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Lisa Norman of Buffalo is an artist who started teaching online art classes when the COVID pandemic forced her to cancel her in-person classes. She turned to the Wyoming Small Business Development Center for help improving her website, where she hosts her online classes. Photo courtesy of Lisa Norman

Lisa Norman had already reinvented herself once.

A ranch wife whose western and wildlife art and photography had helped supplement her family’s income, Norman suddenly found herself a widowed mother of two little girls when her husband was killed in a tragic horse accident on a ranch near Lusk.

“I really had to reinvent myself,” Norman said. “All of a sudden, I’m not a rancher’s wife, and I’m not living on the ranch anymore.”

Two years after the accident, she and her girls moved to Buffalo in 2013, where she worked to support her children by doing her art full time. From marketing and design work to photography and mural painting, Norman looked for ways to make a go of it. She also started teaching sip-and-paint classes at a local microbrewery.

And then COVID hit – and it was time to reinvent herself again. She could no longer count on taking photos of guests at a local guest ranch, her sip-and-paint classes were a no-go, art shows canceled and galleries shut down.

“One week, we’re all fine, and the next, we’re not,” Norman said. “All the things come to a screeching halt. People are pulling all their finances in, worried about how things are going."

That’s when Norman decided to reach into her bucket list and tackle something she had always wanted to do – teaching art online.

“I’m thinking everybody is home, and I’m missing an opportunity if I don’t jump on this,” Norman said.

She started by offering free 30-minute art classes on Facebook Live to see if people might be interested, and within a few weeks she had as many as 170 people watching each session. There were up to 2,000 follow-up views of the classes, too.

“I had comments from Kazakhstan, from New Zealand, from Paris – from places that I certainly have never been,” she said.

She then asked 25 people to be part of a four-week test class. The students paid a nominal fee, and in return for the low fee, Norman also asked them to give her feedback on how she taught the class and how she presented the content. Those students asked for a second session, so eight weeks later, she had gathered enough feedback to know what worked – and confirmation that there was enough interest in her style of teaching that she could make money to support her family.

Norman decided to put recorded classes online and traded web design work with a friend who needed book illustrations to get her webpage started. But she wanted to take it further. She reached out to the Wyoming Small Business Development Center and the Wyoming Women’s Business Center to see if they could help make her website work harder for her.

Norman had worked with Susan Jerke, a regional director with the SBDC before, and this time, Jerke told her about CARES Act funding that was available for small businesses affected by the pandemic. Norman utilized those funds to work with LUM Studio from Casper. They helped her take her website, artwithlisa.com, to the level of professionalism she hoped for and assisted her with search engine optimization.

“Lisa and I have worked together off and on for several years as she’s continually grown her art and marketing business,” Jerke wrote in an email. “She is incredibly creative, and her positive response and quick pivot in the face of the COVID downturn was no surprise. I’m happy she is able to improve her website presence with the assistance of the SBDC’s CARES Act funding. It will position her for greater success with a much larger audience. Moving to online platforms has been a way that many Wyoming businesses were able to survive, and even thrive, during the past year.”

In fact, regional SBDC directors like Jerke spent most of last year helping Wyoming clients just like Norman pivot to keep their businesses going during the pandemic.

From a high-end cabinetry and furniture business in Lander that switched from in-person initial client visits to meeting with prospective customers virtually, to Gillette’s Perfect Pawz Pet Spa, which found business was booming as more people were staying home more with their pets or simply getting new ones, the SBDC helped small businesses navigate the uncertain world of COVID-19.

“We grabbed the bull by the horns and started going,” said SBDC state director Jill Kline. “We immediately put up a COVID pandemic informational website.”

She said they encouraged clients to turn to that website for updated health orders, as well as facts about the programs that were starting to roll out to help small businesses make it through the pandemic.

“About this time last year, I think all of us were non-stop on the telephone with clients, trying to navigate disaster funding,” said Jim Drever, SBDC regional director for Albany and Carbon counties. He said they helped clients with programs like the Economic Injury Disaster Program, the Paycheck Protection Program and the State Relief Program through the Wyoming Business Council. He noted he and his colleagues spent many hours learning the ins and outs of the funding programs so they could be a good resource for their clients.

“Having us be the go-to people for figuring out these funding opportunities – what’s the pros, what’s the cons, the how-to – really impacted a lot of clients,” Drever said. “That was a critical issue – financing and keeping them afloat while they could do whatever pivots or course correction they were needing to do during COVID.”

They offered free webinars on things like switching to curbside pickup options, managing shipping fulfillment practices from online sales and making the most of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday. The SBDC also coached many businesses through improving their online presence to reach customers, even if they couldn’t be face to face.

Using CARES Act funds, the SBDC sponsored the eCommerce site shopwyoming.com. Kline said this free website is an easy-to-use platform businesses can use to market their products as they start their online sales journey. In order to help businesses have quality photos of their products to put online, the SBDC also purchased some photography equipment like lighting, light boxes and green screens for each regional office that their clients can utilize.

Knowing where to turn for help can be half the battle in the middle of a crisis, so the SBDC utilized CARES Act funding to create the Wyoming Business Resource Locator (wyomingbusinessresources.org) which is an online county-by-county list of resources and organizations available to assist business owners.

“We make it our business to know about the resources across the state, so if we can’t provide the service, we likely know who can,” Kline said.

Mike Lambert, program manager of the SBDC market research center, said the SBDC also spent last year helping businesses by offering hundreds of individually tailored reports on how to use the skills someone already had to find new avenues to keep their business open.

“We’ve had to get very creative with how to help these folks make reasonable decisions,” Lambert said. “That’s their livelihood and their employees’ livelihood. It’s something we just really take seriously.”

Kline said this included offering about $370,000 worth of website analyses through website development contractors around the state. Though funds for that program have currently been depleted, many small businesses utilized this assistance to make their websites better.

“The stipulations from the CARES Act money that we got were not just for recovery programs, but also to help businesses build resiliency,” said SBDC assistant state director Paul Johnson. “A lot of our online trainings have addressed ways that businesses can increase their skills moving forward to not only be resilient, but allow them to pivot in different directions. I think the intention was, this thing happened and other things may happen in the future. Let's prepare businesses to move and change operations if they need to and extend their own business ownership skills.”

Even though the pandemic year was a challenge for many small businesses in Wyoming, the SBDC still saw many of their clients find success.

“While the pandemic caught everybody off guard, and a number of those businesses that were forced to close were severely impacted last year, we don’t want to lose sight of the fact that there were a lot of businesses that actually did very, very well last year – in fact, had record years in some ways, outdoor recreation kinds of folks and others,” said Bruce Morse, regional director of Big Horn, Fremont, Hot Springs, Park and Washakie counties. “We talked to a number of people who were still interested in starting a business. That may have been partially because they were laid off because of the pandemic, they just had time or they had been thinking about this for a long time and now this sort of gave them a boost to actually do it.”

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