Retaining employees is no easy feat these days. Encouraging a healthy PTO policy can help avoid burnout. Photo courtesy of Joe Aker

As many small businesses continue to operate in a challenging, fast-paced environment, one thing that has arrived at breakneck speed is midyear, along with the summer months. Theoretically, to ensure work-life balance, most employees should have 50 percent of their PTO remaining to use for summer vacations and during the second half of the year. In reality, that is probably not the case given workers are hesitant to use their PTO, leaving approximately five days of unused PTO on the table during 2020 and 2021.

While the pandemic affected PTO usage the last two years, the labor shortage appears to be a major contributor in 2022, which has led to PTO hoarding and increasing levels of employee burnout. Although these factors can be compounded for small business owners because there are fewer employees to handle daily responsibilities, it is imperative for workers to take PTO, returning recharged with a fresh perspective on the tasks at hand.

Many employers might feel caught off guard by the amount of unused PTO that remains, but the good news is there is plenty of time to address the issue. Below are five ways for small business owners to help prevent PTO hoarding and encourage workers to take their allotted time off.

Remind your employees

Midyear is a good time to remind employees about the company’s PTO program, which is typically included in the employee handbook. Employers can share a link to the specific section of the handbook via email, along with key bullet points about the program that should be highlighted. For example, requirements to submit PTO requests in advance to help manage workloads, any blackout dates related to the nature of the business that can affect customer service and maximum number of hours that can be carried over into the new year to avoid losing any PTO hours. While employees are busy juggling numerous professional and personal responsibilities, it can be easy for them to overlook planning for PTO, so a quick reminder can make a big difference as employees and the company prepare for the remainder of 2022.

Leverage summer months

For some companies, the summer months present a great opportunity for workers to use PTO because business is typically slower, many clients also take time off and it might be easier to cover workloads. If leaders explain the situation to workers, they might be more inclined to schedule PTO because they feel encouraged to do so and there is less concern about leaving co-workers to handle heavy workloads. Leveraging the summer months for PTO can be a win-win for employees and the company, as operations continue smoothly and workers enjoy much-needed relaxation.

Stress the health benefits

Leaders should encourage employees to take time off by stressing the importance of taking care of their mental and physical health. A change of scenery away from work helps reduce stress, encourages relaxation and boosts adaptability, which can lead to greater creativity and innovative thinking. If workers do not take time to disconnect and recharge, it can result in low employee morale and decreased performance that may have a snowball effect involving co-workers, departments and family members.

Generate excitement

One way to encourage employees to use their PTO is to generate excitement by developing creative ways to inspire them to plan a getaway or other activities, which can have a positive impact and help prevent hoarding. For instance, organizing a contest on the intranet in which employees share how they used their time off, encouraging employees to vote on the most unique entries and rewarding the top three with gift cards. This activity might inspire others to break their routines and take time for themselves and their families by planning something special with their unused PTO hours.

Lead by example

Small business owners should lead by example and use their PTO hours to recharge, which also sends a clear message to employees that it is okay to take time off. While many owners may feel they cannot take time away from the office, it is critical for them to recharge, especially after two years of heightened stress levels and longer hours. According to a Capital One Business Survey of small business owners, 52% have not taken a vacation in the past year, 42% are currently experiencing burnout or have experienced it within the past month and 44% report having worked more than usual due to employee shortages. Owners who set an example are not only encouraging workers to do the same, but they are also taking care of themselves so they can be better positioned to operate their businesses for ongoing success.

As small business owners continue to navigate the labor shortage, savvy leaders recognize the significance of retaining existing employees, so it behooves them to encourage PTO usage to foster a highly engaged and energized workforce.

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Jill Chapman is a senior performance consultant with Insperity, a leading provider of human resources and business performance solutions.

A Houston-based fund has deployed capital into a local nutritional supplement business. Photo via Instagram

Houston fund makes first local investment in $8M deal

money moves

A Houston-based investment fund has announced its its latest deal that includes an investment into a local direct-to-consumer supplement company.

GP Capital Partners has invested in Qualitas Health, known as iwi, which produces plant-based omega-3 and protein products that's sold directly to consumers as well as retailers across the United States. Iwi's nutrition supplement is sustainably sourced from the company's cultivation pond systems, which are the size of football fields and located in New Mexico and Texas.

“We are excited about our investment in iwi. They have a proprietary and scalable process to create in-demand products in a sustainable manner," says Gina Luna, principal of the fund, in the news release. "We look forward to working with iwi’s management team as they pursue this transformative opportunity.”

The $8 million deal — $5.5 million in senior secured term debt and a $2.5 million direct equity investment — will help iwi accelerate sales of its existing products and ramp up development, marketing, and growth of new protein-based product, according to the release. Iwi will also enter new international markets.

“The iwi team looks forward to working with GP Capital Partners following their investment in our growing company. We have big plans for accelerating our growth, and are pleased to partner with this team that brings both expertise and relationships to support us in this new stage of the company," says Miguel Calatayud, CEO of iwi, in the release.

Outside of GP, the Houston company's other investors include Grupo Indukern, Gullspång Re:food VC, PeakBridge VC, , Arancia Group, Trucent, SASA, and Minrav. GP launched its $275 million fund last year. It's structured as a Small Business Investment Company and will deploy funding into 20 to 25 companies within the Gulf Coast region.

The supplement company is based in Houston. Photo via Instagram

Companies with resources to spare should step up to help support small and minority-owned businesses. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: Now is the time to support BIPOC-owned small businesses

Guest column

It's clear that the pandemic continues to negatively impact many businesses, and chief among them small, minority-owned businesses. In fact, a study from late last year revealed that minority-owned organizations have been hit disproportionately hard – Black business owners experienced a 41 percent drop in business activity, while Latinx business activity dropped by 35 percent and Asian business activity dropped 26 percent.

Of course, COVID-19 is not the only obstacle that small and minority-owned businesses face. They are also contending with systemic social and economic injustices, civil and social unrest, as well as environmental events. In fact, the pandemic has further spotlighted these ongoing inequities in our communities.

In Houston, nearly 30 percent of startup companies are minority-owned, and studies indicate that Black neighborhoods have driven the majority of start-up growth during the pandemic. These small businesses and their owners have been in survival mode, using their skills, creativity, resources and capacities to keep their doors open and their businesses profitable — but this heavy burden should not fall on them alone.

After all, small businesses are the backbone of our economy. When they don't make it, our nation as a whole suffers: skyrocketing unemployment rates, reduced consumer spending and less optimistic long-term forecasts for all businesses, among other effects. But when they succeed, we all succeed.

Companies with resources to spare should step up to help support small and minority-owned businesses — and that's why last year Comcast created its initiative, Comcast RISE, to help these businesses resolve their challenges and find long-term success.

As part of the first wave of RISE — which stands for "Representation, Investment, Strength and Empowerment" — we gave eligible minority-owned small businesses located in Houston (and in four other U.S. cities severely impacted by COVID-19) the chance to apply for direct grants of $10,000. More than 700 small businesses received these grants, including more than 200 businesses based in the Houston area. Now, the second round of applications for RISE grants is open, and 100 lucky applicants will be chosen to each receive $10,000.

Two local businesses have already experienced the positive impact that these grants can provide. Ashley Gomez, 132 Design partner – a brand and web design company for small businesses – used their business' RISE grant to invest in technology and professional development for the staff. Since then, 132 Design has seen a 30 percent increase in revenue. Meanwhile, Cori Xiong, owner of the Houston-area staple Mala Sichuan Bistro, was able to pay off her extra business expenses associated with the pandemic, as well as invest in publicity and marketing efforts for her storefronts.

Here's what you need to know if you're a small business owner interested in applying for a grant. If your minority-owned business is eligible — that is, at least 51 percent minority-owned, independently owned and operated, registered as a business in the U.S., in operation for more than a year, and located in Harris or Fort Bend county— simply fill out the form on the Comcast RISE website between October 1 and 14, 2021.

We, at Comcast, are deeply committed to helping drive change and bolster the process of correcting social and economic injustices. The Comcast RISE program helps meaningfully impact and support the small businesses that are shaping our communities. At the end of the day, our economy's success is just part of the equation. It's on all of us to ensure equity, diversity, and inclusion for our communities.

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Vince Margiotta is the vice president at Comcast Business.

From credit to crowdfunding, startups have more cash flow options now than ever before. Getty Images

Houston small business finance panel lays out funding options for startups

Follow the money

When it comes to raising money for your startup, there's plenty of fish in the sea, however, navigating the rough waters can be difficult.

Houston Community College put on a Small Business Summit on June 13 and gathered a group of financial professionals to represent several types of funding options, from venture capital to microlending.

Crowdfunding

The crowdfunding game has changed, says Rhian Davies, business development manager for LetsLaunch, an equity-based crowdfunding tool.

While most people think that donation-based crowdfunding — like GoFundMe or Kickstarter that give you the product or thank-you gift when you give — are the only options, that's not the case. And, investing using these platforms doesn't mean anything to you if the company sees success.

"If it makes it big, you're not going to get anything back," says Davies of these types of platforms.

But the JOBS Act in 2012 changed everything. Now, companies fundraising on crowdfunding sites can trade in equity for funds.

"Previously, investments were reserved for wealthy individuals — accredited individuals — who had a certain amount of money could invest in businesses," says Davies. "Equity crowdfunding opened that up."

With crowdfunding, you can also run other types of fundraising efforts at the same time, spreading out your options.

"It allows (the community) to invest in your business and it allows you to pass the hat and have people come on board," Davies says.

The other benefit to using the LetsLaunch platform is the team assists the startups every step of the way, from uploading a digital pitch deck onto the LetsLaunch platform and preparing paperwork to filing with the SEC.

However, one of the major challenges for startups is deciding what their funding goal is. Davies says you do have to hit a certain funding goal to be able to take that cash home, and for LetsLaunch, they look for that figure to be $10,000 minimum. Anything less than that isn't worth it — from both the LetsLaunch and the startup's perspective. The maximum value for equity crowdfunding is capped at just over $1 million — per the SEC.

Venture capital

VC funding is where most people's minds go when it comes to startup funding. And this type of funding is in an evolution phase too, says Remington Tonar, managing director at The Cannon Houston. While traditional VCs want a three-times return in five to seven years, some firms have more on their minds then just the money.

"There's a new phenomenon in venture where a lot of early stage investors and angel investors are looking at social impact investing," Tonar says. "They want to invest in women- or minority-owned businesses or companies that have a sustainability or social impact component to them. For those investors, the return demands are much more flexible."

Not only are they more flexible on returns, but VCs want more hands-on roles at the companies they invest in. Tonar says venture capitalists don't want to give passive capital.

Another way VCs differ from other types of funding is they are looking for something different in the companies they invest in — they want the next big thing.

"What venture capitalists really look for is disruptive business that are creating value in news ways," Tonar says.

And investments can be industry agnostic — VCs aren't reserved to just tech and computing industries.

"Most people would not have thought the hotel industry was a great industry for venture capital until Airbnb came along," says Tonar. "Most people would not have thought that taxis were a great industry for venture capital until Uber came along."

Fundraising through VC firms is a very personal process — they are investing in you, the founder, just as much as they are investing in the company or idea, Tonar says. You can have a horrible credit history or have declared bankrupt in the past, and while they will find that out, it's not a dealbreaker like it would be for a bank or traditional loan process.

"But if the investor feels that the idea has value and can create value and meets their risk profile, they will look at your startup and go through their due diligence process."

Microlending

A new trend in funding options is microlending — a type of loan process that caps out at $50,000. Lisa Riley is Houston market president for LiftFund, one of the largest microlenders in the United States.

Since the amount is smaller, the risk is smaller too. The type of customer LiftFund looks for is the person or company that's been denied by other banks.

"It's not always because of something negative with the customer," Riley says. "There are certain industries where it's very difficult to get finance right now."

Just like the trend in VCs, these types of lenders want to be hands on too to help secure success and a return.

"The last thing we want to be is another monthly obligation or a debt — the noose around someone's neck suffocating their small business," Riley says. "We want to make sure and walk with you and hold your hand as long as you'll hold mine so that when we give you your loan it's the right amount for your business and the right time."

Traditional loans and factoring

Of course, conventional loans is still an option, as is factoring — the process in which a business sells its accounts receivables to a third-party entity, called a factor.

Peter Ellen, senior vice president at Amegy Bank, explains the process as being pretty traditional. His bank wants to see a secure and profitable business on trach for growth.

"Typically, we look for a business that's been established for two years, that has generated a profit, and can show a clear path of repayment," Ellen says.

Again, like other funding options, Ellen says a relationship with the company is important.

"That's really what we look to do, is to form a relationship at an early stage with a company, really understand what they do, and help assist in the growth and success of their company," he says.

SBA loans

SBA loans are another lending option for startups to consider, Aziz Rahim, senior vice president at Wallis Bank, explains.

Different from a traditional loan process, SBA loans are guaranteed by the Small Business Association up to 85 percent, which lowers the risk for then lending partner.

Other benefits to SBA loans are lower down payments, generous term lengths, and caps on interest rates.

"The good thing about SBA loans compared to conventional loans is SBA loans do not balloon," Rahim says.

The winner of the contest will be announced at a Rockets game in early April. Courtesy of Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

BBVA Compass and the Houston Rockets team up to launch revamped startup contest

small biz Slam dunk

Houston startups have a chance at $10,000 thanks to the Houston Rockets and BBVA Compass' LaunchPad Contest. The application process begins on February 19 and concludes on March 5.

In its third installment, the contest is doing things a little differently this year. Previously, small businesses had to respond to questions about their organization and what they would do with the prize money. This year, with a special focus on startups, applicants are also being asked about using new technology to increase productivity.

"BBVA Compass is in a unique position and we want to leverage that to help elevate entrepreneurship through digital capabilities," says BBVA Compass Houston CEO Mark Montgomery in a release. "We are a leader in the financial industry's digital transformation, and have won multiple awards because of our innovative products and services in that realm. We want to create ample opportunities for a rising business through that industry-leading expertise. The Rockets are excellent teammates, and we are excited to unveil this new version of our collaborative contest with them."

Following the application process, BBVA and the Rockets will select four finalists before opening the contest up to fans to pick their favorite. The winner will then be announced at a game in early April. The winning company will receive, in addition to the $10,000, consultations with both BBVA and the Rockets executives.

"We are excited to partner with BBVA again for this annual contest," says Rockets Chief Revenue Officer Gretchen Sheirr in the release. "They have been best in class in their industry with their digital strategy, so it's fantastic that they will be providing an opportunity for other businesses to thrive in this space. We look forward to reviewing our fans' contest submissions and seeing the great work being done by startup businesses in our great city."

Last year's Launchpad winner was Buy On Purpose, according to a release. The office supply delivery company on the northside of town boasts same-day delivery and donates half its profits to organizations fighting human trafficking, clean water initiatives, and other causes.

Learn more about last year's winner here:

BBVA Compass and the Houston Rockets announce Buy On Purpose as its small business contest winner www.youtube.com

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Houston hospital joins the metaverse with new platform

now online

Houston Methodist has launched a platform that is taking medical and scientific experts and students into the metaverse.

The MITIEverse, a new app focused on health care education and training, provides hands-on practice, remote assistance from experienced clinicians, and more. The app — named for the Houston Methodist Institute for Technology, Innovation and Education, aka MITIE — was created in partnership with FundamentalVR and takes users into virtual showcase rooms, surgical simulations, and lectures from Houston Methodist faculty, as well as collaborators from across the world.

“This new app brings the hands-on education and training MITIE is known for to a new virtual audience. It could be a first step toward building out a medical metaverse,” says Stuart Corr, inventor of the MITIEverse and director of innovation systems engineering at Houston Methodist, in a news release.

Image courtesy of Houston Methodist

The hospital system's DeBakey Heart and Vascular Center has created a virtual showcase room on the app, and users can view Houston Methodist faculty performing real surgeries and then interact with 3D human models.

"We view the MITIEverse as a paradigm-shifting platform that will offer new experiences in how we educate, train, and interact with the health community,” says Alan Lumsden, M.D., medical director of Houston Methodist DeBakey Heart and Vascular Center, in the release.

“It essentially democratizes access to health care educators and innovators by breaking down physical barriers. There’s no need to travel thousands of miles to attend a conference when you can patch into the MITIEverse," he continues.

Image courtesy of Houston Methodist

Houston doctors get approval for low-cost COVID vaccine abroad

green light

A Houston-born COVID-19 vaccine has gotten the go-ahead to be produced and distributed in Indonesia.

PT Bio Farma, which oversees government-owned pharmaceutical manufacturers in Indonesia, says it’s prepared to make 20 million doses of the IndoVac COVID-19 vaccine this year and 100 million doses a year by 2024. This comes after the vaccine received authorization from the Indonesian Food and Drug Authority for emergency use in adults.

With more than 275 million residents, Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country.

IndoVac was created by the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and Baylor College of Medicine. Drs. Peter Hotez and Maria Elena Bottazzi lead the vaccine project. Bio Farma is licensing IndoVac from BCM Ventures, the commercial group at the Baylor College of Medicine.

“Access to vaccines in the developing world is critical to the eradication of this virus,” Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, says in a news release.

Aside from distributing the vaccine in Indonesia, Bio Farma plans to introduce it to various international markets.

“The need for a safe, effective, low-cost vaccine for middle- to low-income countries is central to the world’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Bottazzi, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and associate dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor.

“Without widespread inoculation of populations in the developing world, which must include safe, effective booster doses, additional [COVID-19] variants will develop, hindering the progress achieved by currently available vaccines in the United States and other Western countries.”

Bio Farma says it has completed Phase 1 and Phase 2 clinical trials for IndoVac and is wrapping up a Phase 3 trial.

IndoVac is a version of the patent-free, low-cost Corbevax vaccine, developed in Houston and dubbed “The World’s COVID-19 Vaccine.” The vaccine formula can be licensed by a vaccine producer in any low- or middle-income country, which then can take ownership of it, produce it, name it, and work with government officials to distribute it, Hotez told The Texas Tribune in February.

Among donors that have pitched in money for development of the vaccine are the Houston-based MD Anderson and John S. Dunn foundations, the San Antonio-based Kleberg Foundation, and Austin-based Tito’s Vodka.

“During 2022, we hope to partner with the World Health Organization and other United Nations agencies to vaccinate the world. We believe that global vaccine equity is finally at hand and that it is the only thing that can bring the COVID pandemic to an end,” Hotez and Bottazzi wrote in a December 2021 article for Scientific American.

Houston research: How best to deliver unexpected news as a company

houston voices

According to Forbes, the volume of mergers and acquisitions in 2021 was the highest on record, and 2022 has already seen a number of major consolidation attempts. Microsoft’s acquisition of video game company Activision Blizzard was the biggest gaming industry deal in history, according to Reuters. JetBlue recently won the bid over Frontier Airlines to merge with Spirit Airlines. And, perhaps most notably, Elon Musk recently backed out of an attempt to acquire Twitter.

It can be hard to predict how markets will react to such high-profile deals (and, in Elon Musk and Twitter’s case, whether or not the deal will even pan out). But Rice Business Professor Haiyang Li and Professor Emeritus Robert Hoskisson, along with Jing Jin of the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, have found that companies can take advantage of these deals to buffer the effects of other news.

The researchers looked at 7,575 mergers and acquisitions from 2001 to 2015, with a roughly half-and-half split between positive and negative stock market reactions. They found that when there’s a negative reaction to a deal, companies have two strategies for dealing with it. If it’s a small negative reaction, companies will release positive news announcements in an attempt to soften the blow. But when the reaction is really bad, companies actually tend to announce more negative news afterward. Specifically, companies released 18% less positive news and 52% more negative news after a bad market reaction.

This may seem counterintuitive, but there’s a method to the madness, and it all has to do with managing expectations. If people are lukewarm on a company due to a merger or acquisition, it’s possible to sway public opinion with unrelated good news. When the backlash is severe, though, a little bit of good PR won’t be enough to change people’s minds. In this case, companies release more bad news because it’s one of their best chances to do so without making waves in the future. If people already think poorly of a company due to a recent deal, more bad news isn’t great, but it doesn’t come as a surprise, either. Therefore, it’s easier to ignore.

It might make more sense to just keep quiet if the market reaction to a deal is bad, and this study found that most companies do. However, this only applies when releasing more news would make a mildly bad situation worse. If things are already bad enough that the company can’t recover with good news, it can still make the best out of a bad situation by offloading more bad news when the damage will be minimal. Companies are legally obligated to disclose business-related news or information with shareholders and with the public. If it’s bad news, they like to share it when the public is already upset about a deal, instead of releasing the negative news when there are no other distractions. In this case the additional negative news is likely to get more play in the media when disclosed by itself.

But what happens when people get excited about a merger or acquisition? In these cases, it also depends on how strong the sentiment is. If the public’s reaction is only minimally positive, companies may opt to release more good news in hopes of making the reaction stronger. When the market is already enthusiastic about the deal, though, companies won’t release more positive news. The researchers found that after an especially positive market reaction to a deal, companies indeed released 12% less positive news but 56% more negative news. Also, one could argue that the contrasting negative news makes the good news on the acquisition look even better. This may be important especially if the acquisition is a significant strategic move.

There are several reasons why a company wouldn’t continue to release positive news after a good press day and strong market reaction. First of all, they want to make sure that a rise in market price is attributed to the deal alone, and not any irrelevant news. A positive reaction to a deal also gives companies another opportunity to disclose bad news at a time when it will get less attention. If the bad news does get attention, the chances are better that stakeholders will go easy on them — a little bit of bad press is forgivable when the good news outshines it.

Companies may choose to release no news after a positive reaction to a merger or acquisition, the same way they might opt to stay quiet after backlash. They’re less likely to release positive news when stakeholders are already happy, preferring to save that news for the next time they need it, either to offset a negative reaction or strengthen a weak positive reaction.

Mergers and acquisitions can produce unpredictable market reactions, so it’s important for companies to be prepared for a variety of outcomes. In fact, Jin, Li and Hoskisson found that the steps taken by companies before deals were announced didn’t have much effect on the public’s reaction. They found that it’s more important for companies to make the best out of that reaction, whatever it turns out to be.

The researchers also found that, regardless of whether the market reaction was positive or negative, as long as the reaction was strong, companies could use the opportunity to hide smaller pieces of bad news in the shadow of a headline-making deal. Overall, the magnitude of the reaction mattered more than the type of reaction. People tend to have stronger reactions to unexpected news, though, so companies prefer to release negative news when market expectations are already low.

These findings are relevant beyond merger announcements, of course; they also point to strategies that could be useful in everyday communications. A key takeaway is that negative information is less upsetting when people already expect bad things — or when it comes after much bigger, and much better, news. Bad news is always hard to deliver, but this research gives us a few ways to soften the blow.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and was based on research from Jing Jin, Haiyang Li and Robert Hoskisson.