Lisa Shimkat, state director of America’s Small Business Development Center - Iowa
Lisa Shimkat, state director of America’s Small Business Development Center - Iowa

Quality photography of a restaurant’s menu items, an artist’s crafted items or a storefront’s product range can boost the visibility of small businesses online. Yet Lisa Shimkat, state director of America’s Small Business Development Center - Iowa, heard multiple local entrepreneurs say they didn’t know the basics of marketing online. 


“We started running into people or businesses that said, ‘Well, I’m not really sure how to upload a photo, I’m not really sure how to take a good picture.’ We thought if that’s the only thing standing in their way, we need to remove that,” Shimkat said. 


SBDC Iowa already had one tool available at 15 regional offices: a portable photo studio box with a white, backlit interior that sits on a tabletop. The photography lightbox provides a professional backdrop for business owners to display their products on, using their personal cellphone or camera to take product photos. Using federal CARES Act funds, the office set a goal of delivering at least one photography box to 942 communities in Iowa through May, as well as to produce training videos and a marketing guide that small business owners can find online. 


“We have to look at what the consumers are using to get their information. They’re using social media to look at menus, look at food, and we need to make sure that we can get some good-looking photos out there to encourage more people to go to these businesses,” Shimkat said. 


The team connected with Iowa State University Extension offices, local chambers of commerce, the Iowa Economic Development Authority and other localized economic development organizations to reinforce a network of photography boxes across the state. Extension offices have also connected 4-H groups and other youth organizations to the studio boxes, so students learn how to market their own projects for competitions or a future business. 


Depending on the community, the photo boxes might be kept at a local library, the chamber of commerce office or a local community college. SBDC Iowa’s website has an interactive map of all photo box locations, so Iowans can find the nearest box and contact information.


“We are hand-delivering all of these. We wanted to make sure when we have that handoff that we showed the person receiving it how to use it, because they’re going to be the one that’s there the next day trying to show somebody else how to use it, how to upload photos from their phone,” Shimkat said. “That’s the basics, but if you teach somebody how to upload it, I think they start feeling more comfortable, more at ease. Then they’re willing to try some of these other marketing trends or things that we run … and really push the boundaries a bit when it comes to marketing their businesses.” 


This year, SBDC Iowa will prioritize assisting Iowans on expanding or developing alternative supply chains for their businesses, which caused major issues at the start of the pandemic in 2020, Shimkat said. As Iowa’s population ages up, SBDC Iowa is also assisting entrepreneurs in developing business transition plans for retirement. 


“If you lose a small business in a rural area, that’s also the same business that contributes to the women’s shelter, to United Way, to all these nonprofits that round out a community,” Shimkat said. 


“We like to tell people that nothing is ever permanent when it comes to business. Things are always changing, so you need to be ready,” she added.