, technology insights, and business strategies for SMBs, visit

Friday, April 4, 2014

Spring Cleaning for Your Online Presence

Birds are chirping, cherry blossoms are blooming, and warmer weather has returned. That means one thing- spring is finally here! With the return of spring comes the opportunity for a little spring cleaning-- and no, I’m not just talking about cleaning out your closet. In addition to cleaning up around the house, there are things should be doing now to tidy up your online presence. This will not only make you look more professional, but can also help you be discovered by your next great customer.

Here are 3 items you should include in your spring cleaning to-do list:

Develop a consistent brand.

Your brand starts with your website. This is your “home base” and where you should set the tone for all of your other marketing efforts. Use your logo, coordinating colors and fonts. The branding that you establish on your website should be consistent with and reflected in all of your other marketing channels—your email newsletter, social media presences, and anywhere else people are interacting with your business online.

Control your information.
In addition to the look and feel of your brand, you’ll also want to get a handle on the information people are finding online about your business. 75 percent of smartphone owners use their mobile device to get real-time location-based information. If the information that’s out there is inaccurate or out-of-date, you could be at risk to damage valuable relationships, or miss the chance to connect with a new customer.

Think about the information your consumers need to take their desired actions.

This starts with sharing things like hours, location, payment methods, phone number, or a link to your website. But this could also include a link to your menu, additional contact information, or photos of your storefront, interior shots, staff, or products.

Once you know the information you want is out there, you can make an inventory of the places people are finding your business online. That way you keep track of where your customers are finding you, so next time you need make a change, you don’t forget to update any of your listings.

Be findable in the right places.
It’s easy to feel like you have to be on every site that’s out there. But what’s most important is making sure you’re in the right places for the audience you want to reach. Lots of your prospects are probably in Facebook and Twitter, but it’s also important to think beyond social media, and think of places people may be searching for your business, including search engines, ratings and review sites, online yellow page, directories, and mobile apps

These sites will not only help you be found by people who are searching for your business directly, but also by people who are searching for a service or solution in your area.

With a consistent brand, accurate and up-to-date information, and a presence in all the right places — you’ll be in the best position to develop great new customer relationships.

This will not only help you do more business in the spring, but will deliver meaningful results throughout the entire year!

Gina Watkins is a leading expert on e-marketing for small business – and has a real passion for helping businesses to succeed. Her ongoing series of dynamic lectures are filled with real-world examples, humor and results-driven wisdom garnered from more than two decades of sales, business development and marketing experience. In addition to owning her own business, she is an award-winning direct marketer, has been featured on WUSA Channel 9's Mind Over Money show, Dr. Gayle Carson’s Women In Business radio show, Morgan State’s Briefcase Radio program, and in numerous other media. In her role as Constant Contact Regional Development Director, she’s presented to more than ten thousand seminar attendees about the keys to success with easy, affordable, highly effective technology tools that grow trusted business relationships.