Following Winter Storm Uri, the United States Small Business Association has launched recovery resources for Texas small businesses. Photo via Getty Images

Texas small businesses impacted by Winter Storm Uri are now eligible for up to $2 million in low-interest loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration as a result of President Joe Biden's major disaster declaration last week.

"Getting our businesses and communities up and running after a disaster is our highest priority at SBA," says SBA's acting Administrator Tami Perriello.

According to a release from the SBA, businesses in 77 counties are covered under the declaration for damages incurred during the storm, starting February 11. Loans can be used to repair or replace damaged or destroyed real estate, machinery and equipment, inventory and other business assets. The funds can also be used to make improvements that will protect, prevent, or minimize damage from any future freezes.

Interest rates for businesses start at 3 percent. Loans to private nonprofit organizations will start at 2 percent and homeowners and renters will incur interest at 1.25. All loans are set with 30 years terms.

Loan amounts and terms are determined by the SBA based on each applicant's financial condition.

The SBA will also launch a Virtual Business Recovery Center on February 23 — similar to the Women Business Centers it launched across the country in 2020, but all virtual due to COVID-related health concerns.

Applicants can call or email the virtual center to receive personalized assistance in their online loan applications at 800-659-2955 or FOCWAssistance@sba.gov, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Assistance will also be provided to help homeowners and renters through a similar Virtual Disaster Loan Outreach Center, which applicants can reach through the same number and email address.

Homeowners are eligible for up to $200,000 to repair or replace damaged or destroyed real estate.Renters and homeowners are also eligible for up to $40,000 for destroyed personal property.

To get started, applicants must contact FEMA at disasterassistance.gov. To download an application visit disasterloanassistance.sba.gov. Individuals who are deaf or hard‑of‑hearing can call 800-877-8339.

Two seasoned public relations experts are providing resources for startups and small businesses. Photo courtesy of All You Need Method

Two female founders create a PR solution for startups and small businesses in Houston and beyond

all you need

Public relations can feel elusive and overwhelming to small business owners. Carla Nikitaidis and Kathryn Worsham Humphries, two seasoned communications consultants, are used to hearing clients ask if they need PR — and more often than not, "what does PR even mean?"

The two women are lifting integrated marketing's curtain to help early-stage businesses and entrepreneurs understand and implement their own communication plans. Houston-based Humphries and California-based Nikitaidis launched All You Need Method, an online course and consulting business designed for small business owners, to help provide agency-level strategy without the expensive price tag.

All You Need Method compiles Nikitaidis and Humphries years of communications experience into an accessible course, The PR Starter Kit.

"We packaged it together in a way where if you're the founder of a small business, you can take our course and get started down the right path of telling your story, being strategic, setting goals, and growing your brand," explains Humphries.

The $249 course is a small sum compared to the often costly prices of hiring on a PR agency, which Humphries explains have monthly retainers ranging from $3,000 to $20,000. The price point is much more manageable for a small company, she explains.

The partners first crossed paths in New York City, sharing a mutual love for PR. Nikitaidis worked for a string of large agencies, representing popular brands like Target, CVS, and Shiseido. Humphries, a University of Texas graduate, landed in Manhattan to fulfill internships at Ralph Lauren, Teen Vogue, and Lonny magazine.

When Nikitaidis left her agency role to start CMN PR, a firm focused on early-stage businesses, and brought Humphries on as her first employee. "She was so smart and strategic — such a partner from day one," says Nikitaidis.

After five years of CMN PR, the two joined a client's in-house team and, eventually, departed to their own adventures. Humphries joined the global social media team for Gap Inc. and eventually returned to Houston to start her consultancy, KWH Creative. Nikitaidis became director of communications at Nextdoor, in the early days of the app, and vice president at The OutCast Agency in San Francisco before relaunching her company as CMN PR & Consulting in 2020.

Nikitaidis and Humphries met in New York years ago and have worked together in the past. Photo courtesy of All You Need Method

When the coronavirus started, the two women realized that small businesses were struggling more than ever. They set out to create tools for the early-stage entrepreneur and even business owners reassessing their plans in the wake of 2020's hardships.

"There are so many businesses that are pre-PR agency or even pre-consulting services that just need a little bit of help. They don't need a $5,000 or $10,000 monthly retainer — what they need is some strategic guidance," says Nikitaidis.

All You Need Method seeks to democratize access to media for solopreneurs on a budget.

"We're not anti-PR agency," Nikitaidis stressed. "We just think that the system and how it's kind of set up right now is broken."

Traditionally, publicists have been the conduit between brands and the media. Through press releases and pitches, communications professionals build relationships with reporters to help the brands they represent get media coverage. The Public Relations Journal even sought to investigate the role of PR gatekeepers in a 2011 study.

"If you think about how agency life has evolved, you used to have to go through an agency to have access to media. Now that the conversation is completely broken down — you don't need a third-party to have that conversation," continues Nikitaidis.

Before reaching out to the media or unveiling a product, Humphries believes you should have "core foundational pillars in place." The PR Starter Kit course guides our seven-step formula the two founders have used with their clients to help them stand out in a crowded media landscape. The course provides customized templates, a competitive analysis, content creation tips, and clarity on how to use integrated marketing to reach your business goals.

The PR Starter Kit includes approximately one hour of video training and worksheets that could take an estimated five hours to complete. The videos are broken up into segments so "you can go at your own pace" overtime, suggests Nikitaidis.

For a personalized approach, All You Need Method also offers one-hour strategy sessions via Zoom for $250. The consultation process answers PR and marketing questions pertaining to the brand's business, addresses individual pain points, and focuses on bonus goals.

"We're always trying to map back or help small business owners approach PR and marketing as something that's going to move their business goals forward," Nikitaidis added.

Building customer relationships and servicing your clients may sound like "Business 101," but Humphries finds that 2020 has shifted the needs of brand audiences and their lifestyles.

"I feel like a lot of small business owners have a vague idea of who their target audience is, but they haven't actually sat down and drilled down on all the details," explains Humphries.

Especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic, consumer behavior has changed. She recommends understanding what they could most use from you right now based on your areas of expertise and your product or service.

The coronavirus isn't the only nationwide hardship that's forcing brands to reevaluate their content and values. Last May, the Black Lives Matter movement held protests across the country in the wake of George Floyd's murder. Conversations on racial justice and police brutality took place on the ground, in news outlets, and across social media platforms. While the movement was amplified on social platforms, some brands fumbled responses and social media statements that critics felt were inauthentic.

"There was just this total lack of awareness in terms of the different industries, specifically fashion and beauty. I hope that it was a big wake up call," says Nikitaidis, who emphasized All You Need Method's commitment to inclusivity. The company recently interviewed thought leader and marketer, Sonia Thompson, for tips on building an inclusive brand.

Inclusivity, and the messaging surrounding it, was a problem that existed long-before last summer and has continued on. From the Dallas-based mahjong brand that sparked a debate on cultural appropriation to the racial missteps of fashion brands, embracing inclusivity with half-hearted gestures has led brands to come under fire.

"I think a big part of being an inclusive brand and having it be authentic is relationship building and making sure that you're building relationships with a diverse audience and customers that don't look just like you," explains Humphries. She challenges people to make "a conscious effort to expand your circle and to make other people feel welcome."

From a global pandemic, political divisiveness, racial justice revolutions, the growing climate crisis, and an insurrection at the nation's Capitol, there's, well, a lot of events to consider when creating social media content.

To Nikitaidis, authenticity and consistency go a long way.

"Reevaluate your core values, and then make sure that you show up with intention in every single solitary thing that you post, that you put out there, and that it's consistent," she says. "If there is a cause that you really care about, and that really is a natural fit with your core values, then you become a thought leader in that space and it's not contrived."

While 2020 might have been a shock to the system for some, it also ushered in new platforms that the two believe could shape marketing's future.

Nikitaidis is excited about what Clubhouse, an audio-chat social networking app, could mean for the future of social platforms. She describes the app as a vibrant dinner party with your 10 coolest, most interesting contacts... except everyone can listen in.

The invitation-only app, which launched last April, features a variety of virtual rooms with conversations on topics like music, social media marketing, business, politics, dating, and more. The Verge likens it to "Medium for podcasts," while reporting on Elon Musk's debut on the chat platform.

"I think the podcast market is awesome but I think that's becoming a little oversaturated. I'm interested and excited to see where these other digital platforms are popping up and how people will be socializing or communicating or connecting in new ways," says Nikitaidis.

She also predicts a resurgence in the power of LinkedIn, the favored platform for business networking. After pitching an op-ed to The Cut and Huffington Post Women, her consulting client posted her piece to LinkedIn and amassed one million views in a two weeks span.

"There's such a huge opportunity and LinkedIn, especially for small business owners, where you're looking at who you know, and who wants to help, and you want to get out in front of your network first," says Nikitaidis.

Similarly, Humphries predicts the future of integrated marketing lies in storytelling.

"I think that brands will continue focusing on telling their own story and communicating with their audience directly through all of the channels that are relevant to them," she explained.

Regardless of what the future holds, communications can't be ignored in the present. " It's not a nice-to-have anymore — it's a must-have," explains Nikitaidis.

"Getting smart about PR, marketing, influencer marketing, influencer partnerships is one of the best business tools," says Nikitaidis. "It's just truly one of the best things you can do to grow your business as a small business owner."

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 startup shoots for affordability and convenience with new photo biz

take a pic

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.

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Houston is poised to lead 5G growth in Texas, according to a new report

leading the stream

Based on one key measure, Houston sits at the forefront of a telecom revolution that could spark a regional economic impact of more than $30 billion.

Data published recently by the Texas Comptroller's Office points out that as of last November and December, Houston led all cities in Texas for the number of so-called "small cells." Small cells are a key component in the rollout of ultra-high-speed 5G wireless communication throughout the Houston area and the country.

As the Texas Comptroller's Office explains, small cells are low-powered antennas that communicate wirelessly via radio waves. They're usually installed on existing public infrastructure like street signs or utility poles, instead of the big communication towers that transmit 4G signals.

The comptroller's tally shows Houston had approved 5,455 small-cell sites as of the November-December timeframe. That dwarfs the total number of sites (1,948) for the state's second-ranked city, Dallas.

"Houston is in the vanguard of small cell permitting in Texas, and not just because it's the state's largest city; advocates have lauded its proactive approach to 5G. Other cities, particularly smaller ones, are lagging well behind," the Comptroller's Office notes.

According to CTIA, a trade group for the wireless communications industry, 5G holds the promise to deliver an economic impact of $30.3 billion in the Houston area and create 93,700 jobs. The group says industries such as health care, energy, transportation, e-commerce, and logistics stand to benefit from the emergence of 5G.

"Maintaining world-class communications infrastructure is a requirement for success in a rapidly changing global economy. Small cells and fiber technology are the key foundational components for network densification and robust 5G. Cities like Houston that have embraced the need for this infrastructure will see the benefits of 5G faster than others," Mandy Derr, government affairs director at Houston-based communications infrastructure REIT Crown Castle International Corp. and a member of the Texas 5G Alliance, tells InnovationMap.

Derr says leaders in Houston have embraced the importance of small-cell technology through "reasonable and effective" regulations and processes aimed at boosting 5G capabilities. Three major providers of wireless service — AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon — offer 5G to customers in the Houston area.

"More small cells and fiber provide greater and faster access for the masses, enabling the connectivity that is essential to our businesses today — whether it's accepting payments on a mobile card reader, completing a sale on the go, or reliably reaching consumers where they are," Derr says.

In a blog post, Netrality Data Centers, which operates a data center in Houston, proclaims that Houston is shaping up to be a hub of 5G innovation.

"Houston has always been on the frontline," Mayor Sylvester Turner said during a 5G roundtable discussion in 2019. "It is who we are. It is in our DNA. We are a leading city. We didn't wait for somebody else to go to the moon. Or to be the energy capital of the world. Or the largest medical center in the world. But you don't stay at the front if you don't continue to lead."

Houston lands on list of nation's top spots for millennials on the move

migration destination

The Bayou City is shining as an attractive destination for young people on the move.

According to the fifth-annual study from SmartAsset, millennials are fleeing cities like Los Angeles and Chicago and migrating to other areas in search of work and a better quality of life, with Houston landing as the No. 18 spot for young professionals age 25 to 39.

In order to compile the list, SmartAsset dug into U.S. Census Bureau data from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and 180 specific cities. According to the findings, 18,035 millennials moved in to Houston in 2019, while 15,838 moved out. That makes a net migration of 2,197, per the study.

When it comes to migrating millennials, the Lone Star State is tops, landing at No. 1 for states where millennials are moving, with more than 187,000 young people heading to Texas in the pre-pandemic year. Though some 154,000 millennials left Texas during the same time period, this results in a net gain of more than 33,000 millennial residents, the biggest net gain for the group in the country, giving Texas the lead in millennial migration for the second year in a row.

In news that is hardly shocking, Austin landing as the No. 4 hot spot overall.

While Austin ranks as the top Texas city where millennials are moving, one other Texas spot landed in the top 10, the Dallas suburb of Frisco (No. 6), with a net migration of 3,516 out-of-state millennials in 2019.

Dallas just missed the top 10, landing at No. 11 on the list, with a net millennial migration of 2,525 in 2019. San Antonio (No. 22) showed a net migration of 1,865 millennials.

The top city overall for millennial migration in 2019 was Denver, followed by Seattle.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.