How the SBA Helped My Small Business Survive Hurricane Maria
When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, my software company was devastated. Although our office is in a relatively undamaged part of San Juan, we were soon overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the disaster. Some of our team members had nowhere to stay, so they slept in our offices. Others could not make it to work over impassable roads and had to quit their jobs. Meanwhile, with 95% of our clients located in Puerto Rico and most of the island without power, our work for them came to a standstill. I wasn’t sure my company, founded in 2003, was going to make it.
What saved us was something I never would have predicted but has been top of mind for me as we mark Small Business Week: a series of free entrepreneurship courses I took in the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Emerging Leaders Program a few years before. One part of the training that stuck with me was how to expand outside of Puerto Rico. I learned how to get certified as a minority-owned business, so we could go after federal government projects.
I never got around to pursuing the idea, but after the hurricane struck in September 2017, I was out of options. So, in early 2017, we decided to focus on winning work with the federal government. We opened up a second office in Washington, D.C., so we could network with federal officials. Plus, being located on the East Coast was convenient for marketing to corporate clients in many major cities in the U.S.
We also decided to start marketing ourselves in English, something else the SBA program emphasized. That wasn’t absolutely necessary when the vast majority of our clients were based in Puerto Rico, but as we expanded beyond the island, marketing in Spanish alone did not work anymore. We began marketing ourselves to clients on the mainland as a global firm that can produce software for clients anywhere.
Our two-pronged strategy worked even better than we expected, and we have nearly doubled our revenue since then. At the same time, we almost doubled our workforce to 35 employees. Now I’m on the hunt for 10 more.
With Congress now postponing discussions on further disaster relief for Puerto Rico and President Trump opposing further aid, one thing that isn’t being discussed much is finding ways to help small and midsized businesses help themselves. My business would never have survived if I had not taken part in the SBA’s programs, yet relatively few entrepreneurs seem to know about them. Often, when I showed up for the classes, I was one of just a handful of business owners in the room.
As we move forward in restoring Puerto Rico’s economy, I hope the SBA will ramp up the programs it offers to entrepreneurs in Puerto Rico and publicize them more widely, so local business owners can insulate themselves from the realities of doing business from an island. This wasn’t the first devastating storm we’ve had, and it won’t be the last.
Many businesses in Puerto Rico are well positioned to serve a larger market, thanks to our highly educated labor force. With the right guidance and technical assistance, many more will be able to find a path forward that includes marketing on the mainland and beyond. I hope that when the discussions of disaster aid continue, the SBA’s programs I attended will get top priority. It’s time to help Puerto Rico’s small businesses to help themselves.