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Columbia Business Monthly

Small Businesses Bring Jobs, Not to Mention a Unique Flavor, to South Carolina

May 10, 2022 03:18PM ● By Donna Isbell Walker

Small businesses dominate the corporate landscape in South Carolina, and that’s a good thing.

Our state in 2020 had more than 431,000 small businesses, which are defined by the U.S. Small Business Administration as companies with fewer than 500 employees. That translates to 99.4 percent of all the businesses in South Carolina.

While the state’s economy depends on large manufacturing companies, South Carolina’s small businesses offer a rich palette of products and services that make the Palmetto State such a distinctive place to live and work.

From the innovative restaurants that line each city’s downtown, to the boutiques that help fashionistas achieve just the right look, to art galleries and public relations firms and car washes and construction companies – there’s seemingly no end to the types of businesses the state supports. And each one of those places has a unique story to tell.

The Good Business Summit, a conference for small businesses that took place in Charleston in February 2022, gave a platform to many of those companies, as leaders shared their origin stories and the secrets to their success, and encouraged other entrepreneurs to keep their dreams alive despite the setbacks of a pandemic-affected business climate.

“Business is more than a product you create,” Vikki Matsis told summit attendees. “We have the ability and the chance to make an impact.”

Matsis knows that firsthand; she is president and co-founder of Media Reform SC, which brought the commercial-free radio station Ohm Radio to Charleston in 2015.

A significant percentage of South Carolinians also understand the impact of small business. In 2020, there were 817,000 employees of small businesses in the state. That’s more than 43 percent of employees in South Carolina, the U.S. Small Business Administration reported.

The speakers at the Good Business Summit offered an interesting cross-section of South Carolina’s business community. 

Michael Shemtov, owner of The Butcher & Bee restaurant in Charleston, was a newly minted James Beard Award semifinalist when he appeared at the summit; he has since advanced to the finals for the prestigious national award. Winners will be announced in June.

Other speakers included Vernita Brown, co-founder of Natalist, a women’s health business; Jeff Plotner, founder of Brackish, which sells its turkey feather bow ties in upscale stores such as Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Ave.; and Mimi Striplin, owner of The Tiny Tassel clothing and jewelry store in Charleston. You can read more about Striplin’s journey in our Small Business Spotlight on page 34 of this magazine. 

The Covid-19 pandemic took a toll on every facet of society, and the economic downturn that accompanied it took down many small businesses. 

“Covid sped up the Great Resignation,” Alex Shi, vice president of Charleston Payroll, told the audience. “Employees are feeling undervalued. Businesses need to change how they do business.”

That isn’t unique to small businesses; large corporations have also struggled to retain employees. But a small business must navigate choppier waters than a company with deep pockets and lots of investors.

Lee Deas of Obviouslee, a marketing agency in Charleston, told the crowd that she has navigated some of the challenges by having a strict policy; she used a word that we can’t print, so we’ll just paraphrase and call it a no-jerk policy.

The no-jerk policy applies to both employees and clients, Deas said. 

She encouraged other business owners to “let go of fear” when trying new things with their companies. “It’s better to err on the side of, ‘What if this works?’”

South Carolina’s small business climate is similar to that of most other states, large and small, says Frank Knapp, president and CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce.

And South Carolina business owners face many of the same challenges as entrepreneurs in every other state, Knapp said.

“Most small businesses, no matter where they are, have the same problems,” Knapp said. “We’re really not different from small businesses in other states. Our rural and underserved communities struggle with the same problem with trying to grow. And small businesses in those areas struggle with financing, struggle with labor shortages.”

In his view, the pandemic disproportionately affected small businesses, primarily because they don’t have the kinds of financial reserves enjoyed by large companies, so even minor disruptions in business were more difficult to overcome.

In addition, large businesses have more resources for things like marketing and salaries, which may make recruiting new employees easier for those corporations. 

In terms of the labor shortage that has affected companies large and small, “the pandemic accelerated the existing problem,” Knapp said. “The labor problem was there before the pandemic; the pandemic really shone light on it and made it worse.”

Like other states, South Carolina suffers from “demographic stagnation,” meaning that the state isn’t producing the people that we need to fill open positions.

One reason that South Carolina has so many successful small businesses is that “it’s easy to start a business in this state. … It doesn’t take much,” Knapp said. 

Many municipalities don’t even require a business license for most types of businesses. In fact, he said, only nine counties in the state require a business license to get started.

The exceptions, of course, would be businesses that require approval from DHEC, he said. And there are also zoning laws in many municipalities, regulating where businesses can locate. 

“The regulations are there for protecting the health and safety of the public,” Knapp said, “and actually the regulations protect a healthy local economy.”

While Covid-19’s impact is undeniable, South Carolina’s small business community remains vibrant and unique and worthy of our support. 

After all, chances are that someone who works in a small business in the Palmetto State is your family member, neighbor, or friend.