Penny Gage

STARTUP WEEK 2020: Digital Skills Workshop Series will help local businesses reach customers online in COVID-19 era and beyond

Editor’s note: The Techstars Alaska Startup Week op-ed series features entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial ecosystem builders sharing their thoughts and ideas on a variety of  topics related to startups and innovation. Techstars Alaska Startup Week is a week-long series of events hosted by entrepreneurs and business leaders from across the state. In 2020, all events are virtual, and you can find them here: Startup Week Schedule. All are welcome, please join us! Take a moment and think about how the amount of time and money you spend online has shifted in the last nine months. Though many of us were regularly checking smartphones and streaming TV shows prior to the pandemic, the average time spent online has risen by an hour per day in 2020, up to 3.15 hours according to eMarketer.  And when it comes to online spending, a recent global Salesforce study shows that 58 percent of consumers plan to do more shopping online after the pandemic than they did before it. For Alaska businesses, these shifts — already in progress before the pandemic — mean that they can’t only rely on in-person sales to drive revenue. It also means that there is opportunity for local businesses to connect with an online audience that is much bigger than ever before.  We are both frequent presenters on topics of digital skills and have heard repeatedly from local business owners that they are excited, but unsure where to begin when ramping up their online presence, in need of training, and looking for inspiration - even more so in the current pandemic.  To help entrepreneurs grow these crucial skills, we’ve partnered with several entrepreneurship support organizations — the Anchorage Community Land Trust, Spruce Root in Southeast Alaska, and the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development — to host a Digital Skills Workshop Series as part of Techstars Alaska Startup Week 2020.  Startup Week kicks off today and runs through Nov. 22. Over the course of the week, the Digital Skills Workshop Series’ 12 webinars will focus on key skills needed to reach customers and grow business online in the COVID-19 era and beyond.  Many workshop speakers are professionals who are adapting, pivoting, and using digital skills to drive business. You will hear directly from business owners like Brandon Howard of Amalga Distillery in Juneau. He and his co-owner and wife Maura Selenak saw COVID-19 outbreaks on cruise ships in early 2020 and knew it would soon impact Alaska and their business specifically, which is heavily reliant on cruise visitors.  Then, anticipating that the closures of bars and restaurants they were seeing in Europe would soon be happening in Alaska, they began to prepare to shut down onsite services and to open a new online store so that Juneau residents could purchase Amalga’s gin, canned cocktails, whiskey, and other local products. While federal laws do not allow them to ship alcohol, customers could pick products up curbside or in Amalga Distillery’s tasting room, minimizing exposure time. “This is how it’s going to be,” Howard recalls saying to himself in the spring, “let’s start building a website now.”  They worked with Big Cartel, an e-commerce platform, to set up a site that fit their needs. Amalga’s customers were already primed for online ordering; it’s a normal part of life for remote Southeast Alaska communities and an online shop was more convenient for customers; - many of Amalga’s products sell out quickly and are only sporadically available.  The website allowed customers to know what was in stock and when special releases would become available. Once the e-commerce site went live, well-timed to coincide with the first rounds of business closures, it became the driver of 68 percent of overall sales. It also reshaped Amalga’s approach to special batch releases. Instead of long lines in-person, they announced clear instructions and release dates on their social media, opening the sales as an online first-come-first-served event.  A recent release of whiskey would have likely seen a large line gathering early in the morning hours before opening and wrapping around the block. Instead, at 9 am on a Sunday morning, 400 bottles of their inaugural release sold out in less than two minutes.  Customers were able to purchase while in the comfort of home, still in pajamas with a cup of coffee. And it was more efficient for Amalga staff to avoid managing the crowd. Howard says they’ll likely never go back to long lines and in person releases. Especially in the current pandemic, every Alaska entrepreneur should be thinking of their online presence as the “front door” to their business. It is important to ensure a positive online experience for your customers, whether they’re ordering your goods online, looking up your phone number, or trying to find photos of your products. But doing that certainly isn’t always easy.  It may be frustrating to try digital marketing if your website isn’t optimized for mobile devices. It can be confusing to transition to online sales if you don’t know how to select an e-commerce platform.  The Digital Skills Workshop Series seeks to address these challenges and more. The full list of workshops and speakers is below. Monday, November 16 at 10:00 am. “First Impressions Matter: Establishing and Managing Your Business’s Online Presence” with Melissa Moody Monday, November 16 at 12:00 pm. “Social Media Basics for Business Owners” with Inmaly Inthaly (Star Assist Virtual Assistant) Tuesday, November 17 at 12:00 pm. “Build Relationships With Your Customers Through Branding” with Zach Aregood (ARM Creative) Tuesday, November 17 at 2:00 pm. “Serving up Success: Advice for Alaska Food Entrepreneurs” with the Anchorage Community Land Trust Wednesday, November 18 at 10:30 am. “Using Data to Drive Business Growth and Make Better Business Decisions with Google Analytics” with Dave Meyer (Google-supported trainer) Wednesday, November 18 at 2:00 pm. “Alaska Entrepreneurs’ Experiences with E-Commerce” with Leah Wagner (Foundroot), Bobbie Ann Meszaros (Collective 49), and Marc Wheeler (Coppa) Wednesday, November 18 at 3:00 pm. “Office Hours: Drop by for an Audit of Your Business’s Online Presence” with Penny Gage and Melissa Moody Thursday, November 19 at 9:00 am. “Make Your Website Work For You” with Dave Meyer (Google-supported trainer) Thursday, November 19 at 12:00 pm. “Use YouTube to Grow Your Business” with Penny Gage Thursday, November 19 at 4:00 pm. “Office Hours: Drop by for an Audit of Your Business’s Online Presence” with Penny Gage and Melissa Moody Friday, November 20 at 10:00 am. “How to Amplify Your Awesome (and your bottom line) with Unique Selling Propositions” with Sarah Zerkel (online sales strategist) Friday, November 20 at 12:00 pm. “Alaska Entrepreneurs Navigating Global Change Online in 2020” with Brandon Howard (Amalga Distillery), Jovell Rennie (Akeela Collective), Lia Heifetz (Barnacle Foods), and Aspen Raney (Kuration Collective) Whether you own a business, are a ‘wanna-preneur,’ or represent a different type of organization, these workshops will help you understand how digital tools can help you transform challenges into successful business strategies. Take a look at the full calendar of events for Alaska Startup Week, including this series, at We look forward to seeing you there as we support each other in these unprecedented times, learn from one another, and celebrate success along the way. Penny Gage is a Google Indian Country Digital Trainer and works as an Economic Development Specialist at the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development in Anchorage. She is Tlingit from Sitka. Melissa Moody is an independent consultant who previously worked at Google in digital marketing strategy and user experience. She is an advisor for the Alaska Travel Industry Association Marketing Committee and the 49th State Angel Fund. She lives in Anchorage.
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