Opening a small business at any point in time holds plenty of challenges for getting open and staying open. Doing so in the midst of a global pandemic and stay-at-home orders takes those challenges, plus a host of new ones, to the extreme.
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Entrepreneurs that just happened to launch a new delivery or cleaning service, home fitness classes or landscaping businesses likely found themselves busier than they expected in their first year of operation. Others that weren’t so obviously well-positioned to fill a surging pandemic-related demand had to find new ways to adapt and creatively pivot.
Despite the challenges for existing and new businesses over the last year, ribbons have been cut and doors opened to an impressive number of new endeavors. According to Yelp’s Q1 Economic Average report published in April, more than a half-million new businesses opened between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021, down by only 11% year-over-year. And the first quarter of 2021 saw more than 146,000 new openings in the U.S. — the highest numbers over the last 12 months — with home services, restaurants and food businesses leading the pack.
GOBankingRates spoke with three of these new business owners about what it has been like to take the entrepreneurial leap during the pandemic and how they’ve taken on the challenges. Read on for their stories.
Martha’s Garden in Seattle
Shannon Rau is a former preschool teacher who lives in the urban core of Seattle and was looking for a spot where she could take her weiner dog, Martha, to play, especially during the long rainy months. There were no local indoor dog parks to be found, so she and her husband decided to open one.
“We also wanted it to be a business that we would enjoy,” Rau said. So they made it a bar, as well, offering drop-off doggie day care by day and adult beverages at night so that humans could hang out and have their own social time. They opened in April 2020.
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However, with offices emptying and workers staying home once the pandemic hit, a lot of pet owners didn’t need to drop their dogs off for the day. “We were a little worried because we’re downtown and a lot of the daycares were empty,” Rau said.
With a bit of a pivot in their focus, though, Martha’s Garden has been able to stay afloat. They have played up the value of their service as an enrichment program for dogs, with brain games, agility training and obstacle courses most people don’t have at home.
While many pets have certainly enjoyed the benefits of their new working-from-home owners, she says the lack of exposure to other animals and people has contributed to increased anxiety in some dogs. Having an opportunity to get out of the house to socialize is important for dogs, just as it is for humans.
“We’ve actually managed to fill up,” Rau said. And she’s happy to see that it’s not just four-legged clients — with vaccinations up and restrictions lifting, that includes humans sitting and staying at the bar, too.
Willa Ashe in Madison, North Carolina
In the small community of Madison — population 2,200 — pretty much the only local shopping options for clothing and goods were Walmart or buying online from Amazon. Kayleigh Sparks, a former medical assistant and stay-at-home mom, wanted to offer women in her community a different choice — a locally-owned boutique where they could pick up a special gift or treat themselves with a personal touch.
After years of dreaming and vision boarding, on Christmas 2019, Sparks’ husband handed her a plain manila envelope with her gift inside: a signed lease on a boutique space in a beautiful historic Madison building. “I really missed interacting with people. He had faith in me and said, ‘now you have to do it,'” Sparks said.
They refurbished the space and Sparks was looking forward to an elaborate grand opening party scheduled for March 21, 2020. “I’m an events kinda girl,” she said, “but by that time, with COVID getting more serious, I just didn’t feel right about having a big opening.” She canceled the party and opened quietly, hoping for foot traffic.
Sparks’ original vision for her boutique was to keep it “old school” — bricks and mortar, no online sales or even a website planned. She quickly realized that if she wanted to make it, though, that vision would have to change.
With no budget for an online presence, she figured out how to build a website herself using a free platform and took photos of her products with her phone. She said word of mouth and community support of her online store, offering curbside pickup and delivery helped her make it through the state-mandated shutdown of nonessential businesses “by the skin of our teeth.”
As life has inched back toward normal, Sparks is finally seeing glimmers of her original vision return. Online sales are still strong, but most of the business she does is through in-store purchases, as she’d hoped. “I’m so grateful to my customers. I do feel like there are a lot more people making the effort to shop small now,” she said.
Sparks figured that if she could make it through the last few months as a business, she could do anything. She and her husband decided to go all-in and purchased another historic building nearby, where they plan to move the boutique once their current lease is up.
On March 21, 2021, they celebrated Willa Ashe’s one-year anniversary and belated grand opening, hosting a party with food trucks, bakery treats and five llamas roaming the street outside. “We finally got the event we wanted,” Sparks said. “It was a year in the making, but it was worth the wait.”
Divya Drasti Dance in the Bay Area
Drasti Mody didn’t set out to start her own business during the pandemic — it just kind of happened.
“I didn’t really know what I was creating. It was just what I needed and I invited other people to do it with me,” Mody said.
A mother of two young children and a recent transplant to the Bay Area from New York, Mody had been working as a Barre 3 fitness instructor when the pandemic shut down the studio where she taught. She is also trained in Bharata Natyam, a form of Indian classical dance. She had been thinking about opening her own dance studio for several years, but it had always seemed intimidating, given challenges like finding the right physical location and now building a network in a new city.
As pandemic life descended, Mody began dancing at home with her children, who were 3 and 5 at the time. “It originally started as one piece I choreographed for myself to maintain some sanity,” she said. “A friend said I should workshop it, and I posted it on social media and there was a lot of interest.”
She began teaching online Mommy & Me classes introducing children to the art form and culture of Bharata Natyam, which is deeply rooted in Hindu prayer and mythology. Soon she expanded with an eight-week intensive course for adults plus a beginner series, and has had some 60 students go through her courses, joining online from all over the U.S.
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The circumstances of the pandemic and conducting classes via Zoom ended up opening unexpected doors for Divya Drasti Dance. “Honestly, it introduced a whole new level of flexibility,” Mody said. She has taught students who she says normally wouldn’t have been able to fit dance into their lives, but with the obstacles of location, commuting and finding child care removed, it’s easy.
“One of my students is in medical school; another just had a baby. These are times in your life when you’re typically very isolated, but we’ve created this sense of community and togetherness that we connect with offline, too,” she said. Her students don’t just get the physical health benefits, but practicing traditional dance can be culturally and spiritually nourishing, as well.
With restrictions lifting, Mody has been glad to be able to hold some of the children’s classes outdoors in person with COVID-19 safety precautions. Her adult online community, though, is here to stay. “I’m in awe of what’s come out of it,” she said. “I was able to fulfill my own need to have this outlet, and then go on to share it in a way that’s very authentic to me.”
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