How One US City Empowered Small and Medium Businesses to Get Online
Tara Palacios knew she had to act fast. It was the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the world was stopped in its tracks. In her hometown of Arlington, Virginia (US)—as in the rest of the country—small businesses struggled.
Restaurants, shops, and other beloved pillars of the community with over 200,000 residents suddenly found themselves in dire straits. Catering to online prospects and customers had never been their focus, but now people weren’t visiting businesses in person. The digital world was all that was available.
Palacios, the director of BizLaunch, Arlington’s small business assistance network, had already been helping small businesses thrive for decades. But this was a unique situation. “We have got to get these legacy businesses online,” she recalls thinking, “How do we do this?”
The answer was ReLaunch, the small business grant program that Arlington Economic Development (AED) launched in 2021. Now, it’s ready to serve as a blueprint for other communities looking to bolster their own legacy businesses.
Equipping small businesses for a digital world
To date, ReLaunch equipped over 200 small businesses with crucial tools like business consultations, tech training, and other resources. This work is immensely helpful for both new entrepreneurs and legacy businesses, Palacios explains—especially those who need to elevate their online presence.
“[Before the pandemic] they always said to us … ‘Oh, no, we don’t need to be on the internet. That’s for my grandkids,’” Palacios says. “Then we started hearing, ‘Oh god, we have to be there. We have to compete.’”
Palacios noticed that many business owners were working with e-commerce platforms that charged exorbitant fees, leaving them without much to show for their digital marketing efforts. She came to realize that a truly collaborative approach to digital education was the right way to go.
“After all,” she adds, “this is more than a job for local business owners. It’s an enormous part of their lives.”
Growing business through specialized cloud consulting
Communities that prioritize its small businesses help themselves stay healthy in the long term. The way Palacios sees it, the “future of retail” means being highly discoverable online, but also maintaining brick-and-mortar presences for customers who want to shop in-person.
“I sincerely believe that a combination of those two things is what we’re headed for long-term,” she says. “I’m starting to see it very clearly now.”
Luckily, other communities can replicate Arlington’s innovative approach, using ReLaunch as a template for other economic development organizations looking to implement similar programs. Here’s how they did it:
First, participating businesses received an assessment by Revby, a coaching and consulting service. This helped participants understand the pillars of digital marketing and the importance of maintaining consistent messaging across platforms—a foundation that would guide them as they got into the details later.
Next was a consultation with AWS Partner Networking consultant, Nub8, which was chosen as the best tech partner for the AED project due to its experience in cloud-native development, tech support, security, search engine optimization (SEO), and its capabilities to connect with Spanish-speaking customers. From there, Nub8 took charge, helping each business with the initiatives that would help them, as Palacios puts it, “become dangerous as a business leader.”
For all its clients, Nub8 identified the services that would have the most impact on digital business operations. Those included:
- Amazon LightSail, Virtual Private Server (VPS) instances that allowed businesses to build and host their applications on the cloud
- Amazon Route 53, a Domain Name System (DNS) service that helped businesses register websites and monitor web app performance
- Cloudflare which can help address website security, performance, and reliability
The projects each business undertook, however, varied by needs and priorities. Some participants built new websites from scratch, while others modernized their e-commerce approach to better attract customers. Others focused on social media and other marketing techniques.
One notable success story is Island Jewelry, an Arlington-area small business that used to operate strictly as a kiosk in the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City. The company worked with Nub8 to create an e-commerce site for the business, which was a resounding success. A social media influencer even found the new website and shared it with their followers, boosting Island Jewelry’s sales and visibility significantly.
“Finding ReLaunch was like finding light at the end of the tunnel,” says owner Danitza Galindo.
Advice for communities ready to bring more businesses to the cloud
The ReLaunch program was originally funded by the The White House’s American Rescue Plan. But Arlington has found ReLaunch so advantageous that, in the absence of continued federal funding, it’s now being underwritten by Arlington County.
With this in mind, Palacios is deeply optimistic about the program’s potential for other communities.
“We need to spread this,” she says. “This is something that has an impact.”
For economic development organizations interested in starting a small business grant program of their own, Palacios has several pieces of wisdom to share. First is ReLaunch’s active, collaborative approach. “I really feel that there should be a piece of responsibility and technical assistance attached [to the program],” she says. She also stresses “flexibility, empathy, and compassion”—meeting the client where they are, no matter how much they need to learn or what challenges lie ahead.
For instance, she advises hiring a liaison who can check in with the agencies helping business owners, advocate for the business owners’ training needs, and relay concerns. Despite the extra logistics, she says it’s more than worth the effort.
“If you have something specific and targeted like this, it will make a difference,” Palacios says.
She also points out that investing in small businesses is beneficial to the community at large. “I know Arlington is not unique in this—most of our budget comes from business,” she says. “A lot of that funding we get goes back to older adults, children, at-risk youth—all this programming.” A healthy small business cohort helps the rest of its community thrive.
Finally, Palacios emphasizes that partnering with Amazon Web Services gives the ReLaunch program not only unparalleled tooling, but also unparalleled credibility—a combination that helps businesses shine and makes them feel cared for by their community.
“I feel like that’s the special sauce in all this,” Palacios says. “We want you to have the best.”
She and her team are also in “constant communication” with AWS about how the program is operating, allowing them to iterate and make improvements nimbly.
“So it’s not just us,” she says. “It’s that we have this amazing, beautiful group of people that are like-minded and wanting to do this work.”
AED was able to transform several of its local small businesses into smart businesses with help from cloud technology. This powerful public/private partnership between AED and its store owners helped create a powerful economic engine when it was needed most. Whether you’re part of an economic group or a small business owner yourself, there are a few ways to take action:
- Watch our 27-minute “fireside chat” with featuring leaders from AED, AWS, and Nub8 on the Connected Community.
- If you want to explore ways to digitize your SMB, you can contact us to speak with a cloud expert.
- Want to hear more about the Arlington story and roll out? Reach out to Tara Palacios on LinkedIn.