How 3 Small-Business Owners Adapted During the Pandemic
Older entrepreneurs are finding ways to keep their businesses afloat
En español | How do you keep a walking-tour company going when tourists can no longer travel to your town? Or prepare a hotel for a pandemic? Or manage a company when all of your employees have to work remotely?
Owning a small business means finding solutions to unexpected challenges such as these. And with decades of life experience, professional skills and dedication, older entrepreneurs are well suited to the task. In fact, according to a study from Guidant Financial, 78 percent of businesses owned by mature entrepreneurs are profitable, besting the earnings of Generation X, millennial, and Generation Z small business and franchise owners.
AARP talked with three entrepreneurs to learn how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their operations. Their stories show that even in difficult circumstances, there are opportunities for growth and helpful resources for business owners.
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Midgi Moore: Her Tour Business Was Suspended, So She Decided to Go to Customers Instead
Midgi Moore, 56, had big plans for 2020. Her company, Juneau Food Tours, which conducts culinary walking tours in downtown Juneau, Alaska, was heading into its sixth season, and preseason bookings were 200 percent above last year's. She was just about to hire one of her dozen or so seasonal employees as a full-time operations manager to help her expand the company.
Then, in late January, she started hearing troubling reports of a virus overseas and possibly in the U.S. Suddenly, cruise lines were announcing COVID-19–related cancellations, and by mid-March she saw the writing on the wall: The upcoming tourist season would be a bust. On March 27, Gov. Mike Dunleavy confirmed that by issuing a stay-at-home order for nonessential employees and discouraging unnecessary travel.
"To be perfectly honest, I fell apart. I lost it,” she says about her reaction. “I could just see the whole domino effect on our economy.”
Her instincts were rooted in experience. Moore had worked for her city's convention and visitors bureau, Travel Juneau, and also had a popular food blog as well as her tour company. Widespread cruise cancellations and travel restrictions would be devastating to a city so dependent on tourism. Her husband's charter-boat company would also be affected. Then the requests for refunds began coming in, and she needed to find a way to help her business survive.
Despite her concern, Moore kept her engagement to speak on a panel of tour operators addressing COVID-19 crisis management. During the discussion she was reminded of an idea she had two years earlier, to create a “food tour in a box” as a fun way to give a cruise as a gift. Instead of just unveiling tickets or making an announcement, the gift giver could make the announcement with a box full of delicacies and gifts from Alaska — a literal taste of what was to come. The same concept could be adapted to be a subscription box.
"To be perfectly honest, I fell apart. I lost it. I could just see the whole domino effect on our economy."
Moore quickly shifted gears and created a plan to create four seasonal gift boxes that would include food, art, history and cultural items from all over Alaska, instead of just from the areas she typically tours in Juneau. “Our motto is, ‘If you can't come to us, we'll come to you,’ “ she says.
Working her longtime network of industry contacts, she reached out to food purveyors, artists, and other small businesses and tourism-related companies around the state. She curated a collection of authentic Alaska flavors that were shelf-stable enough to be shipped around the world. Her selections included a 6-ounce box of smoked salmon, a hot sauce made from kelp favored by Juneau locals, herbal tea and salted caramels. She also included a beautiful postcard book, recipe cards for authentic Alaskan cuisine, and travel guides to help recipients plan trips.
Shortly after she came up with the idea for the subscription box, a reporter from the Anchorage Daily News interviewed her for a story about the state's devastated tourism industry. Not one to wallow in grief over what was lost, Moore focused on her new endeavor. Within three weeks of the story's running, Moore sold 50 boxes at $74.99 each and $279.96 for an annual subscription of four seasonal boxes.
"What I'm finding most exciting is that Alaskans saw this article and they're buying them to help me,” she says. Others are buying the boxes to give as gifts to people who love Alaska or want to visit the state someday, she adds.
It will take a while for the boxes to pay the bills, let alone cover the refunds for the bookings she refunded for 2020. She applied for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL), but the program ran out of money before Congress passed the second phase of stimulus assistance. She filled out an application for a Paycheck Protection Program loan but had not received an answer as of late May. And though her city was offering a gap loan program, Moore decided not to take advantage of it because she wasn't sure she would be able to pay the money back within six months. So to cover the $25,000 she owed, she dipped into her retirement savings.
Moore admits that it's disappointing to see the company that had more than quadrupled its revenue in roughly six years take such a hit. But she is already making plans for the 2021 season, working with state tourism associations to develop safety protocols to protect her customers. And beyond restarting tours, she sees the subscription boxes as an opportunity to expand her revenue base.
"It's only been a month, but I'm feeling really confident that the boxes will meet or surpass the tours eventually,” she says. “I'm optimistic about next season."
Dede Gotthelf: Making Sure There's Room at the Inn
The Southampton Inn, in Southampton, New York, is the type of place where families come back year after year. Dede Gotthelf's consulting, development and brokerage company, Catcove Corp., purchased the inn in 1998, initially planning to flip the property. But Gotthelf fell in love with the five acres of manicured grounds and pictured herself escaping Manhattan and spending summers in the Hamptons with her children. So she decided to keep the establishment.
Gotthelf was visiting her son in Charlottesville, Virginia, in early March when she began hearing increasingly alarming reports about the coronavirus outbreak. She got into her car and drove nearly eight hours to get to the inn. “I realized this was a serious medical pandemic and we needed to take steps quickly,” she says.
Her first step was to donate 10 rooms to medical professionals who needed a place to stay as they worked to treat COVID-19 patients. Soon, the need grew, and she started renting more rooms at rates below cost. In all, health care and infrastructure workers occupied 61 rooms, and they kept extending their stays.
The next weeks unfolded with more challenges. Even before New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a stay-at-home order, cancellations had started coming in. Over a couple of weeks, the weddings, international guests and corporate events that made up 40 percent of her business disappeared. Then her regular customers started canceling, too. Summer was beginning to look bleak.
Even as Gotthelf tended to the needs of the health care workers around her, she was making preparations for the time when guests would return. She would keep one of the campus's six guest buildings reserved for emergency workers who needed housing, but the rest of the property was being prepared for summer visitors.
"Safety was the most important thing — safety of the staff, safety of the village and the people who live here, and a combination of the safety of our guests and offering them a compelling reason to be here with us,” Gotthelf says.
She purchased face masks from local vendors, emblazoned with the inn's logo. At check-in, each guest will get a beach bag with two masks and two pairs of gloves, as well as information about local businesses and attractions. Dining room tables have been placed 6 feet apart. And Claude's Restaurant, the fine-dining establishment on the property, has been transformed into Claude's Great American Picnic, serving gourmet takeout meals in colorful, washable picnic baskets.
To get through the uncertainty of the pandemic, Gotthelf applied for and received $460,500 from the Paycheck Protection Program. Most of the money will be used for salaries; so far, she has been able to keep all of the inn's employees on the payroll. Additional money from the PPP loan will be used for health insurance benefits, utilities and other qualified expenses, she says.
Her community is also a source of support. Some local businesses and organizations have formed a buying group to help them purchase items like hand sanitizer and disposable masks in bulk. They're supporting one another and trying to look out for one another's businesses as much as possible, Gotthelf says.
She draws strength, too, from her background. She was one of only 10 women in her graduating class at Williams College and worked for Chase Manhattan bank. “I love working on strategy and solving problems,” she says. Her years of experience and training in business and crisis management have served her well during this tough time.
Now all that's left to do is wait and see if the guests show up. She's hopeful that people who don't want to travel too far but want to get away will choose the inn. When they do, Gotthelf and her team will be ready.
Derrick Wilson: COVID-19 Gave Him a Remote Workforce — and It's Staying That Way
If you're a government agency or private-sector business that wants to run its warehouse or mailroom more efficiently or better manage functions like printing or energy, Derrick A. Wilson's phone number can come in handy. His company, Wilson Technologies, based in College Park, Maryland, is an outsourcing solution for everything from facilities to administration to lighting. Clients turn to him to run things, saving them time, money and resources that can be devoted elsewhere.
Since its 1997 launch the company has increased its annual revenue to $5 million and attracted an enviable client list, including household names such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Social Security Administration, the National Science Foundation, Six Flags America and Harley-Davidson.
Then, almost overnight, everything changed as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country hard. Roughly a dozen of Wilson's 15 employees work on-site at clients’ facilities. By the last week of March, many had been sent home to work remotely. By April 10, Wilson Technologies had closed its corporate offices because most staff members were working remotely or at client sites. Wilson, 47, lost nearly a fifth of his business during those weeks — a disruption he hadn't seen since the Great Recession.
"When COVID-19 hit, it was like a tornado to our business. It forced us to look for new ways to do business."
A fierce commitment to workers had been part of Wilson Technologies’ culture from the beginning. Employees have robust benefit packages, with typical offerings — including retirement plans and medical, dental and vision coverage — as well as rarer perks, like education and first-time home buyer assistance programs. Annual picnics, holiday luncheons and quarterly get-togethers provide opportunities for social interaction.
Employees also love summertime work-from-home Fridays, which started a few years ago. But, behind the scenes, this benefit promoted a bigger plan. Wilson had been downsizing his office space — from 3,000 square feet to 1,500 square feet in 2017 — as more employees went to work at client sites. Technology was making remote work easier. He was planning to transition to a fully remote workforce soon, but something kept holding him back.
"The fear from growing up tied to a desk,” he says. “The concept was there, but implementing it was fearful.”
The pandemic shutdown gave him the push he needed. He's negotiating with his landlord to end his lease, which was due to expire in August. The company will save more than $4,000 per month in rent and utilities.
Wilson struggled with the decision about whether to apply for economic assistance through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. But when he saw 20 percent of his business drop off so quickly, he decided to use all of the resources available to him. He applied for and received a Paycheck Protection Program loan for $100,000 in May. But relief comes with strings attached.
"You have two months to use it from the time it hits your bank account,” he says, so the pressure is on to spend the money. He's using as much as possible for payroll, but if he doesn't meet the loan requirements for forgiveness, the repayment term is two years, and monthly payments would be $5,600 to repay the full amount.
Wilson is also adjusting his management style and processes so that the overall business comes through the pandemic stronger. He finds himself doing more regular one-on-one staff meetings. The Tuesday-morning meeting is held by videoconference so employees can get face time with one another. Eventually, he plans to resume the team's get-togethers, perhaps going out to lunch once a month.
Wilson is also looking at how his company will take a leadership position as his employees go back to work at client sites. He expects to supply his staff with basics like face masks and disinfectant wipes, to keep their workstations clean. He'll also assist clients in making sure they're following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to keep employees safe — and ensure that workers know those guidelines, too.
"We could never really find time to implement the changes we wanted to make,” Wilson notes. “When COVID-19 hit, it was like a tornado to our business. It forced us to look for new ways to do business. And that's working.”