The Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) and its partners at the Pennsylvania Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) are committed to helping entrepreneurs bring their business ideas to fruition and thrive in today’s ever-changing business climate.

Recently, the University of Pittsburgh’s SBDC assisted Grecia Diaz with starting up SnackEVER, an eCommerce store that sells healthy snacks for a variety of different dietary needs.  We asked Brent G. Rondon, a senior management consultant for international trade at the University of Pittsburgh’s SBDC, to tell us more about his organization’s partnership with SnackEVER – and his tips for other entrepreneurs who are starting out on their own journey to business ownership.

What is SnackEVER?

SnackEVER is a small business owned by a woman named Grecia Diaz. Grecia is a Latina/Hispanic entrepreneur. I would say she is representative of the new type of entrepreneurs we see nowadays. She also qualifies as an immigrant entrepreneur, and she’s been in the states now for about 10 years.

SnackEVER offers a space for health-conscious customers who want that type of a snack. Grecia focused on vegan, keto, paleo, and organic-type snacks. She’s also very conscious about diet-specific snacks: lactose free, dairy free, and nut free options. In addition, she can customize snacks based on what the customer wants. This is a new type of company trying to target that health-conscious customer, who we see more and more in the younger generations and the more professional type of consumer.

How did the University of Pittsburgh SBDC become involved with SnackEVER?

I come from Latin America, from Peru, and I started thinking about how I went through a lot of this myself. I have a disposition for helping others and I thought, why not start helping those immigrant entrepreneurs? So, I started doing the Spanish-type consulting for startups and then I started getting more and more customers. That’s how we became in touch with Grecia.

Grecia and her husband and her daughter are newcomers in Pittsburgh, and they came to the SBDC. We provide a free quarterly webinar called “Open Your Business in Pittsburgh,” which translates to “Abra tu negocio en Pittsburgh,” where we gather different professional service providers – we have an accountant, a banker, an insurance company – all who speak Spanish. In that hour and a half- to two-hour webinar we also give the clients a nice overview of what it means to open a business.

After the webinar we can engage in consulting – the SBDCs offer 1-on-1 individualized, confidential consulting to every client. We started a consulting engagement with SnackEVER working on the business plan areas and the connective points with different service providers in town.

How has the University of Pittsburgh SBDC continued to support SnackEVER as it has grown?

The SBDC is a player in the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Pittsburgh, and because of myself doing this type of work I know lots of organizations and businesses in town. One way we are assisting is by trying to introduce Grecia to different agents and organizations that she can have around her. Many immigrant business owners have a great idea for a business, but once they open the business comes the real challenge: They lack the community networking type of help they need. One way that we help is trying to introduce her to different parties in that ecosystem so they know about her and they can choose to do business with her. We can assist with exposing the new business into the marketplace.

The same thing happens when they go and ask for accounting help or a loan or insurance or talking to an attorney – they say, “We are clients of the University of Pittsburgh SBDC and we have been attending their classes, and we are receiving consulting from them.” That opens a door because it’s a connecting point for the professionals. That’s the beauty of the SDBC system. We provide the beginning assistance, but we also try to be with them and keep contacting them and trying to introduce them to different parties as they grow their business.

What other services does the University of Pittsburg SBDC offer that would be useful to a startup company like SnackEVER while on their eCommerce journey?

For eCommerce, one service we provide is called Search Engine Optimization (SEO) analysis. We are a Center of Excellence in Digital Services that provides SEO analysis at no charge. SEO is an important part of eCommerce because it affects how easily potential customers can find a company’s website through outside sources, such as searching on Google. We connect the client with our SEO center, and they will perform an analysis of the client’s website, and then we have a meeting with the client where we go over all the parts of the SEO and make sure the client understands the report, and then what would be the steps to take to improve that website.

The other service we provide is called a social media audit. The same Center of Excellence in Digital Services provides a social media audit to see how the business is doing on different channels of social media. If the business is not present in some of them then we give a suggestion of signing up, or if they’re already on some of them we give some ideas for improvement.

Those two services are very key. In the case of SnackEVER, Grecia already did the SEO analysis, and we are now moving into the social media audit. There’s also a meeting scheduled to review the SEO analysis.

What tips do you have for a first-time entrepreneur who is in the initial stages of building their business?

The first thing we need to talk about is demand – is there a client for what you’re thinking to open the business for, is there a need? And, what problem are you solving when you open the business? We always try to tackle that part of supply and demand.

Then we start going into size. Who is your customer? This is a big question that’s not always easy to answer. We don’t want to hear “everyone.” We’re trying to determine market size. How big is this customer market you’re identifying?

For example, the client could be a person from Egypt saying, “I’d like to open a coffee shop serving Egyptian coffee.” We say, “Who will be that customer?” They say, “Egyptians.” So we go to the market size and say, “How many Egyptians do we have in Pittsburgh that drink coffee?” They say, “100.” Well, with 100 customers, a business is not sustainable. So, we’re looking at business sustainability.

Another part is the competitors. There’s always competition for whatever business the person wants to start. We need to be aware of that and recognize that.

We start talking about those details when we start developing the areas of a business plan. And then we start talking about the funding. We ask the client, “Just roughly, how much do you think you need?” They usually have no idea, or they throw out an amount and always it’s a lesser amount than what it takes to open a business. We go over these different areas and we talk about the operations of the business and the strategic plan and how they’re going to tackle this new customer persona they identified in the market. And then there’s the financial side.

So, it’s lots of steps that we go over, but they are necessary steps and businesses are better off when they go to talk to the professionals – attorneys, bankers, accountants, insurance companies – because now they know a little bit more about their idea and they can answer all the questions they are going to be asked.

What’s on the horizon for SnackEVER?

When businesses are working on identifying who their customers are, one type is B-to-C, business-to-consumer, and that’s who everyone thinks about first. But then you open the door for a different type of customer, which is B-to-B, business-to-business. That’s a more elaborate type of process, you need to think things through, but that’s really where the money is.

SnackEVER is working on moving from B-to-C to a little B-to-B. Grecia has one B-to-B customer, so one plan is expanding that area. The help that the SBDC is providing is supporting that new venture.

The other area is financing. We always call it “the Valley of Death” – once companies start growing, it’s great, then they get more demand and more orders. But then comes the problem – there’s no money to fulfill these orders and at the same time the banks want their payments. This is a reason why many businesses don’t make it past two years. Grecia is positioning herself in a way that the banks would like to do business with her and launch her to the next place.

On social media and eCommerce, the pandemic we’re living through has caused more action on -commerce. SnackEVER has a great website, and Grecia pays attention to detail. She’s perfectionist and she’s living for this business. It’s a family-owned business, and they all pitch in. What’s next is more eCommerce business. She’s already in that area, but we need to pay attention to the new opportunities she’s having.

Pennsylvania is considered by many to be the “Snack Food Capital of the World.” What is your favorite PA snack?

I personally like pretzels – always. When I asked the same question to Grecia, she also said pretzels.

Part of Grecia’s business plan is doing business with Pennsylvania suppliers. She pays attention to the Pennsylvania business environment and is doing business with smaller manufacturers. There’s one called Righteous Felon Craft Jerky in western Pennsylvania, and one called NuGo Nutrition in Oakmont that she works with. She likes to support small businesses and family owned, PA-based companies.

Interested in starting your own business, or looking for advice on your current business operation? Visit the PA Business One-Stop Shop to learn more about operating and growing a business in PA. Be sure to follow us on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn for even more resources to grow your eCommerce business presence.

Brent G. Rondon

Brent G. Rondon is the senior management consultant for the Small Business Development Center, Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence, Innovation Institute at the University of Pittsburgh, where he consults with export-import clients as well as with immigrant/international entrepreneurs/ foreign direct investors. He is also the Pennsylvania SBDC international trade lead coordinator. He is a Certified Global Business Professional (CGBP) from NASBITE International and is fluent in Spanish and intermediate Portuguese.