Microsoft has announced it will be leasing space in The Ion. Courtesy of Rice University

Microsoft and Rice Management Company — the owner and management of The Ion, a rising innovation hub in Houston — announced that the tech company will be leasing space on the 288,000 square-foot building's fifth floor.

"Over the last several years, Microsoft has made it clear it is committed to Houston," says Mayor Sylvester Turner in a press release. "With the work Microsoft is already doing with the City and The Ion to support entrepreneurs, workforce development and energy transition, it is only fitting its new home should be in our City's hub for innovation. This news is an exciting next step in our partnership with Microsoft as we continue to grow Houston's innovation ecosystem and become a leader in the global energy transition."

Microsoft has an existing partnership with The Ion and is a founding sponsor of its Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator. Earlier this year, the technology leader has also committed $1 million to skills programming.

"The Ion is fast becoming a hub for Houston's startup community and driving forward innovation in energy transition technologies," says Ravi Krishnaswamy, corporate vice president of Azure Global Industry at Microsoft, in the release. "My team and I are excited to get to work there, supporting Microsoft's vision of powering a sustainable future and accelerating energy transition with the expertise of partners, customers, and industry."

According to the press release, Microsoft will also be a programming partner for The Ion and will host advancement opportunities and events, including a monthly executive forum and virtual symposiums, and support future accelerators for advanced manufacturing, digital skilling, and smart and resilient city innovation.

"The Ion and Microsoft will provide the necessary tools and knowledge needed to become more resilient, strengthen our workforce and create new innovations to accelerate the energy transition," says Jan E. Odegard, interim executive director, in the release. "We were delighted this summer when we announced Microsoft's sponsorship of The Ion programming and are now even more ecstatic to welcome a division of Microsoft to its new home. My team and I look forward to showcasing our great programs that are enabled by corporate sponsors like Microsoft to the entrepreneurs, academics, corporations and community in Houston and around the world."

Microsoft's partnership with The Ion, which is set to open in just a few months, is due in part to the city's collaboration with Microsoft.

"Having Microsoft as a major tenant is a huge step forward in realizing the vision for The Ion as a dynamic hub bringing together key elements of innovation in Houston," Rice President David Leebron says in the release. "We are very grateful to Microsoft and Mayor Turner for advancing this vision."

A statewide initiative backed by Microsoft will bring new digital education to the University of Houston campus. Photo via UH.edu

University of Houston joins Microsoft-backed initiative for digital tech workforce development

teamwork

The University of Houston College of Technology has been selected for a new initiative to bring digital and technical skills to students and the workforce.

Microsoft's Accelerate program is a part of the tech giant's Global Skills Initiative, a multimillion-dollar investment seeking to increase digital skills to equip 25 million people worldwide by the end of 2020, according to the website.

"The University of Houston is proud to be part of an effort to prepare strong professionals and leaders in Texas who think innovatively and are equipped with next-generation skills to be successful," says Paula Myrick Short, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at UH, in a press release. "The College of Technology is well-positioned to strengthen this workforce pipeline and create a stronger Texas."

Along with Microsoft, UH is also working with the Texas Education Agency to develop courses that will teach a variety of tech skills, including STEM engagement for students in K-12, professional development, workforce development for high school and college students, and even parents and professionals seeking opportunities to enhance business and technical skills, according to the release.

"The College of Technology is working with Microsoft to provide Texas communities with resources to create meaningfully unique opportunities," says Dean Anthony Ambler in the release. "From high schools to professionals across the state, our programs transcend the classroom to support workforce creation and upskilling. These activities champion Texas communities with a focus on digital equity among underserved areas that solve problems and improve lives."

The college joins other Texas partners, including STEMuli, The Ion, NASA, the Dallas Independent School District, Bell, Big Thought, Stedman Graham and Associates, Tribute to Valor, National Math and Science Initiative, Dallas Regional Chamber, and the Irving Chamber of Commerce.

"Texans are some of the brightest, most productive people in the world. It is exciting to work to establish a statewide innovation ecosystem to support a sustainable culture of opportunity," says David Crawley, professor of practice with the College of Technology, in the release.

Mayor Sylvester Turner announced that Microsoft has expanded its partnership with the city. Photo courtesy of Mayor's Office

Microsoft doubles down on partnership with the city of Houston by committing $1M to programs

tech jobs

Microsoft and the city of Houston have introduced a new program aimed at addressing technology skills development across Houston.

Accelerate: Houston is part of Microsoft's larger global skills initiative. Mayor Sylvester Turner announced the program at a press conference on Monday, August 24.

"More than two years ago, I announced our first transformative alliance with Microsoft — the first of its kind in the United States," says Mayor Sylvester Turner, according to a press release. "Today, I am pleased to say we are taking another leap toward strengthening Houston's global standing as a center for innovation and technology."

The Houston partners on the initiative include The Ion, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Kino-Eye Center, Upskill Houston, University of Houston College of Technology, and Space Center Houston

"Microsoft launched the Accelerate program at a time when closing the digital divide has never been more important," says Kate Johnson, president of Microsoft U.S., in the release. "We're thrilled to be joining Mayor Turner and an impressive group of partners in this effort to expand access to in-demand digital skills—and close digital skills gaps widened by COVID-19—through Accelerate: Houston."

Through this expanded partnership, Microsoft has committed $1 million into programs for The Ion, an entrepreneurship hub being built by Rice Management Co. and currently under construction in Midtown.

"With this digital alliance, one of history's most important and innovative technology companies becomes a key pillar of The Ion," says David Leebron, president of Rice University, in the release. "Microsoft will help implement the vision to make Houston's new innovation district a focal point for the future of energy, artificial intelligence, data science and smart cities."

Microsoft has previously partnered with Houston in a few ways, including partnering on The Ion Smart Cities Accelerator.

Susan Davenport, chief economic development officer with the Greater Houston Partnership, says the announcement shows that the city is on the right track for upskilling its workforce.

"As we have continued to navigate the global COVID-19 crisis and are steering the changes in our energy sector, we feel Microsoft's commitment validates the strong direction into which Houston is now moving," she says in a statement.

Houston-based Decisio's virtual care technology has been paired with GE Healthcare and Microsoft technology in a new initiative for hospitals dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak. Photo via decisiohealth.com

GE, Microsoft tap Houston startup's technology for virtual COVID-19 treatment initiative

team work

Houston-based health tech startup Decisio Health Inc. has been enlisted in the war against the novel coronavirus.

Chicago-based GE Healthcare Inc. has tapped Decisio's AI-powered DECISIOInsight software, which enables health care providers to remotely monitor patients, for an initiative involving Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft Corp. that's designed to help treat COVID-19 patients.

The coronavirus-targeted Mural Virtual Care Solution, which was introduced April 15, marries Decisio's virtual monitoring software with GE Healthcare's telehealth technology and Microsoft's Azure cloud-computing platform. It's designed to offer hospitals a broad view of COVID-19 patients who are hooked up to ventilators in ICUs. This platform merges data from ventilators, patient monitoring systems, electronic health records, labs, and other sources.

This special technology package is a stripped-down version of the Mural Virtual Care Solution, which pairs Decisio's and GE Healthcare's technology to virtually track hospital patients. GE Healthcare invested in Decisio in 2019.

Until January 31, 2021, the Mural coronavirus bundle is being provided at no cost to hospitals. Among the users is Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.

"We're trying to carry as much of the cost burden to make this as sustainable as possible for our hospital partners that we know are hurting economically right now," says Bryan Haardt, CEO of Decisio.

"There has to be a moralistic compass," he adds. "You have to be driven by something more than just profit."

GE Healthcare, which contributed to Decisio's $13 million Series B round in December, was already partnering with the startup on the Mural Virtual Care Solution. Microsoft was brought into the mix to speed up delivery of the platform in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

"This relationship did not exist prior to this initiative," Haardt says. "We all came together and said, 'Guys, we've got to do our part. It is absolutely a moral imperative that we get together.' And we said, 'OK, well, what are the parts?'"

Haardt says this project equips hospitals to adhere to the best standards of care when it comes to treating COVID-19 patients who are relying on ventilators. In a COVID-19 treatment setting, one of the key benefits of the Mural Virtual Care Solution is that a health care clinician can monitor a patient's vital signs and other data without physical contact, he says.

Founded in 2013, Decisio built its virtual health platform using technology licensed from and developed at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. Coupling real-time clinical surveillance with data visualization, the DECISIOInsight software can pinpoint risks and guide clinicians toward better decisions about patient care.

Haardt says Decisio's software aims to reduce the rate of hospital deaths, length of hospital stays, and burden on hospital resources by helping health care providers decrease the severity of hospital-acquired infections, pneumonia, the flu, and other conditions. Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center in Houston is among the customers for Decisio and GE Healthcare's broad-based Mural Virtual Care Solution, which was rolled out last year.

Also, Decisio has teamed up with professional services firm Deloitte to deliver virtual patient monitoring at U.S. Department of Defense hospitals. This technology is being piloted at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio and Naval Medical Center San Diego.

"We look at doctors and nurses as heroes, because they're really good at getting people out of trouble," Haardt says. "And we like to think of our solution as keeping people out of trouble, because if you can keep them out of the trouble, then these heroic, herculean efforts [by doctors and nurses] are not required as much … ."

Haardt explains that Decisio's technology can monitor patient activity and detect patient trends in not just one area of a hospital (such as an ICU) or throughout an entire hospital but across a commonly managed group of hospitals. Those insights help hospitals ensure all of their health care professionals are following the same treatment protocols.

The No. 1 economic detriment to hospitals "is doing things different at all their different facilities," Haardt says. "If you can reduce the variability of care, we know the cost to provide goods and services goes down, and we know the outcomes improve."

From entrepreneur networking opportunities to thought-provoking panels, here's where you need to be in December. Getty Images

10+ can't-miss Houston business and innovation events for December

Where to be

Before everyone checks out of 2019, Houston has a couple more weeks filled with exciting entrepreneurial networking opportunities. Scroll through the curated list of innovation events you can't miss.

For a full calendar of Houston innovation events, head to Houston Exponential's page.

If you know of innovation-focused events for this month or next, email me at natalie@innovationmap.com with the details and subscribe to our daily newsletter that sends fresh stories straight to your inboxes every morning.

December 3 — Intro to the Houston Startup Scene & Ask Me Anything with Omair Tariq and Dr. Brittany Barreto

Are you new to the Houston tech startup community? Thinking about moving here? Trying to figure out how to plug in? Come hear a comprehensive overview from local community leaders and get a chance to introduce yourself and ask questions at the Intro to the Houston Startup Scene & Ask Me Anything. Tickets are $10.

Details: The event is from 4 to 7 pm on Tuesday, December 3, at The Cannon (1334 Brittmoore Road). Learn more.

December 3 — Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement community forum

The Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement is gathering for a second time to discuss securing a Community Benefits Agreement with Rice Management Company as they develop the 16-acre Innovation District around the old Sears building and Fiesta at the edge of Third Ward.

Details: The event is from 6 to 8 pm on Tuesday, December 3, at Wesley Chapel AME Church (2209 Emancipation Ave.). Learn more.

December 3-4 — InvestH2O 2019 Forum: Investing in Resiliency

With nearly $1 trillion in losses over the past 5-7 years for FEMA and other federal agencies, states-counties-cities, private insurance and reinsurance companies, industry and business operations from water- and weather-related incidents, the need for alternative investment and resource allocation could not be more obvious. The event's programming will be focused on innovating solutions.

InnovationMap readers can attend for free through this link.

Details: The event is from Tuesday, December 3, to Wednesday, December 4, at various locations. Learn more.

December 4 — The Cannon & EPIcenter - Jumpstart your innovation Happy Hour

In partnership with The Cannon, EPIcenter's Incubator and Accelerator will be hosting a six-week seminar using the Wendy Kennedy curriculum, "So what? Who cares? Why you?" for innovators in any industry. Director of the EPIcenter Energy Incubator and Accelerator and certified Business Coach Andi Littlejohn will lead participants through a proven methodology to discover, define and describe the commercial opportunities of innovations.

Details: The event is from 4 to 6 pm on Wednesday, December 4, at The Cannon (1334 Brittmoore Road). Learn more.

December 4 — The Ion Smart Cities Accelerator Demo Day

The Ion Smart Cities Accelerator will present its inaugural cohort of companies that are addressing the needs of Houston's people by deploying technology into the infrastructure and civic fabric that makes Houston so strong.

Details: The event is from 5 to 8 pm on Wednesday, December 4, at ion Accelerator and Prototyping Lab (1301 Fannin Street, Suite 2100). Learn more.

December 5 — Houston Region Economic Outlook

The Greater Houston Partnership's Annual Houston Region Economic Outlook event will feature Partnership Senior Vice President of Research Patrick Jankowski who will deliver the 2020 employment forecast for the region. ConocoPhillips Chief Economist Helen Currie will follow with a presentation on the national economy.

Details: The event is from 9:30 am to 1:30 pm on Thursday, December 5, at the Royal Sonesta (2222 West Loop S.). Learn more.

December 5 — Evening of Pediatric Device Innovation

Please join JLABS @ TMC for the 5th Annual Evening of Pediatric Device Innovation as top experts from Houston and across the country will discuss the latest in pediatric medical device innovation and updates on bringing a pediatric medical device to market.

Details: The event is from 3 to 6:30 pm on Thursday, December 5, at the TMC Innovation Institute (2450 Holcombe Blvd). Learn more.

December 5 — Meet & Greet with Flyover Capital

Meet Flyover Capital's Dan Kerr on his last night in town and learn how they are working to creating the next generation of technology success stories outside the coastal tech hubs.

Details: The event is from 6 to 7:30 pm on Thursday, December 5, at WeWork (708 Main Street, 3rd Floor). Learn more.

December 11 — ENRICH/LEAP Information Session

ENRICH and LEAP are 6-8 week fellowship programs where you and a team of your peers will work directly with established companies on one of a wide scope of projects. These invaluable programs allow people the ability to gain skills and insights that only professional work can offer. Come hear Enventure leadership discuss these programs and learn how you can get involved.

Details: The event is from 5:30 to 8 pm on Wednesday, December 11, at the TMC Innovation Institute (2450 Holcombe Blvd). Learn more.

December 12 — WeWork Labs x NextSeed Launch Event

WeWork Labs, a global acceleration program with a location in downtown Houston, and NextSeed, a Houston-based online investment platform, have announced a partnership set to begin in December. Together, the two entities will build a support system for Houston-based food entrepreneurs to provide workshops, programming, events, and more.

Details: The event is from 6 to 8:30 pm on Thursday, December 12, at WeWork (708 Main Street). Learn more.

December 14 — Smart Infrastructure Hackathon

On Saturday, December 14, join Microsoft and The Cannon for a smart infrastructure hackathon. Bring your own ideas and team, or join a team when you arrive. Everyone is welcome, regardless of skill level.

Details: The event is from to 9 am to 7 pm on Saturday, December 14, at The Cannon (1334 Brittmoore Road). Learn more.

December 14 — TEDxHoustonWomen 2019 : BOLD + Brilliant!

Connect with a locally rooted, globally connected community of people interested in leading the change they wish to see in the world; and sow the seeds to collaborate with innovative thinkers who catalyze ideas toward action.

Details: The event is from 10:30 am to 4 pm on Saturday, December 14, at Unity of Houston (2929 Unity Dr). Learn more.

December 17 — The Future of Work: Closing the Skills Gap

GA gathers Houston industry leaders to share how they approach the challenge of upskilling the workforce. In this discussion, we'll cover how to bridge the gap between current team capabilities and the skills needed to stay competitive. Whether radically reskilling existing teams or onboarding new talent, the companies who adapt fastest will stand the test of time.

Details: The event is from 8:30 to 11 am on Tuesday, December 17, at Station Houston (1301 Fannin Street, 21st Floor). Learn more.

The Digital Fight Club made its Houston debut on November 20 at White Oak Music Hall. Emily Jaschke/InnovationMap

Photos: Houston innovation leaders weigh in on cybersecurity, tech, and more at inaugural event

total knock out

What do you get when you cross the information of an innovation panel with the ferocity of a boxing match? A verbal sprawling among innovation leaders that can only be known as the Digital Fight Club.

Houston's DFC came about with the help of Accenture, which had been a partner at the Dallas events, and InnovationMap, who teamed up as presenting sponsors for the event. DFC's founder, Michael Pratt, came up with the idea for Digital Fight Club as a way to liven up technology-focused events and networking opportunities.

The setup of the event is five fights, 10 fighters, and five judges. Each fighter has just a couple minutes to take their stand before the event moves on.

"This is Digital Fight Club," says Pratt, CEO of the company. "You get subject matter experts, and serious founders and CEOs on the stage and make them make their case. You learn something, it's a lot of fun, and it's a lot better than a panel."

The hour of fighting is coupled with a VIP event ahead of the showdown and an after party where further networking can continue on. At Houston's VIP event, InnovationMap got to check in with partners, fighters, and referees about how they thought the event was going to pan out. Check out the VIP event video here.

The panel of referees included Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston; Denise Hamilton, CEO of Watch Her Work; Tim Kopra, partner at Blue Bear Capital; Lance Black, Director at TMCx; and Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures.

The refs asked two questions per fight, and were able to vote on the winners of each round — as was the audience through an interactive web-based application. The break down of the fights, topics, and winners are as follows:

Fight #1: Future Workforce of Robotics/AI. Matt Hager, CEO of Poetic Systems, vs Pablo Marin, senior AI Leader, Microsoft. Hager took the win with 77 percent of the vote.
Fight #2: Whose responsibility is cybersecurity. Ted Gutierrez, CEO of SecurityGate vs Tara Khanna, managing director and Security Lead at Accenture. Khanna won this round, snagging 66 percent of the votes.
Fight #3: Oil & Gas Industry and the Environment. Michael Szafron - commercial adviser for Cemvita Factory, vs Steven Taylor, co-founder of AR for Everyone. Szafron received 76 percent of the voites, securing the win.
Fight #4: Digital in our personal lives. Grace Rodriguez, CEO of ImpactHub, vs Javier Fadul, chief innovation officer at HTX Labs. Rodriguez won with the largest margin of the night — 85 percent.
Fight #5: Future of Primary Care Geetinder Goyal, CEO of First Primary Care, vs Nick Desai, chief medical information officer at Houston Methodist. Goyal received 72 percent of the votes to take home the win.

The fights were heated, and some of the fighters had knockout quotes, from Hager's "AI is mostly bullshit" to Khanna's "Compliance doesn't mean you're secure." For more of the knockout quotes, click here.

The fight is on

Emily Jaschke/InnovationMap

Mike Pratt, who hosted the event, founded the Digital Fight Club in 2016.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Mayor greenlights major solar farm project in south Houston

shine on

Mayor Sylvester Turner and the city council have given the green light on a project that will convert a 240-acre former landfill in Sunnyside into a brownfield solar installation.

The public-private partnership with Sunnyside Energy LLC. received unanimous approval on a lease agreement that will move the project — which is a part of the City's Climate Action Plan and Complete Communities Initiative — forward.

"The Sunnyside landfill has been one of Houston's biggest community challenges for decades, and I am proud we are one step closer to its transformation," says Mayor Turner in a news release. "I thank the Sunnyside community because this project would not have come together without its support. This project is an example of how cities can work with the community to address long-standing environmental justice concerns holistically, create green jobs and generate renewable energy in the process."

The solar field, which is anticipated to be installed and working by the end of next year, will be able to power 5,000 homes and offset 120 million pounds of CO2 each year, according to the release.

"We applaud the actions of Mayor Turner and the City Council in taking this significant step," says Dori Wolfe, managing director of Sunnyside Energy LLC, in the release. "It is a strong vote of confidence for this impactful project. All members of the project team realize that this Sunnyside Solar facility will be an iconic statement in the rejuvenation of the community. We are grateful that Mayor Turner has given us his support."

The city's involvement with the company began in 2017 when Houston joined the C40 Reinventing Cities Competition – a global competition to promote sustainable energy projects. As a part of the competition and through the city's efforts on the initiative, powers at be selected the winning proposal from Wolfe Energy LLC, which formed Sunnyside Energy LLC to execute the urban solar farm project.

Per the lease agreement, the city of Houston owns the land and Sunnyside Energy will be the tenant responsible for permitting, construction, operation, and more.

Houston health company acquired by Seattle tech biz

M&A Moves

A West Coast health tech company has announced the acquisition of Houston-based 2nd.MD.

Accolade Inc., which uses technology solutions to help users better understand their benefits and the health care system, announced last week that it has signed a definitive agreement to acquire Houston-based expert medical opinion company 2nd.MD.

The goal of the acquisition is to further simplify the healthcare experience for employees and increase return on investment for employers, according to a press release from Accolade, and the company will continue to offer 2nd.MD's service on a stand-alone basis as well.

"We share a common vision to help every person live their healthiest life by dramatically improving quality and accessibility of care through a people-focused, clinically-driven support model," says Rajeev Singh, CEO of Accolade, in the release. "Bringing 2nd.MD's world-class Care Team and digital approach with expert medical consultation into Accolade, and continuing to offer it on a stand-alone basis, will have an immediate and measurable impact for our customers, their employees, and the health plans we work with."

"Both companies have built deep relationships with employers and health plans by helping employees navigate the increasingly complex and inconsistent healthcare system," Singh continues. "With the addition of 2nd.MD, we'll nearly double our total addressable market while providing the most comprehensive, integrated healthcare navigation experience available."

2nd.MD supports over 300 employers — connecting more than 7 million people to over 900 nationally recognized, board-certified medical specialists. According to the release, the company reported unaudited revenues of approximately $35 million.

"When it is you or a loved one facing a serious health decision, waiting for weeks to receive a second opinion from an expert isn't acceptable. We've built a scalable Expert Medical Opinion offering that treats every member like family," says Jason Melton, CEO of 2nd.MD. "Combining our Care Teams and technology with Accolade will enhance the reach and quality of support to members from the moment of crisis to the other side of treatment on the path to wellness. We share a common business vision, our cultures are highly aligned around employee purpose and we share a common mission to change healthcare for the benefit of all consumers."

5 PR and marketing tips for Houston startups and small businesses in 2021

guest column

The past year has been a rollercoaster for small businesses. When the pandemic hit, every single person was affected. We've all had to pivot in some way either personally, professionally, or both.

As public relations and marketing professionals who specialize in working with small businesses, we've spent the last 10 months in the trenches with our clients, advising and helping business owners and entrepreneurs navigate these uncertain times. While small business revenue is down since January 2020, it's not all doom and gloom out there – we've seen many other businesses experience unexpected success and growth, and according to economists, we are entering the greatest entrepreneurial economy of our time.

And as we start this new year, there is no better time to invest in business growth and planning. Below are five tips to help you get started.

1. Get smart on your PR

Whether you know a little or a lot about public relations, marketing, and social media, take some time to get caught up on the current landscape. It is constantly changing, and having a better understanding of how traditional media, social media, paid marketing, owned content and all other components can benefit your business will inform decisions about where to allocate your time and resources.

First, assess what stage of business you are in as well as your business goals to determine what PR and marketing tools could be most beneficial to your growth at this time. Not all small businesses are prepared, financially or otherwise, to invest in PR, and there are fundamental steps you can do on your own to get your business positioned to succeed.

With online education booming, there are many free resources and tools at your disposal. We created All You Need Method to simplify PR and marketing for small business owners. You can download our Free PR Roadmap on our website to assess what level of PR support is right for your business. We also created The PR Starter Kit online course to give small business owners the fundamental tools they need to use PR, marketing, and social media to support business growth and build a lasting brand – and it only takes a few hours to complete.

2. Revisit your target audience

The world has changed significantly over the past year and so have the wants, needs, habits, and interests of consumers. As a small business, it's imperative to understand your target audience's current problems in order to relate to them, build trust, and deliver a product or service that is meeting their needs.

Before investing time and financial resources creating and executing a 2021 business plan, take a step back and consider your ideal customer. Outline how the past year has created opportunities or challenges in their life, problems they are facing, new shopping habits, lifestyle shifts, communication preferences, concerns, etc. If you have more than one ideal customer, work through this exercise for each.

With this new perspective, you will be equipped to make business decisions through the lens of how you can better serve your customers, rather than how to increase revenue.

3. Stand for something

Brands that are succeeding today are the brands that are authentic, vulnerable, and that stand for something. According to a global study by Zeno Group in July 2020, consumers are 4 to 6 times more likely to purchase and champion purpose-driven companies.

Having a purpose doesn't require a brand to have a philanthropy component or an outspoken political stance – it's about identifying your specific values and making them apparent through your messaging and leadership within your industry. Values could include committing to sustainable production methods, outstanding customer service, commitment to diversity, or supporting a specific cause. What is most important is that your values are authentic and that you can stand behind them long-term.

As the founder/owner of a small business, you have an opportunity to put a face and values behind the brand so that your company is about more than selling something.

4. Clarify your message

After revisiting your target audience and carefully considering your brand values, incorporate those findings into your messaging. Conduct an audit of your website, social media channels, and all external facing materials, and update your messaging to ensure that if your ideal customer had a 30 second encounter with your brand, they would walk away with your most important messaging points. Important points to consider as you craft new messaging include:

  • How your product or service solves a problem for or benefits your target audience
  • Brand values
  • Points of differentiation

5. Be authentic and communicative

Before the days of social media, a brand had to rely on third parties, including editorials and ads in magazines and newspapers, to spread the word about their brand. Social media and all "owned channels," including a brand's website, blog, and newsletter, have leveled the playing field and allow small business owners to have control over their communication with customers. Through your owned channels, a brand can decide what to post and when, which is incredibly valuable.

While securing press and advertising opportunities is valuable to growth and brand awareness, it's largely outside of one's control. Focus your time and financial resources on communicating with your audience by creating content for your owned channels. Creating content and posting consistently can seem overwhelming to a solopreneur or small team, but there are ways to make it manageable:

  • Pick only a few owned channels to focus on, prioritizing platforms you are most familiar with using and where your audience is most active
  • Quality and consistency are more important than quantity. If you're only posting once a week due to bandwidth, commit to that frequency and increase frequency as you are able
  • To inspire and inform content creation, think about how you can serve your customers through your areas of expertise and what is relevant to both your brand and audience (events, holidays, partnerships, new product launches, etc.)
  • Create a content calendar so that you can plan out posts a month in advance to avoid last minute scrambling to decide what to post

Once you've worked through these five tips, make a plan to support your business goals - and start thinking in two phases.

  • Phase 1: Pandemic Home Stretch - Although there is hope with a COVID-19 vaccine, we know we will likely be dealing with the effects indefinitely. Use this time of uncertainty to get your business in the best shape possible.
  • Phase 2: Post Pandemic - How do you want your business or brand to show up when the world opens back up? It feels far off, but it is closer than you think and there is a huge opportunity for those who are willing to put in the work now.

Remember, these challenging times will pass. There is massive opportunity for the businesses and brands who are willing to reflect, pivot, and plan for a brighter future.

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Kathryn Worsham Humphries and Carla M. Nikitaidis are the co-creators of Houston-based All You Need Method, a PR and marketing resource for small business owners and entrepreneurs.