With nearly 100,000 small businesses permanently closed in the United States this year after rising COVID-19 cases, temporary closures, and sustained local restrictions, it's not an exaggeration to call 2020 a small business nightmare.
The individual and cumulative losses for small business owners as a whole couldn't possibly be overstated.
Without minimizing those losses, we also want to shed light on both the little and big wins nurtured by business owners pushing through the struggles of this year with hope for the future.
Because there is hope for many businesses.
According to recent survey results from LendingTree, the majority of small business owners are optimistic that they'll be able to get back to business as usual with time:
- Nearly one-third of businesses feel like they'll be back to normal before the end of the year.
- An additional 25 percent think they'll get there by the end of Q1 2021.
- Only 4 percent of business owners surveyed said they never expect operations to return to normal.
Read on for a snapshot of hopeful small business in America: 10 stories of perseverance through difficulty.
Mural and street art advertising company creates new programming to benefit communities
Muros is an art activation agency that partners with artists and organizations to create advertising campaigns and other visual experiences. This already-creative business has had to get even more creative in operational protocols and solutions to shifting client needs.
Co-founder Tricia Binder says the downwind impact of COVID-19 has impacted literally everything, from the way contracts are structured to operating hours to the company's suite of offerings, which now includes digital solutions.
In some cases, the company lost business altogether, including its sports clientele, but for other clients like retailers and real estate companies, they pivoted to become more flexible with what type of services they could offer. "It's been a constant learning curve that has stretched us and provided valuable experiences that will continue to shape our business," Binder explains.
The company's biggest win was in how downtime was utilized during shutdowns. Rather than pull back and downsize, Muros has hired additional employees this year and developed new programming to maximize its reach to clients and communities this year, including the following:
- #MakeWithMuros: A partnership with artists from around the world to create inspiring, artistic messages to fill people's social media feeds in March, which was at the height of the fear and uncertainty surrounding COVID-19.
- Murals for Medical Relief: A program designed to raise money for Chicago-based hospitals' COVID-19 relief funds through murals painted within the Illinois Medical District, a special artist-designed beer (MFMR), artist print sales of the mural designs, and a GoFundMe campaign. This allowed Muros to donate almost $20,000 to local hospitals.
- A new Sculpture Series: This collaborative product offering was spawned from client demand and artists' interest in taking their works to 3D.
Binder admits that it's difficult to plan for the new year because it's impossible to predict the impact of future obstacles, which are a safe bet. But she's cautiously optimistic:
"We're hopeful that with 2020 behind us, everyone will feel more confident in their ability to navigate uncertainty. Given this, we are planning to stay focused on what we can control and influence, stay nimble and flexible, and continue to do our best to operate without fear."
Marketing agency employees band closer together while physically apart
According to founder and president John Sickmeyer, the biggest challenge this year for Postali, a marketing agency for law firms, has been navigating finances after a huge hit to revenue. "Many of our clients experienced revenue losses over 50 percent and were not able to pay for their services with us on time," he explained.
In response, the company tore up its predetermined budget plan and worked closely with clients to find a way for them both to survive, even if that meant loosening up on the exact letter and dollar of what clients had agreed to pay.
"We are meeting clients where they need to be so they can navigate the financial storm," explained Sickmeyer. Postali has very tight relationships with its clientele, with an awareness of how many new clients their clients bring on and, in some cases, even monthly profit and loss awareness. "This relationship depth has allowed us to work closely with each client to get through this together."
The company also applied for both the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) and the EIDL (Economic Injury Disaster Loan). While the application process required an immense amount of planning, reporting, and learning the ins and outs of the requirements, the company's lender, Huntington National Bank in Columbus, Ohio, was able to meet their needs after waiting for the then-limited funding to come through the SBA (Small Business Administration).
The frequent changing of the PPP's rules and policies was a challenge, but ultimately the PPP funding helped ensure the continuity of payroll for Postali's team until clients could return to a normal status.
Through it all, Sickmeyer says the improved morale of Postali's team has been the biggest win. "Strangely enough," he reflects, "the coronavirus pandemic has brought us closer together, even though we are physically apart. The business couldn't have made it through the spring and summer without everyone banding together to make sure our clients and the business could get through these times."
And what of the future?
Sickmeyer is hopeful about Postali's outlook alongside eventual global recovery. "Even with the winter projections looking grim, we will certainly rise out of this dark time, and, as a people, be much stronger and much more appreciative for our health than ever before," he predicts. Like it was for nearly everyone else, 2020 was a major shock for the company, but the organization has settled into a new way of working remotely.
That doesn't mean team members aren't eager to reunite when it's safe, though: "On our team, it’s already been expressed that we'll be happier when we can get back together."
Events industry in crisis innovates and repurposes skills
Events company T3 Expo has been hit as hard as anyone, as almost every significant trade show and conference scheduled for the rest of 2020 was canceled, resulting in 90 percent of revenue lost. Prior to the pandemic, the company was providing custom exhibit design and production for companies like ebay, Amazon, and Salesforce and worked with big associations like Toy Fair in New York City.
CEO Chris Valentine laments how this particular downturn, for his company and for others, was not because of anything they did wrong in their respective industries. "I think that is what hurts the most," he says, "because we have had a successful business for 11 years that was thriving and growing."
Valentine explains that while other industries, such as hospitality, are at least functioning on a limited capacity and with various rules, the events industry has been completely shut down: "Our industry is not working at all and thousands of people are out of work, with lost wages, jobs, and revenue — from the union works to the companies that service the industry, like ours." A high percentage of workers servicing the industry are blue-collar workers and have been especially vulnerable this year, including truckers, carpenters, and painters.
T3 Expo has responded to the crisis by completely reinventing its business to drive revenue. The company has become a manufacturing business, meeting various COVID-related needs. Valentine explains, "Because we make events and create shows, we had the materials to build things like beds for the Javits Center during the spring for the makeshift hospital, desks for Boston public schools as there is a desk shortage, and PPE such as double-hooped bed tents and desk shields for schools."
For long-term survival, T3 Expo and other events-based companies need more federal help or the go-ahead to start working again. Continued waves of COVID-19 will continue to delay the opening of live events until the physical effects of the virus are able to be combatted.
And while the PPP has been a vital lifeline for the many small businesses in events, they still need a targeted, longer-term assistance program to help preserve millions of jobs to prevent a complete collapse by next year.
But Valentine is proud of his company for being resilient and figuring out a way to keep people employed and keep the company alive this year. "We are hopeful that we have learned to put our skills to work and continue to be innovative — to pivot our business in ways we didn’t know we could."
Physical therapist makes strides in telehealth and coaching services
Karen Litzy, PT, DPT, is a New York City-based physical therapy entrepreneur. So, in her words, "To say that I needed to make some very fast pivots when COVID hit is an understatement."
As a physical therapist, Litzy is used to providing hands-on care, but because of the restrictions in place in New York City, in-person care was not a possibility from mid-March until June. As a result, Litzy invested her time and money into a quality telehealth platform so she could serve clients virtually. And it wasn't just for existing client evaluations — she says she gained new clients as well.
And Litzy explains there was an unexpected positive side effect to adding a telehealth option: "I was also able to gain physical therapist licenses in several other states, allowing me to expand my telehealth capabilities outside of New York state."
Aside from patient care, Litzy is also a business coach for other physical therapists, another venture she was able to expand this year: during the downtime of the pandemic, she launched a new online course to coach physical therapists through opening their own physical therapy business.
She reflects, "If not for the time I had away from full-time patient care due to the lockdown restrictions, I am not sure if I would have been able to dedicate the time and resources to this online course." She hopes her business will continue to evolve and push her out of her comfort zone with the result of innovation and new partnerships.
That being said, concern for the future co-exists with hope.
As a health professional, it's not just the economic threats of COVID-19, but the physical ones, that worry Litzy with the approaching new year. "The disruption to daily life, the inability to visit loved ones, and the fear of acquiring the disease and passing it along to someone else are the things that keep me awake at night."
Brand new business looks forward to building a stronger customer base
Kyle Husband had just opened a branch of the payroll tax and HR company Payroll Vault in Buffalo, New York, when COVID-19 hit, so adding new customers has been the primary challenge of this year. Businesses were shutting down and the ones that started back up or stayed consistent approached changes cautiously.
"We realized very quickly that not many potential customers were eager to make a payroll switch during the pandemic," Husband explains. "So we shifted our approach from direct sales to a referral route, working to ensure that relationships were being developed."
The idea is that this approach will generate greater client onboards in the future, even if potential clients have been hesitant this year.
In a word, Husband describes 2020 as "brutal" for the family business. And he's definitely in good company.
But he's banking on light at the end of the tunnel. Many contacts have talked about taking up business with Payroll Vault come January 1. "I'm concerned for the future, but also excited," Husband says. "The hope is for a little bit of normalization — that things might balance a little bit and the economy starts to flow a little bit more smoothly. We’ve learned a lot during 2020, and the goal for 2021 is growth."
Hair salon embraces retail avenues, sanitation upgrades, and enhanced client communication
Denise Mackey-Natz, who owns Urban Style hair salon in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, has always sold hair products in the salon, but started offering curbside pickup during the salon closure in the spring. Additionally, when customers placed an order on AVEDA's website and noted they were her client, her salon received a percentage of the sale.
"While retail didn’t become too big of a part of my business during this time, we did have some days that profited particularly well," explains Mackey-Natz. "Of course, part of this situation has been redefining what I consider to be a successful day of sales. It’s important to stay positive with how business is doing."
Her positive outlook plus some financial assistance has helped carry the business through other various adjustments. Mackey-Natz was grateful to receive a PPP loan, which allowed her to put herself and her staff back on payroll, pay rent and utility bills, and help cover the cost of supplies needed for extra sanitation measures.
In the first five days of reopening, Urban Style had 39 appointments. Following local health guidelines limiting each stylist to 10 clients per day, the salon is taking every precaution it can, with stylists working in shifts so that no one works an entire day and taking only one appointment at a time for maximum physical distancing.
The business uses business management software Salon Iris to ensure enough time is marked out for each appointment, including time for cleaning, as well as to keep track of customer needs and contact information.
"Having that customer information available was very helpful for communicating reopening details and setting up appointments based on customers’ needs," Mackey-Natz explains. "We were able to text, call, and really talk with them, which was important because these customers miss us and want to hear our voices. Understandably, some clients aren't ready to come into a hair salon, but we hope to see them soon."
Medical device company stays proactive despite manufacturing delays
Psi Health Solutions, Inc. sells Psi Bands (pronounced "sigh bands"), a medical device for nausea relief due to morning sickness, motion sickness, anesthesia, and chemotherapy. Psi Bands are sold by online retailers like Amazon and brick and mortar retailers like Target.
As founder and CEO Romy Taormina recounts, the impact of COVID-19 on her business could not have been more direct: "When COVID hit, it did so first in China. We manufacture in China."
As a result, there were significant delays in manufacturing employees returning to work, and when they did, they did so at half capacity. And there were glaring delays and cost increases to ship product. "You couple that with lost sales due to U.S. retailers closing their brick and mortar locations, and now you have cash flow issues," Taormina explains, "which is why the timelines of the PPP and EIDL was a critical success factor for us."
Psi Health Solutions has been especially proactive in seeking out the resources needed to continue operations as well as other necessary budgeting and marketing steps. In addition to the PPP and EIDL, the company applied for and received numerous grants, including the State Trade and Export Promotion (STEP) Grant and the FedEx #SupportSmall Grant.
Some of the free services they have received are through the Trade U.S. Commercial Service which provided them with introductions to several international distributors. Psi Health Solutions is now in the process of vetting those distributors. "One finalized outcome is being established as a vendor on Tmall Alibaba in China and receiving our first PO [Purchase Order]," Taormina says.
The business consolidated and paid off debt to reduce interest payments and moved a key area of the business, fulfillment, to a different state to reduce overhead costs. Psi Health Solutions also shifted its marketing focus to reflect current events and trends, such as doing more online marketing versus in-store marketing and focusing more on morning sickness relief than motion sickness relief due to less travel.
Taormina says being quick to adapt is key for entrepreneurs and has been especially crucial this year amidst the obstacles. Of 2021, she says, "I am hopeful. There is much we do not have control over. However, where we do, we exert it." The company plans to continue to stay aware of risks and opportunities, ask for help when needed, and plan for the long-term while making adaptations where needed.
Photo and video digitization company fosters connection amongst families
EverPresent specializes in preserving family photos and videos, a cause that encourages positivity and connection with family members amidst the bleakness of the pandemic, according to owner Eric Niloff. "Our feedback has been amazing. We feel like our work has never been more important."
But while the service is all about reliving good times, nothing about this year has been easy.
EverPresent has physical store locations where customers can drop off slides, VHS tapes, scrapbooks, and the like in eight states in the Northeast, all of which needed to close temporarily. The company changed the layout of the corporate office, the shared equipment protocols, and the work schedules of employees to maintain social distancing. And it shifted to 100 percent mail-in, curbside, or home pickups.
"Our clients give us their irreplaceable photos and videos to digitize, and they don't want them out of sight for too long," Niloff explains. "Between the lockdown and slower operations, turnaround times have been frustrating. We're getting out of it now, but for months that was the biggest challenge."
But the struggle was worth it. Though operations became more laborious and, in some cases, expensive, sales combined with the PPP helped EverPresent to rebound enough financially to employ more people than there were before the pandemic, all while continuing do right by clients. By finding a way to stay open in the pandemic, clients could get a huge project off their to-do list and have a meaningful way to reconnect with loved ones.
Of this year as a whole, Niloff says he's more proud of his company's performance this year than any other. "I'm optimistic. We've learned a lot and we're a smarter company now," he says. "We know how to handle disruptions, and if Congress ever passes the second PPP, we may be able to actually invest in growth again and create 10–20 new jobs in Q1 2021."
Handmade clothing company increases sales and donations amidst fabric shortages
Wandering Child Co, a handmade clothing company for girls sizes newborn to 5T, donates meals to children in Kenya with every purchase made. So far this year, the pandemic hasn't stopped sales or the company's subsequent donations: they've already surpassed the number of meals donated in 2019.
According to owner Katyna Knapton, the company lost access to an array of fabrics previously used to make its products. "We had to work with what we could find available at the store, which wasn't much," she explains. "We've had to postpone multiple new releases because of the pandemic."
Wandering Child Co's biggest win was being selected as one of the 20 Black-owned businesses for the Small Business Spotlight on television networks QVC and HSN. This press was just one of the positives of an otherwise-difficult year. "I feel very blessed and grateful that we were able to stay open during a time like this," Knapton says.
And despite an unknown future, she's dreaming big. "I'm excited about new possibilities," she explains. "I'm looking forward to taking my business to the next level and crushing goals, especially with our meals program."
Business strategy firm prepares clients for a future of thriving, not just surviving
Elevate Diamond Strategy is a growth strategy development and execution firm specializing in new market entry, competitive intelligence, business expansion, and operational improvement. CEO and founder Michelle Diamond has worked with more than 50 companies in more than 25 industries in all stages from startup to Fortune 50 over the 15 years in business.
But 2020 overall has been a challenging year for Diamond's firm. Right before COVID hit, she was on the cusp of getting one of her largest and most lucrative interim executive contracts, only to have it disappear before it began.
Since then, Diamond has continued to remain open to filling immediate-need interim executive roles but understands that some companies are hesitant to hire someone full-time (even on an interim basis) in this uncertain financial climate. "To remain flexible, I've focused on shifting my practice more to advisory work, since CEOs, business owners, and other executives still have a lot of growth and operational questions they need answered," she says.
But things may be starting to turn around for the better. "Companies and business owners have gotten over the initial shock and are beginning to figure out how to operate in this 'new normal,'" Diamond explains. "The wise ones are focused on shoring up their fundamentals within their companies.
This is essential to not only surviving but also being in a position to thrive when things do finally turnaround and the world is COVID-free."