Helping Startups Thrive in Unparalleled Times

During a time of great uncertainty, one regional program is helping small businesses help themselves.

by Maeve RigNey, Startup GP
Helping startups thrive
John Hinnen, left, inventor of the Bandit Ball, with Andrew Ngui of Startup GP. Courtesy of Andrew Ngui

According to the International Monetary Fund, COVID-19 has caused the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression. Small businesses are struggling to survive, and many may not return. In Peoria, one organization walks alongside startups and small businesses as they journey to recovery, connecting them to resources as they reopen after the lockdown.

A regional program developed by the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council, Startup Greater Peoria helps small businesses reach more customers by better understanding how to serve their needs, forming trusted relationships, and brainstorming new ways to deliver value. Startup GP provides personalized business assistance to startup founders and business owners by meeting them where they’re at in their business journey.

“Our approach at Startup GP is to empower business owners to make better informed decisions,” shares Andrew Ngui, director of innovation and startups. “We do this by walking along this journey together with them so they can be well-equipped to handle the challenges of the startup process.”

Expanding During COVID-19
One of the businesses Andrew recently worked with is Bear’s Bites, a West Peoria-based dog treats company. Owner Samm Hutchison founded the company when she realized her dog Sarge was allergic to store-bought dog food and treats. Concerned for his wellbeing, she began feeding him an expensive special diet, but that did not work either. That is when Samm started freeze-drying organic bananas and sweet potatoes and feeding it to Sarge. 

Samantha Hutchison of Bear’s Bites with Bear
Samantha Hutchison of Bear’s Bites with Bear

It was miraculous—his allergic reactions diminished overnight, and Samm realized that diet was an influential factor in her dog’s overall health. She then started making treats for her friends’ dogs, and they loved it too. These experiments led her to start Bear’s Bites, which now sells her single-ingredient, all-natural dog treats across the country through a partnership with Camping World.

Early this year, Bear’s Bites was on track to scale. However, when COVID-19 hit, Samm had to pivot quickly as the stores that sold her product were unable to open for business, limiting customer access. She knew she needed to act immediately to stay afloat.

Bear’s Bites began offering a subscription of dog treats called the “Bite Box,” launching with boxes of different sizes. After the initial sales period, Samm and Andrew reviewed market demand and determined the medium-sized box was the best seller, containing the perfect amount of treats for single-dog families. They also worked together to include promotional items and surprises to further delight her loyal customers. The result was a new product that helped organically extend the reach of Bear’s Bites—even during the pandemic.

Market-Driven Experiments
Another business that managed to emerge well from the shutdown is Palarte Mexican Ice Cream. Located at Metro Centre in the heart of the city, Palarte offers sugar-free ice cream that is low-carb and keto-friendly, including unique, homemade flavors like avocado, blackberry queso, lavender, pine nut and Mexican hot chocolate. But because of their inconspicuous location, Palarte had a difficult time weathering the shutdown as many people were unaware they were still open for business. In April they announced on Facebook that they were about to shut down.

That’s when Doris Symonds, a community influencer, shared a post in response to Palarte’s announcement, encouraging the community to come together to support them. With a new influx of customers, the business was able to experiment with a new focus, reaching a market that consumes ice cream at home on a regular basis. Palarte soon refocused their promotions to sell homemade ice cream by the pint, creating a four-pint special offer that boosted sales and helped the business survive the pandemic.

Palarte Mexican Ice Cream
Palarte Mexican Ice Cream, courtesy of Andrew Ngui

Collaboration and Team Building
Besides helping businesses explore innovative opportunities, Andrew helps them build teams as well. John Hinnen, a vivacious grandfather, invented the Bandit Ball with one simple idea in mind: getting kids to go outside and play. In order to catalyze this mission, Andrew created a short video trailer inviting innovators to join his objective to get one million Bandit Balls into the hands of children around the world. After meeting with several interested parties, he and John identified a candidate who will be able to help them scale operations.

Startup Greater Peoria also collaborates with other organizations that serve entrepreneurs in the Greater Peoria region. Andrew is a co-organizer for 1 Million Cups Peoria, which hosts local events as part of a national initiative allowing new entrepreneurs and business owners to share their startup business stories, educate and engage with others in the community. He also serves as a mentor with SCORE, the nation’s largest network of volunteer and expert business mentors.

In reopening, startup founders and business owners will need to confirm if the customers they had before are still the customers they have today. Startup Greater Peoria is here to assist with a tailor-made approach that will help business owners get their businesses back on track. PM

Aspiring business owners and innovators exploring a future career opportunity in starting a business can contact Andrew Ngui at or call (309) 495-5910 during office hours.