As any entrepreneur might, Wendy Lilly had big dreams when she began her efforts to purchase a building in downtown St. Joseph to house the Unique Unicorn, her new business focused on houseplants.
“I was working with a realtor and then it was the next month, things kind of started stopping,” recalled the 38-year-old. “Then it reached a slam. People were closing.”
It was March 2020 and Lilly’s business plan, like millions of others around the planet, was suddenly cut adrift in a strange and frightening new world.
But the idea for the Unique Unicorn didn’t fade away. Instead, Lilly shifted gears. In fact, she found that demand for her products hadn’t waned at all. With so many stuck at home, people wanted houseplants.
“I did curbside,” she said. “I did anything that people wanted to make sure I was still staying in business.”
Lilly’s story isn’t unusual. In fact, a fair number of entrepreneurs have found themselves opening new startups despite the world groping its way through one of the biggest, most complex, least predictable economic environments in living memory.
“Especially within Gen Z, we’ve seen so many people start businesses during the pandemic,” said Camryn Okere, the 23-year-old founder and creative director of Rem and Company, a Missouri enterprise that began by offering free consulting to help businesses navigate the COVID crisis. “People have more time because they can’t get a job or because they just have free time in their day to be starting those businesses.”
Okere, a graduate of Washington University’s business school, started Rem as a mission-focused volunteer-fueled LLC in April of last year after seeing her favorite restaurant close because it couldn’t adapt to the rapidly changing conditions. She said that brands fare better today when they are well-versed in promoting themselves on social media such as Instagram, where high-quality photos and effective presentation of a product can earn online customers.
She also advises hiring folks who can weather the ups and downs of pandemic life.
“It is all about the team,” Okere said. “COVID has shown us that there are so many things that are up in the air but if you have people you can really trust, that’s a really good foundation — people who see the same vision you have.”
Of course finding any staff these days can present its own set of stumbling blocks. Tameka Stigers, owner of Black Beauty Supply in St. Louis’s Delmar Loop, said that, like a lot of business owners, she’s had to rely on friends and family to help at the new enterprise which just opened in February of this year.
Still, it hasn’t been all bad. There have even been advantages to getting a business off the ground now.
“Banks and the government are loaning money at lower interest rates so looking at the capital needed to start, it is cheaper right now to get the capital,” said Stigers who also owns a nearby salon and spa.
She also said that commercial real estate might be easier to rent or acquire.
“We took advantage of the fact that people weren’t jumping into spaces,” she said.
Still, it hasn’t been entirely pleasant either. Supply shortages can prove to be a headache when desired products are not in stock. Fortunately, Stigers said customers are understanding.
“If things like this were happening two or three years ago, it would definitely put a damper on the business but people are more accepting of it because they know it is kind of out of our control,” she said.
Some supply chain issues are more worrisome than others. At Teleo Coffee in suburban Kirkwood, owner Olivia Oglesby was wondering if she’d even have a place for customers to sit down.
“Our deck furniture almost didn’t get in on time,” said Oglesby who began by selling her products at farmers markets in April of 2020 shortly after the lockdowns began. “It was pushed months back. I was like, we’re gonna have our grand opening and we’re not going to have furniture.”
The furniture did arrive and this month’s grand opening at the building she purchased earlier this year went well. While renovations went on to open the space, she’d been selling coffee out of a tent, something the municipal authorities gave a variance for because of the pandemic.
Oglesby, who said she received a PPP loan to help with salaries, noted that some of the biggest hurdles have been trying to navigate the challenges of social distancing. She recommends being respectful in trying to deal with sensitive, politicized issues like safety measures.
“The best advice I would give is to try and think of your guests and what they think because you could have a differing view from them in regard to COVID,” she said.
Regardless, it has been a good experience.
“I feel like I’ve seen a lot of people really rally around small businesses during the pandemic,” she said.
Brian Roash who co-founded Terror Tacos in St. Louis with his brother in March of this year, said that support has been overwhelming – at times, literally.
“People were just lining up to go out to eat,” said Roash, who initially planned that the business would start slow and build up over time. “That really stretched our capabilities because we, in a lot of ways, couldn’t keep up.”
They eventually set up dine-in operations within weeks rather than months.
“It happened way faster than what we anticipated,” he said. “We thought maybe late summer or early fall. It would take that long for us to have the time to ramp up and solidify our business but really we had to work a lot faster than that to be able to handle people coming in.”
Uncertainty may have been the toughest part of the equation.
“It was all trying to predict the future. That was the biggest challenge,” he said. “How quickly should we move? Should we jump right in and sign the lease on this place right away or should we give it another month? We’re negotiating lease terms and we’re trying to figure out what happens if we sign this lease and then the whole world shuts down for good for another six months?”
There was also an early August health scare when the vegan outlet chose to shut down for a time after finding a staffer had been exposed to COVID. But the company’s swift, professional response to keep customers safe garnered praiseworthy comments on the business’s Facebook page.
“We’ve tried to be very transparent with the public and I think they’ve appreciated that as well,” Roash said.
Back at the Unique Unicorn in St. Joseph, Lilly said keeping everyone safe is her most important hurdle.
“I think that’s the biggest worry,” she said. “What if somebody comes in and they get sick? If I get sick, I have to close and that’s my livelihood. But not only that, I don’t want people who don’t know they are sick spreading it to other people.”
She also reported the same supply chain issues as the restaurants as she dealt with inventory shortages of plants and soil, but she also noted there have been advantages as well including a better deal from her landlord who was happy to have a startup business in the area. She opened in her new space on a limited schedule in October.
She thinks the takeaway for business owners is to keep their options open.
“If you just look back a couple of years ago, a lot of places down here would have never delivered or done curbside,” she said. “I guess the biggest lesson is adapting. What do we do to adapt to keep our business going and still have that customer service availability?”
At The Blakk Co., a social club for men of color, Christina Williams, one of the organization’s cofounders with Tamela Ross, said that it has been a challenge at times to run a social institution in a time of social distancing but she’s upbeat about how things have gone.
“We had to figure out how to navigate through that,” she said. “We were able to do some things virtually last year and the beginning of this year.”
Created in October to empower and uplift men of color in the wake of George Floyd’s tragic killing, the Kansas City-based enterprise mostly held remote events until recently but is getting underway with in-person gatherings after finding a physical location in June.
Williams said that things have gone well at Blakk Co. and, like the other business owners interviewed for this story, she said she had no regrets about starting an initiative during the pandemic. It just takes proper timing, planning and intentionality keeping everyone safe while trying to meet a set of goals.
“Even in the midst of a global crisis, you can still launch your business,” she said. “There’s still a need for it. This is not our first world crisis and it won’t be the last, I’m sure.”
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