HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. — Being a small-business owner when the economy is strong is often a challenge — surviving through a pandemic turns that into an uphill battle not everyone will win.
Luckily, during trying times, there are experts like Tracy Stanhoff, president of American Indian Chamber of Commerce of California, who are offering advice and support to Native business owners across the country. Back in 1988, she founded AD PRO, a firm located in Huntington Beach, California. The company is a full-service advertising, graphic design and branding firm with clientele that includes everything from Fortune 500 corporations and Tribal enterprises, to government entities and small businesses. Stanhoff, who is also a former Tribal Chair of Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, chatted about what entrepreneurs can do to weather the storm and be prepared for the post-coronavirus economy.
Business has been your thing for years now, but when did you first dip in your toe?
Tracy Stanhoff: I’ve run a business for 32 years. I started when I was very young, 26, now I am getting up there. I own AD PRO, we’re probably the largest American Indian advertising and graphic design firm in the country. We’re very blessed. We do a lot of work in Indian Country.
You’ve also been in the American Indian Chamber for years, too. How is that going?
We have a lot of fun at the American Indian Chamber, it’s really like a family. We’ve all grown up together, for lack of a better term. I started young. I really relied on other folks in the chamber for peer-to-peer support when I was first growing—but we’re still growing and I could still learn something.
I know the chamber is based in California, but are you able to offer advice to all Native-owned businesses experiencing hardships during the pandemic?
I am president of the California office, but also, unofficially, nationally. We have a national organization. So we started in week one of the pandemic with some implementation of things to help everybody. The last time we went through something this significant was after 9/11. It was different then, the world changed. We went to war and we were sitting around watching CNN all day. Watching us bomb people. Our lives changed, as far as travel and doing business in that sense. But, now, the world has stopped completely. You can’t just do business. So, it’s quite different from 9/11, in that aspect. This is unprecedented.
In response to COVID-19, there are some new financial resources available through the Small Business Administration (SBA). What should people know about those?
One important thing is, there’s a lot of fraud in the loans right now. Just go through the SBA portal and go to your local bank that you use already. There are a lot of people sending e-mails out saying they are loan brokers for the Small Business Administration, and they’re not. Once you get a loan, document, document, document your uses of the money. You need to do that so you can get it forgiven under the regulations they have.
If someone is a new Native business owner, what would you tell them right now?
For new businesses, I’d say, “Good luck.” I don’t mean to sound flippant or rude, but when you’re first starting up, there are a lot of challenges—whether it’s capital or getting momentum in your business. I couldn’t imagine just starting a restaurant during this time. It’s never easy, even when the economy is doing well. You have your good years and your not-so-good years. There’s always up and down with our economy, in general. So, for new businesses, I’d say, just hang in there or reevaluate what you’re doing, because there might not be tomorrow for you. That’s just the harsh reality and it’s sad. It’s not a good thing.
For those looking to be proactive in saving their business, what would you recommend?
I’d encourage everyone to join our chamber’s weekly webinars. There are several facets, but one of them is (about) what you can do to stop the bleeding and see where access to capital is going to be. So we’ve worked with the SBA, and the states and the feds to help provide input into the program and stimulus packages that are out there now for Indian Country.
How is it working with the government on these projects?
Some people get in there and they’re positioning politically instead of being pragmatic for businesses. That always happens when you have to have the government step in and help people. But right now is the time the government should step in and help people. That’s what we have a government for. They didn’t step in quick enough, but that’s just my humble opinion. God bless the people who are sick right now.
Your chamber webinars are hosted on Zoom, is anyone able to join in?
People are from all over the country. Our California chamber really has a national presence, and it has for a long time. Not to diminish the work from other chambers, they do great work, too. We’re just trying to help anyone we can and we share information. If somebody’s been through something, they’ll reach out and give advice—and we’re open to it. And, it’s nice to be able to connect with people right now, we’re all sitting at our houses so it’s good to be human.
Where do people go to join these chamber meetings?
Go to our website aiccal.org, or follow me on Facebook, I post info on there. I’ve also been posting a lot of food these days. I’m not a cook, but right now I’m having to cook for myself and it’s kind of hilarious.
Getting back to some advice … Let’s say a business owner has some financial cushion, how should they be spending their time during the stay-at-home days?
If you're a business owner and have a little cushion, train yourself to do something new and be ready for what’s going to happen post-Covid. That’s what we’ve been working a lot on at the Chamber. We’re forecasting the opportunities that are going to be there after we get out of this shelter-in-place pandemic. We’re trying to help position everybody with education, technical support, technical training and finding out what the next opportunities are. Make sure you’re ready to go from the git-go.
Face masks, gloves and hand sanitizer are in demand, what would you say to someone looking to pivot in that direction?
There are some opportunities happening now to support the COVID fight. For instance, we just had a webinar on supply chain management: what can be sold to the government and what cannot. You have hundreds of people out there trying to sell masks and gloves and everything else. My thing is, that’s all fine, but if you’re really trying to sell those products and have no expertise in that business, it’s not going to be good. It’s not a commodity that can just be sold on a whim. You have to be sure they have the right supply chain handling, that they’re sterile, that they’ll actually work. You better know where they came from and if they were tested.
Also, what irks me is, I’ve heard people say, “Tribes don’t have to follow rules and regulations as strictly as hospitals,” or whatever. Well, we better! With the liability that you sell something to somebody on a reservation that’s not good, and they think it’s good, and then they expose people — that’s traumatic and negligent. If you’re an entrepreneur and want to pivot your business, that’s wonderful, but you have to learn about it and you better do it darn right—not just do it to make a couple bucks. I get that you need cash flow, because this money we’re losing right now will never be made back.