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What Recent Surveys Say At End Of 2021

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It feels a bit like Groundhog Day in the world of small businesses: higher prices, hiring difficulties, supply chain headaches. And unrelenting uncertainty over the trajectory of the national economy.

Here’s a look, via recent small business surveys, at how they’re doing as we head toward the end of 2021.

Overall Sentiment: On One Hand, On the Other

First, the good news. In its Q3 report, released in October, Yelp found that “the vast majority [85%] of businesses that experienced a temporary closure during the pandemic have reopened.” In the most recent Small Business Pulse Survey data from the Census Bureau (now in Phase 7, through the first week of December), 36% of respondents expect recovery to take longer than six months. That is the best reading since July and far better than a year ago, when nearly half of small businesses saw prolonged recovery.

This improvement in small business outlook may reflect the banner day that many experienced two days after Thanksgiving, on what’s become known as Small Business Saturday. An American Express survey said consumer spending at small businesses hit an all-time high of $23.3 billion this year. That was an 18% increase from 2020. Over half (58%) of respondent shoppers said they bought something from a small business online. That was just 43% in 2019.

Fortified optimism among small businesses is also reflected in new business openings, the total number of which is higher through the first three quarters of 2021 than during the same time period in 2019, according to Yelp. Increases have been seen especially among hotels, nightlife (dance clubs, comedy clubs, lounges), and beauty services.

Now the not so great news.

The Small Business CEO Confidence Index, tracked in the WSJ/Vistage survey, fell in November for the sixth straight month. Just 26% of respondents expect economic improvement within the next year, while 34% expect the economy to worsen. Similarly, the October Small Business Economic Trends report from the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) found a continuing slide in the share of small businesses expecting better business conditions within six months.

Few small businesses have enjoyed full recovery. In Alignable’s Road to Recovery November report, just 27% said they are at or above pre-Covid revenue levels. Respondents in the Pulse survey (with a much larger sample) report even worse experience. Just 19% have returned to their normal level of operations, a drop of three points from July.

Worryingly, one in eight small businesses in the Pulse survey say they “do not believe this business will return to its normal level of operations.” That sounds low, but it’s the highest share saying this in any phase of the survey. Alignable also highlighted what continues to be a disparate pace of recovery among small businesses: 85% of minority-owned businesses say have yet to fully recover, compared to 77% veteran-owned, 76% women-owned, 72% non-minority owned.

Capital? Maybe Later.

In Biz2Credit’s latest Small Business Lending Index, reporting results for November, loan approvals for small businesses rose across nearly all types of lenders from the previous month:

  • Alternative lenders: 25.8%
  • Institutional lenders: 24.8%
  • Credit unions: 20.6%
  • Small banks: 19.9%
  • Big banks: 14.2%

Each, with the exception of credit unions, was higher than a year earlier.

The challenge, it seems, is that not many small businesses are seeking fresh finance. In the NFIB report, nearly one-quarter (23%) of respondents said all their credit needs were met—and 63% reported no interest in a new loan. Those findings are in line with the Pulse survey, where just 14% of small businesses said they needed to obtain financial assistance or more capital. That share has been below one-fifth since mid-March.

Small businesses, according to these surveys, just don’t see the need for more capital or credit right now. That could be due to the dour expectations discussed above; or, it could be due two other headwinds facing small businesses.

Inflating Delays

The federal government reported last week that consumer prices rose last month at their fastest pace since 1982. This was no surprise to small businesses, who have been saying for weeks that they’re paying higher prices. Three-quarters of respondents in the Pulse survey say they face “moderate” or “large” increase in prices compared to pre-COVID. This is particularly true in construction, manufacturing, and accommodation/food service.

While many small businesses may have attempted to eat those higher prices in the hope that inflation would be “transitory,” more have begun to pass costs along to customers. The NFIB survey reported a seven-point increase—to a net 53 percent—in small businesses raising prices.

Nine out of 10 small businesses in the Alignable survey said they’re concerned about the negative impact of inflation, with one-third (34%) saying costs of supplies and inventory have risen by more than 25%!

Supply chain difficulties and delays continue to contribute to rising prices. Over half (55%) of respondents in the WSJ/Vistage survey cited challenges with domestic suppliers. The share isn’t quite that high in the Pulse survey (44%), but that’s close to the highest share going back to August 2020. Another 19% say they’re facing foreign supplier delays.

Back in January of this year, 12% of small business Pulse respondents said their biggest future need was to identify new supply chain options. That had nearly doubled, by the beginning of this month, to 22%.

Higher and Hire

Compounding their headaches—and contributing to higher prices—are the difficulties faced by small businesses in recruiting new employees. Here’s a rundown of survey findings on this front.

Alignable:

  • Two-thirds face hiring difficulties, with 43% saying it’s “significantly more difficult” to find new employees.

NFIB Small Business Economic Trends:

  • Net 44% reported raising compensation in a bid to hire new employees. That’s the highest level in the 48-year history of index.

NFIB Jobs Report, a separate survey run in November:

  • Labor quality was cited as the top problem by 29% of small businesses, the highest in the 48 years of the survey.
  • 48% said they had job openings they couldn’t fill; the historical average is 22%.
  • 56% said there were no or few qualified applicants for their openings.

Census Pulse:

  • 32% said they had difficulties in the last week hiring paid employees. (That was actually the lowest level for this particular question.) But for the twelfth straight survey reading, identifying and hiring new employees was cited as the biggest future need.

Supporting Small Business Competitiveness

One more recent survey is worth calling attention to, as it relates to ways that small businesses are trying to attract and retain employees. A new working paper published last month by the National Bureau of Economic Research found, in a survey, that small business support for paid family leave (PFL) “increased significantly during COVID-19.” In particular, those small businesses that used a state PFL program (in this case, New York or New Jersey), demonstrated the greatest increase in support for PFL policies.

The authors take care to note limitations and areas for further research, but this is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First, expansion of paid leave is at the core of Washington policy disputes today, right on the heels of the pandemic and the demands it placed on workers who were sick or caring for sick family members. Second, the paper’s findings are contrary to the conventional wisdom that small businesses universally oppose paid leave policies.

Either way, this finding (however limited) demonstrates that small businesses might be thinking more creatively and expansively about how to navigate today’s challenges. Policymakers should be creative in seeking to support them.

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Rumors confirmed, Street Fighter 6 kicks off in June 2023

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Fighting Game fans are excited now that Capcom announced that Street Fighter 6 is coming to PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X/S and PC on June 2, 2023. The game was initially announced in February 2022, but that reveal did not include a specific release date beyond 2023.

The trailer at The Game Awards focused on new mini games and the international setting. In addition to the 18 previously announced fighter, the trailer also confirms that several new fighters — Dee Jay, Manon, Marisa and JP — that will join the game’s roster.

Notably, the June 2 release date for Street Fighter 6 may be a strategic choice for Capcom. June is the very beginning of Q3.

The last installment of the franchise — Street Fighter V — released nearly seven years ago so fans have been eager for another installment. A day before The Game Awards, the game’s June release date was leaked via the PlayStation Store.

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5 Things to Do Now to Propel Your Business in 2023

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Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Entrepreneurship is a daily leap of faith. In times of economic uncertainty, that leap may feel like a dive off a cliff. We are in one of those times. It likely will take months to fully re-adjust to the forces that have pummeled the world’s economy, and to entrepreneurs, months can feel like years.

With the right playbook, entrepreneurs can survive and thrive in whatever economic scenario. Here are five things you can do to propel your business ahead now and through the difficulties of business cycles for years to come.

1. Learn the lessons of more challenging times

A rocky economy presents a unique opportunity to make tough decisions about the business plan. Everything is open to reexamination. How has the market changed? Are your customers facing challenges that create new opportunities for your solutions? How do new conditions change your assumptions, and what actions do you need to take in response?

Critically evaluate your product roadmap. Is this the time to pivot or become more aggressive with your current plans? Prioritize the highest margin features that are achievable in the next twelve months. Push out projects that don’t make that list, and re-assign resources accordingly. Re-assess pricing. Even as inflation tiptoes back from the highest levels in forty years, raw material and transportation costs remain way up. What will impact your customers if you adjust the pricing or add surcharges to offset these costs, at least temporarily?

It’s been a rough year for hiring. Many companies took the talent they could get. If there are employees or gig workers who would fare better in a different job, now is the time to let them go. Make tough-minded corrections that will pay off overall — corrections that might be avoidable in less challenging times.

Related: How to Turn Inflation and Recession into Your Largest Business Opportunity

2. Tighten your grip on cash

Venture capitalists are pulling back. In the third quarter, Crunchbase reported that funding for startups in U.S. and Canada fell 50% year-over-year. Valuations are down across the board. If you are fortunate enough to be a later-stage startup that benefited from VC largess in 2021, make your last raise last longer than intended.

Keep your dry powder dry, and put off going for another round until the markets even out. Reemphasize the basics for early-stage companies with less market validation and greater distance between now and a potential exit. Delay all capital expenditures. Leverage the hybrid work model if possible, to reduce rent and other office expenses. Continue with Zoom or Google Meet. Now is not the time to rack up travel costs. Re-negotiate fees and terms with service providers. Seek credit terms with key suppliers, in a word, bootstrap.

3. Talk to customers, in person. Now.

How have the business needs of your customers — whether paying or beta — changed over the last 18 months? Are there benefits to your solution that have more recognized value now? Nearly every business, for example, from corporates to startups, has been forced to re-learn the lessons of supply chain management. Startups that can help their customers make better business decisions based on artificial intelligence (AI), reduce costs by improving inventory management or protect against out-of-stock scenarios by identifying and building relationships with new, more local sources of supply will have an edge.

Related: Finding Validation in Serving Customers

4. Non-dilutive capital

According to PitchBook, venture capitalists are showing greater interest in portfolio companies “whose satellite, robotics and software tools can do double duty” in military and commercial markets. International conflicts are one reason, of course.

Another is that the defense and military security industries are generally viewed as recession-proof. Our firm routinely encourages portfolio companies to consider non-dilutive funding from the Small Business Administration — grants to support cutting-edge technologies range from $150,000 to more than $1 million.

Navigating the application process isn’t for the faint of heart. A startup must be realistic about the work involved, but in many states, there are resources to help. Besides the funding, severe responses to agency requests for proposals are reviewed and evaluated by technologists. At a minimum, this can be terrific feedback and a great source of industry contacts.

5. Blue-chip cultures attract blue-chip talent

Company culture can be an asset or a liability. An inclusive, rich culture helps key hires say yes. Finding stakeholders that believe what you believe and are aligned with your team’s values significantly improves the odds that they will stick with you in good times or bad.

After months of “great resignation” fever, the over-heated demand for talent may be cooling off. Maybe offers aren’t as fast or grand as they were a year ago. Maybe Twitter won’t be the only advanced technology business to let people go. Regardless, the search for great talent isn’t a faucet that a young company turns off and on. A startup might modulate the timing or the number of hires but stand at the ready to recruit and filter for culture fit.

Related: 3 Ways to Stay Competitive in the War for Talent

With the right mindset and intentional approach, an entrepreneur can make 2023 a year to strive and thrive. As Yogi Berra, my favorite baseball player of all time, said, “Swing at the strikes.” In business, like baseball, the right swing can turn even the most challenging pitch into a hit.

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Akros Technologies, an AI-powered asset management platform, raises funding from Z Holdings • TechCrunch

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Artificial intelligence is taking over almost every industry. The investment and finance industry is no exception. In Deloitte’s 2019 report, the firm reveals that AI is transforming the financial ecosystem to reduce costs and make operations more efficient by providing automated insights and alternative data, analysis and risk management.

Technology such as AI has digitized the finance sector, ranging from payments and remittances to lending. However, asset management is still in the nascent stage of digitization, according to the chief strategy officer and co-founder of Akros Technologies, Jin Chung.

Akros Technologies wants to disrupt the current asset management industry via its AI-driven asset management software platform that mines market data for stocks. Akros just raised $2.3 million from Z Venture Capital, the corporate venture capital wholly owned by Z Holdings, which also owns the Japanese messaging app Line and internet portal Yahoo Japan.

Akros intends to strengthen strategic ties with Z Holdings via strategic investment, the startup said. The latest funding, which brings Akros’s total amount raised to $6.1 million since its 2021 inception, will help Akros to scale its software platform and asset management products and ramp up its users, including local and global financial institutions and fintech companies.

The outfit is already in discussions with potential partners to expand its AI-powered product called portfolio management as a service, or PMaaS, an all-in-one operating system for portfolio management. Chung explained to TechCrunch that PMaaS “enables B2B clients such as financial institutions, fintech startups and robot-advisors to launch their own exchange-traded funds (ETFs) without having to set up ETF teams and infrastructure.”

He added that it expects to secure more than five B2B clients in the first quarter of 2023.

The startup claims that its AI-powered portfolio management platform can reduce “the overall cost structure [of] the traditional fund development,” including management fees and unnecessary fees involved in the investment process, by more than 80%. The outfit aims to maximize the finance management performance of data-driven ETFs and offer a portfolio management solution via the PMaaS for Akros’s users to help them compete with global ETF institutions like Vanguard or JPMorgan.

In August, Contents Technologies launched Korean pop music, also known as K-pop, and Korea Entertainment ETF, on the NYSE Arca Exchange under the ticker KPOP, using Akros’s PMaaS solution to develop the ETFs. In addition, Akros listed an AI-driven target income ETF, called Akros Monthly Payout ETF (ticker: MPAY), on the NYSE in May with monthly distributions at an annualized target rate of 7%, according to the startup.

To build a slew of investment strategies that lower the cost of portfolio modeling and generate scores of investment portfolios, Akros applies a generative AI model based on a decision transformer, which predicts future actions through the sequencing model, Chung said, adding the company also employs GPT-3 natural language processing (NLP) to analyze unstructured language data.

Akros plans continuously to enhance its engineering technology by bolstering its business to disrupt the asset management market and attract new partners across the globe, including Japan, Singapore and the U.S., co-founder and chief executive officer Kyle Moon said in a statement.

Founded by CEO Moon, CSO Jin and chief marketing officer Justin Gim, Akros employs seven people.

Co-founders of Akros Technologies: (Left to right) Justin Gim, Kyle Moon and Jin Chung. Image Credits: Akros Technologies

Moon previously worked for Qraft Technologies as head of AI research and CSO and had experience listing four ETFs on NYSE. Before co-founding Akros, Gim had more than nine years of experience in the asset management industry; Chung did research work for Bayesian deep learning in autonomous driving cars at Oxford Robotics Institute.

In March, Akros raised $3.75 million in funding from PeopleFund, a South Korean peer-to-peer lending platform. The company declined to provide its valuation when asked.

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