They’ve all done it: Four small business owners reflect on the year of the pandemic
Last March, in the few hectic weeks that made the world seem like the world was falling apart, MarketWatch interviewed four small business owners from all over the country. No one had a manual on how a global pandemic would play out, let alone the impact it would have on their own lives – but everyone had seen their business in turmoil before and were worried about what to expect.
Six months later, with the long dark winter looming, we re-registered. And this week, after a year, we decided to close the loop. With the increase in vaccinations and the upcoming outdoor dining season, our interviewees were optimistic.
“We see the light at the end of the tunnel, and for the first time in a long time, it’s not an oncoming train,” said Matt Bell, owner of The Shop in Seattle and Dallas.
All four have come through the past 12 months much better than expected, but only after course corrections they could never have imagined.
Was it luck or hard work? A combination, certainly. Our subjects embraced the chaos and found ways to adapt. They also know of many other homeowners who wish they had the chance to do the same job, but simply ran out of money, time, or good health.
“ We got little glimpses of, this is what it looked like ”
Hello Robin is a Seattle-based cookie chain with a cult following. After several years in business, traders Robin Wehl Martin and her husband Clay Martin were in the midst of an expansion to a second location when the coronavirus hit.
Shortly after speaking to MarketWatch last March, Robin was forced to temporarily close the original store, in the trendy – and hipster – neighborhood of Capitol Hill. “I was ready to give up,” she said in October.
Now, thinking back, she calls it a “roller coaster”.
“There were just days I thought it was so horrible. Then there were days like when the local pizzeria came and bought 20,000 cookies. It’s just day to day.
The Capitol Hill store reopened in early June and the Martins donated the proceeds from that first weekend to Black Lives Matter organizations in honor of June 19. It was a busy weekend, with people excited to get out, but later in the year smoke from the wildfires kept most of the Seattlites inside for several days – and day. Valentine’s Day, traditionally one of the busiest stores of the year, a blizzard has struck.
Additional expenses were also incurred, including changing construction plans for the new location, at University Village, an outdoor mall, to accommodate a take-out window.
The Martins tapped into their home equity, they said, and received a Paycheque Protection Program loan from Square, but I didn’t even have time to consider asking for the loan to be canceled.
“It’s pretty tragic for a lot of companies,” Clay said this month. “I don’t want to downplay the impact this has had on so many businesses, but overall there is a sense of optimism. I think there is going to be an explosion of business opportunities with good weather, more practical leadership at the federal level and vaccines.
What’s the biggest thing to remember from the past year? “I think from the start, as a business owner, I got the idea that you have to work really hard to get things done, but then you are at cruising altitude and then you can sit back and relax, ”Clay said. “But it’s never like that. Now I realize that there will always be things.
“It will result in a lot of good, both commercially and societally, because we have been forced to adapt,” said Robin.
“ Everyone feels like it’s a very different spring ”
In March 2020, when MarketWatch spoke with John Egan, co-founder of Warren, Vermont Mad River Distillers, the company produced hand sanitizer for the local community. Egan called it “as much of a community building exercise as anything else” when we arrived in October.
The effort did not last long and Mad River succeeded all summer at reduced capacity and with the help of a PPP loan, which was canceled, and a second later taken out to keep people on. payroll.
“We feel happy to have run the business in a fairly conservative manner,” Egan said this month. “It’s the best thing we’ve done, being able to keep everyone working.”
Egan knows he was lucky. “There are a lot of passionate people in the hospitality industry and a lot of people are doing everything they can to stay in business. We saw people selling their wine cellars, doing whatever they could to stay alive. There will be many businesses that either won’t reopen or will reopen under new management. “
The pandemic had a silver lining, Egan thinks. The discussion of supply chain issues and the renewed interest in the provenance of ingredients and materials over the past year will be a boon for local artisans, he believes. “Coming out of there, where things come from and what they’re made of will be important to people, which will help us.”
Another potential benefit: After twelve months of being stuck at home, in most cases drinking substandard alcohol, people seem to crave the luxury of having mixed drinks for them.
Another big change over the past year has been the ability to deliver alcohol, for which there was great demand, but required liberalization of rules and laws, Egan said. “I think it will be difficult to put this genius back in the bottle. I think it’s going to be good for the distillation industry and also good for the consumers. »He underlines the recent acquisition of an alcohol delivery service Drizly by Uber UBER,
as evidence of behavior change.
But above all, Egan’s main focus is on the impact on what he calls a “high-touch, in-person” industry. “Many workers have had a difficult time over the past year,” he said. “Last year’s unsung heroes are people in grocery stores, in restaurants. They had to show up and they did their job.
“ I trust politicians less because I don’t understand their motives and I don’t feel that they are based on facts and figures ”
Matt Bell was unique among our interviewees: he had started a successful business in Seattle and was expanding into Dallas when the pandemic hit. Construction stopped for months, but shipping didn’t, and the Seattle location wasn’t at full capacity for much of 2020. The company is called The shop, and it offers car enthusiasts a place to work on their vehicles and socialize.
Bell has been traveling back and forth between the two cities for months. His forked experience was troubling, he said.
“There’s a crazy amount of excitement and exuberance to what we’re doing in Dallas, and I can’t say if it’s market specific or if it’s just that Texans in general are less worried about. go out into the world. and seeing other people, while in Seattle there’s a lot of guilt and shame if you even want to go out and eat, ”Bell told MarketWatch. “There is a certain social pressure in Seattle that has really suffocated and scared people, and Texas is a bit of the opposite. I think somewhere in the middle is the right place to be.
The pandemic has taught business owners lessons, Bell said, “Our people have really stepped up. Sometimes when we were in a partial lockout, some people had two or three different jobs because we couldn’t afford to keep everyone. It is so important to retain, because we would not have been able to run the business without people being flexible and adapting to tasks that they were not used to. It has shown that we need to take care of our employees and make sure they feel valued.
But in the end, he found himself struck by the impact government leadership can have – as evidenced by the two different cities in which he divides his time.
While the dynamics are probably region-specific, he said, “I can’t say if our economy is in great shape or on the brink of disaster. So many people are suffering and many are doing well. I feel like it’s hard to say how to run my business. Am I investing to grow or am I withholding some savings because we might have tough times ahead? “
Bell received PPP money in both funding rounds, but was surprised to find that the reporting requirements for the loans had changed under the Biden administration, he said. “It’s completely difficult.” Still, he expects both loans to be largely canceled.
“We see regulars that we haven’t seen for months. It’s nice to be able to see those faces again ‘
Glassboro, based in NJ Ax and arrow mashing, which makes craft beers, had been open just a year when the pandemic hit, and “were just starting to hit our pace,” as co-owner Krystle Lockman told MarketWatch last March. In October, she admitted to being “definitely worried about the appearance of winter”.
Winter has proven to be “very slow,” she told MarketWatch this month: both because of the cold and fears about the virus. But, like our other interviewees, Ax and Arrow have been pivotal, selling their products regionally, rather than internally.
“We hired a salesperson, and he’s killing him,” Lockman said. “We have really increased our distribution footprint. In November 2019, we ordered a cannery which was delivered in March 2020, planning to get in and roll it slowly. We had to speed up much earlier and it was well received. I think it’s a blessing in disguise.
Lockman thinks the end is in sight. “People will continue to get vaccinated, confidence will continue to rise, and we will increase distribution and reopen the valve room which is our cash cow,” she said. “We are very optimistic.” A bonus: Ax and Arrow expects to have a nice party for its two-year anniversary, in April, after being closed for that one-year anniversary.
His takeaway? “It showed us a lot about who we are as a company. I really think from a business perspective you can only plan so much before you have to stay nimble and adapt. Even the best planning can have a complete key. We hit our forecast, just with a very different revenue mix. For us, it was a bit of luck and a lot of adaptability.