Studio Pod — founded by Joseph West and Chris Bailey — is helping professionals and small businesses easily and affordably capture headshots. Photo courtesy Melissa Fitzgerald/Studio Pod

Houston-based photographers Chris Bailey and Joseph West have brought automated technology and innovative efficiencies to the often cumbersome task of taking professional headshots.

Bailey and West first met as wedding and corporate photographers and bonded over the pain points of their jobs. Over the years they zeroed in on the particular challenges of scheduling photo sessions and achieving a consistent look for a corporate gigs, which can span months or years (depending on when new hires are brought on) and where settings can change based on the time of day, lighting in the room, and a variety of other factors. Still, there was a demand for their professional-grade work.

"In today's age and in the COVID era, people need LinkedIn photos, now a Zoom photo, a Facebook photo. You need all these different types of photos. And so we said, 'How can we solve that?'," Bailey says.

In 2020 the duo launched Studio Pod in an attempt to streamline and improve the process for photographers, businesses, and the individuals themselves. Through the use of their roomy, modern booth, users can snap high-quality, professionally lit headshots with the help of an automated platform. Too, users can see their photos in real time and make adjustments to their appearance, the lighting, and more throughout their reserved 15- to 30-minute window from the privacy of the pod.

"Most people now today know when they are when they look their best — we have selfies and you're sending photos — you can conclude for yourself what photo you like," says Bailey. "We're able to give them that instant gratification and instant response."

"The largest and most positive things we've heard is that it just allows people to feel a lot more comfortable while taking their head shots," he adds.

The current iteration of the pod was constructed by local metal worker Spencer Elliott and a prototype was tested by the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University and Intrepid Financial Partners in December 2019. Millipixels, based in India, was tapped for the development of the automation.

Bailey and West had originally planned to deploy the pod to places of work for weeks at a time to allow workers to efficiently snap their head shots when it worked best for their schedules. However, when the pandemic forced many Houstonians to work from home, the team pivoted to add a direct to consumer option based out of their studio in Rice Military.

Over the last few months they've seen everyone from students to attorneys turn out to make use of their tool. In 2021, they hope to partner with property management companies and other large organizations, like hospitals, universities, or co-working spaces, as well.

The team is also slated to begin production on a second iteration of the pod that will offer options for full enclosure and changes to tech with the help of TRX Labs in the first quarter of next year. They also released a series of presets or filters that help boost consistency for employers and allow more options for individual users. Sessions currently start at $40.

"Our feelings are everyone should have a headshot, and everyone should have a studio-quality headshot," West says. "Our goal is to make it so easy and also affordable."

Over 400 small businesses in the Houston area have been granted forgiveness for loans. Photo via Getty Images

Harris County forgives hundreds of small business loans for struggling locals

Granting a reprieve

The global pandemic has wreaked havoc on local small businesses; many have struggled without savings, credit, and capital to continue on during the downturn. For some immediate relief, Harris County and the Houston-Galveston Area Council (HGAC) offered some 444 area small businesses interest-free loans of up to $25,000 earlier this year.

The loans would be forgiven in five years, per the initial Harris County COVID-19 Forgivable Loan Program agreement.

Now, in some feel-good, holiday news, the loans have been converted into grants, thanks to federal CARES Act funding received by the county, according to a statement by Harris County and Houston-Galveston Area Council.

"Many of the owners have already made use of the funds they received. Knowing that they don't have to pay it back, that it's all theirs, gives them one less thing to worry about at a time when so many have been impacted," said Omar Fortune, manager of the Houston-Galveston Area Local Development Corporation (H-GALDC), in a statement. (The organization handled the underwriting process and distribution of loans to small businesses.)

"We're pleased to be able to provide this gift to these small businesses that are so important to our region. That it's happening during the holiday season makes it even more special."

Originally launched on April 9, the Harris County COVID-19 Forgivable Loan program distributed $10 million to the 444 small businesses by the summer. On October 6, Harris County approved the loan conversion to grants, according to a press release. Small businesses that had already begun paying back their loans have had their payments reimbursed by the county, according to HGAC.

Local business owners are "ecstatic" upon hearing the news, according to H-GAC. " This whole experience has been an emotional roller coaster, but I'm extremely positive about the future," said Museum District-area dentist, Dr. Randy Mitchmore, in a statement.

"I'm proud to own a small business, and we have a direct impact on the local community. I'm also grateful for this program and that it was able to help small businesses as intended."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Why use social media for business? These two PR experts make their case. Getty Images

Houston PR team shares how social media can affect your small business

guest column

As a small business owner, I know firsthand how important it is to stay on top of the latest marketing trends. We no longer live in a world where traditional public relations alone will achieve your business objectives. With new and evolving digital platforms creating so many ways to communicate with your target audience, businesses must diversify their public relations and media strategies to be successful.

We cannot work in silos; instead, we need to have a comprehensive approach, including tactics such as media relations, community partnerships, unique events, influencer collaborations, digital and traditional advertising, email marketing and social media.

While some of these marketing channels can be costly, social media for small business owners is an absolute must and an inexpensive way of keeping your brand top of mind.

How businesses use social media for marketing can vary depending on the industry. The first step is determining which social media platforms make the most sense for your business. Where are your competitors? Are they on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn? If so, does it also make sense for you to have a presence on each of these, as well?

Once you know where you should be, decide who you want to reach and what your message should look like in order to accomplish this. Messaging can certainly vary on each platform, as can your target audience.

Recruiting, B2B content and company updates are best suited for LinkedIn, while beautiful visuals and brand stories are reserved for Instagram and Facebook. Twitter can serve as a great platform for timely updates and conversations with followers. To create effective social media marketing for small businesses, solidify your brand voice and target audience before creating content.

As you begin creating organic content to push out to your target audience, take advantage of the advertising tools within each platform. Facebook's Ad Manager provides businesses with an intuitive approach to advertising on Facebook, Instagram, and Facebook's Audience Network. By adding marketing dollars to your social media strategy, small businesses cast a wider net with individual posts and reach a larger audience by creating campaigns with specific objectives such as driving website visitors. With advertising spend on social media, you will be equipped with even more data and analytics than your organic posts generate in order to understand who is engaging with your content.

It's always beneficial to keep these options in mind, while understanding the value social media brings to your overall marketing strategy. Social media is a great tool for upper funnel objectives, such as raising brand awareness and interest, rather than lower funnel, conversion objectives. You want to rely on social media to increase your customer base, connect with current customers and influence them down the purchasing path.

The beauty and power of social media for small business owners is that it's affordable and efficient. It can serve as a snapshot of your brand when potential customers visit your page.

There's no better way to build relationships with your current and prospective customers than through social media marketing. It offers a quick turnaround time, granular targeting options and real-time consumer feedback and communication.

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Karen Henry is the founding partner of The PR Boutique, a Houston-based public relations firm. Kirby Levey is the company's senior accounts and digital executive.

Federal relief efforts can be confusing — are are four options from a local tax expert that are reliable for small business owners. Getty Images

Tax expert shares 4 COVID-19 relief options for Houston small businesses

Guest article

There's been a lot in the news lately about large companies securing large federal grants to soften the financial blow of the CORONA shutdown — to the exclusion of smaller businesses. And even with new legislation that could provide additional funding, small companies could still be left out.

Here are four ways that companies can garner some financial relief in these challenging financial times:

1. Delay of employer FICA contributions 

While most of the attention has been focused on the forgivable loans that are part of the CARES Act, the good news is that — if you dig deeper — the legislation also provides a postponement (not forgiveness) of the employer portion of FICA payments. These are available for payroll taxes due beginning on March 27 through year's end. Payments can be deferred with half due on December 31, 2021, and the remaining half on December 31, 2022.

2. Employee retention credits

This is fully refundable tax credit available for employers equal to 50 percent of qualified wages paid to employees. The retention credit applies to qualified wages paid after March 12, 2020, though the balance of this calendar year.

There is a cap to the amount of the credit, and the credit is only available to companies that either:

  1. Fully or partially suspended operation during any calendar quarter in 2020 due to orders from an appropriate governmental authority limiting commerce, travel, or group meetings (for commercial, social, religious, or other purposes) due to COVID-19; or
  2. Experienced a significant decline in gross receipts during the calendar quarter.

3. Carrying back Net Operating Losses (NOL)

Another often missed provision of the CARES Act is the ability for companies to carry back net operating losses from 2018 or 2019 to prior years (going back 5 years) and obtain refunds of previously paid taxes. The 2017 tax reform eliminated the ability to carry back NOLs, but the CARES Act has resurrected them.

4. Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) 

Employers with fewer than 500 employees may qualify for tax credits under the FFCRA, which was enacted on March 18. The legislation has two main sections: the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act (EPSLA), and the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act (FMLA Expansion).

An eligible employer may claim a fully refundable tax credit equal to 100 percent of the qualified family leave wages (and allocable qualified health plan expenses and the eligible employer's share of Medicare tax on the qualified family leave wages) it pays.

Each company's situation is different, so we strongly suggest you speak with your tax adviser to see how these provisions might apply to you.

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Jason Sharp, CPA, is tax partner at Briggs & Veselka, Houston's largest locally owned CPA firm. He can be contacted a jsharp@bvccpa.com.

Small businesses and startups are likely to hurt — and hurt bad — from COVID-19's affect on the economy. Here are some resources to get support. Photo by Hero Images

Here's a list of resources for Houston startups and small businesses during COVID-19 shutdown

here to help

It's a trying time for the world, and Houston small businesses and startups have been put in a difficult spot. From having to work remotely or being forced to close or scale back operations due to mandates from the government, entrepreneurs are having to figure out their new normals.

However, organizations have leapt at the chance to help their fellow Houstonians, and a number of resources have appeared to provide aid to startups, from advice and resources to grants.

Editor's note: This article originally ran March 25, 2020, but has been updated and republished with more resources.

The Cannon's CERT Program

The Cannon released information about their Cannon Emergency Response Team Program, and Houston startups can apply online. The multi-week program is intended to provide aid and support for startups and small businesses experiencing a crisis caused by external forces — namely COVID-19 and its repercussions, but also natural disasters, market disruption, legislative actions, civil unrest, fraud, or theft.

Click here to apply and learn more.

The Ion's resource center

The Ion has also rounded up resources for its members and the greater Houston innovation ecosystem. It's available online, and has everything from links to national and local resources and financial assistance information to virtual events.

"While we all try and adjust to this new way of life, The Ion will continue to be a resource to our entrepreneurial community the best way we know how, by connecting our community and providing you with opportunities that you need to be resilient during these unstable times. ... We hope this page serves you well and we promise to keep you all up to date on everything innovation taking place in our community," writes Gaby Rowe, executive director of The Ion.

Rowe has also started a video series of interviews with Houston startups — the videos are also available on the webpage.

Click here to access the resource center.

Houston Exponential's virtual event calendar

Houston Exponential worked quickly to turn their online calendar featuring events across the innovation ecosystem in Houston to helpful virtual events. Anyone can submit an event for consideration.

Click here to find the calendar.

To find InnovationMap's curated list of events for April, click here.

The GHP's Greater Houston Business Recovery Center

The Greater Houston Partnership has released a one-stop shop for business help for companies large and small. The amalgamation combines several national and local options, including relevant information about the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

"We know many Houston companies are hurting and do not have the resources to sustain themselves for weeks without help," said Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Partnership. "The funds provided through the CARES Act are essential to ensure Houston businesses can meet payroll and cover other expenses during this difficult time. "

Click here to visit the Greater Houston Business Recovery Center page.

Fat Finger's procedure app

In an effort to help businesses organize their response, Houston-based tech company Fat Finger has released a procedure app that is available for free. It offers employee agreements, important protocol checklists, and more.

"Our intention is to help teams of all types operate as safe and effective as possible to overcome what we are all going through," writes James McDonough, founder and CEO of the company.

Click here to learn more about the app here.

Houston PR firm to offer free services

Houston-based Paige PR is offering up $5,000 worth of its services to help out a company affected by COVID-19., which includes media relations, influencer relations, media training, employee communication, content development, social media management, corporate event planning, campaign measurement, brand management, community engagement and crisis communication, according to a news release.

"Paige PR's mission is to empower and help businesses tell their unique stories and amplify their messages," says Paige Donnell, Paige PR's founder and CEO, in the release. "Our team wanted to give back and honor a company making a positive difference, despite these uncertain times. Now is not the time to halt your company's marketing and communication efforts. However, we understand that this may be the only option for some businesses. We're in this together, and all of us at Paige PR look forward to offering our services free of charge to one deserving company."

Click here to learn more and enter your company.

Gener8tor's free 1-week response program

Just like most accelerator programs, cohort schedules and plans have been affected by COVID-19, but one new-to-Houston program is making some lemonade out of the lemons they were served. Gener8tor, along with the Downtown Redevelopment Authority, announced a partnership for one week of virtual programming for small businesses affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. It's free and an extension of the gBETA program, which launched in Houston in January.

Interested entrepreneurs must apply to be enrolled by Friday, May 27. The week of virtual assistence begins March 30 and goes until April 3. Participants will have access to virtual office hours with experts.

"We have seen firsthand the impact that entrepreneurs have on a community and we hope to call on our network of mentors, investors, and partners to support these new Emergency Response Programs," says Joe Kirgues, Co-Founder of gener8tor, in a news release.

Click here to learn more and sign up.

Hello Alice's business center

Houston-based Hello Alice is a great digital resource for startups locally and beyond. The organization recently announced its grant program that will focus on funding minority-founded startups and quickly snapped into action to create a COVID-19 Business Center free for entrepreneurs to use.

Alice is offering emergency grants to businesses affected by COVID-19 and has also gathered other resources like mental health information, tips for running a remote workforce, and more.

Click here to access the business center.

The Small Business Administration's webinars and disaster loans

Startups, nonprofits, and small businesses can apply for an Economic Injury Disaster Loans for up to $2 million. For small businesses, the interest rate is 3.75 percent, and for nonprofits, the interest rate is 2.75 percent. The SBA's Houston chapter is available for help as well.

Click here to learn more about the EIDLs.

Impact Hub Houston's comprehensive list

If this list here isn't exhaustive enough, Impact Hub Houston has gone the extra mile on their blog, creating a comprehensive and updated list of resources for small businesses and startups, as well as for people in general. There is everything from information on small business financial help and online education to tips for parents and health-related resources.

Click here to access the guide.

These three entrepreneurs are in the business of solving problems. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Entrepreneurs see a problem, and solve it. This week's three innovators to know are no different. All three have personal stories of realizing there's something not right — and there's something they could do about it.

Here are this week's innovators with small businesses and big growth plans.

Yared Akalou, founder of Alcove Group

Courtesy of Yared Akalou

Yared Akalou found the perfect job for himself — only problem was that it was in San Diego. Uninterested in moving his wife and young daughter across the country, he decided to prove to his new employer that he could handle most of the job's responsibilities remotely, while traveling when needed.

It wasn't easy, and his user experience-focused mind realized there was a concentration problem when you worked remotely in public spaces. Now, with Alcove, he's created a solution. Alcove is a laptop case that pops up into a workspace that increases focus and privacy.

Alcove is available online, but Akalou has lofty goals of partnering with large companies to get Alcove in the hands of consultants, for instance.

Megan Eddings, founder of Accel Lifestyle

Courtesy of Accel Lifestyle

Entrepreneurs have to have a certain amount of positivity when it comes to all the challenges they face, and Megan Eddings has a surplus of both challenges and positivity. She's fought for years to design the perfect fabric that doesn't hold on to bacteria and sweat smells for a line of athleticwear she's creating. The chemist-turned-medical sales professional is now close to getting her company, Accel Lifestyle, off the ground.

When she's not focusing on Accel, she likes to inspire others to follow their passions and take a leap of faith like she did at speaking engagements or on social media. She even inspired her husband, Kyle, to start something of his own too.

Josh Feinberg, co-founder of Tenavox

Courtesy of Tenavox

For years, Josh Feinberg was a broker focusing on The Woodlands when he realized there was a huge need in the commercial real estate sector that brokers weren't able to fill. The equation was just off — there just aren't enough brokers to manage the millions of available square feet of space in major metros.

Feinberg created Tenavox with his business partner, Marissa Limsiaco, who is based in Austin. Tenavox is a website where small business owners can find space that fits their needs. Tenavox can benefits both sides of the transaction: entrepreneurs are only shown compatable properties and brokers are only getting tenant leads that are serious contenders.

The site also has VoxLink, which is a directory of industry experts — tenant brokers, moving companies, lawyers, etc. Feinberg hopes to expand to 50 metros in the next five years.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Texas named a top state for women-led startups

this one's for the ladies

Who runs the world? According to Merchant Maverick's inaugural Best States for "Women-Led Startups'' study, Texas is a great place for women to be in charge.

The Lone Star state cracked the top 10 on the list, earning a No. 6 spot according to the small business reviews and financial services company, which based the study on eight key statistics about this growing segment of the economy. Colorado (at No. 1), Washington, Virginia, Florida, and Montana were the only states to beat out Texas on the rankings—leading the Merchant Maverick team to conclude that "the part of the country that lies west of the Mississippi is great for startups led by women entrepreneurs."

Women-led startups in Texas received $365 billion in VC funding in the last five years, the report found. This is the seventh largest total among U.S. states. Too, about 20 percent of Texans are employed at woman-led firms, which is the fifth highest percentage among states. Roughly 35 percent of employers in Texas are led by women.

A few other key findings that work in female founders' favor: The startup survival rate in Texas is nearly 80 percent. And a lack of state income tax "doesn't hurt either," the report says.

Still there are shortcomings. On a per capita basis, only 1.27 percent of Texas women run their own business. The average income for self-employed women is also relatively low ranking among states, coming in around $55,907 and landing at 31st among others.

This is not the first time Texas has been lauded as a land of opportunity for women entrepreneurs. A 2019 study named it the best state for business opportunities for women. Houston too has proven to support success for the demographic. The Bayou City was named in separate studies a best city for female entrepreneurs to start a business and to see it grow.

Still, as many findings have concluded, the realities of the pandemic loom for all startups and small business owners. The Merchant Maverick study was careful to add: "The pandemic has changed the economic landscape over the past year, and often for the worse.

"This means that not every metric may be able to accurately gauge how a state might fare amidst the pandemic," the report continues. "To help factor in COVID's impact, we included some metrics that take 2020 into account, but it will be a while until we get a full picture of the pandemic's devastation.""

New downtown office tower will rise in bustling Discovery Green

new to hou

A new office tower will soon loom over the popular Discovery Green as the anchor of a new downtown district. Global development and construction firm, Skanksa, announced the new building at 1550 Lamar St. and its anchor tenant on January 13. The new 28-story, 375,000-square-foot Class-A office structure is dubbed 1550 on the Green, per a Skanska statement.

Global law firm Norton Rose Fulbright will relocate its Houston office in 2024 and acquire naming rights upon occupancy, according to a press release.

Bound by La Branch, Lamar, Crawford, and Dallas Streets, 1550 on The Green will feature extra-wide pedestrian zones with a canopy of trees, two tenant outdoor roof terraces, and wide views of the surrounding greenery.

International design firm BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group led the building's design; it is the company's first foray into Texas. BIG's design promises sustainability, energy efficiency, and an "airy" office environment for tenants, a release describes.

Some 7,000 square feet of retail space will greet first-floor guests. Michael Hsu Office of Architecture has been tapped to design the interior amenity spaces; those include a fitness center, rooftop event space and terrace, and community spaces.

The new 1550 on the Green tower is part of a new envisioned district that will be branded as Discovery West. The district will consist of 3.5 acres of mixed-use development boasting restaurants, retail, green space, and "world-class architecture," per a release.

Working with Central Houston Inc., Discovery Green, Bike Houston, the Kinder Foundation, as well as several brokers, Skanska and design firm of record, BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group, completed the master plan for Discovery West in early 2020.

Skanska has been noticeably active in the Houston office market, specifically with the development of Bank of America Tower, West Memorial Place I and II, and the future Discovery West. The company is behind the acquisition of a buzzy strip center in Montrose. Skanska also plans to multifamily to its Houston portfolio, the firm notes.

"As an organization that prides itself on building what matters to our communities, our team, made up of Houstonians, has been working alongside local stakeholders to develop a plan and a building that will transform this side of downtown Houston while still meeting the needs of the city," said Matt Damborsky, executive vice president for Skanska USA commercial development's Houston market, in a statement.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.