For months, everyone has looked toward "the new normal," a time when life could get back to some semblance of stability. Whether we've reached that point or not is unclear, but many businesses have been forced to adapt in order to survive. For some, this means considering permanent closure, while for others it has offered opportunities for expansion.
In this installment of business.com's Small Business COVID-19 Diaries, we catch up with three entrepreneurs, each now in very different stages of recovery as the initial shock of the pandemic has waned.
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Edgar Comellas, owner of Aces Wild Casino Parties
The COVID-19 pandemic has been extremely difficult for businesses in the event industry, including Orlando-based Aces Wild Casino Parties. Owner Edgar Comellas said Q4 could very well determine whether Aces Wild Casino Parties exists in 2021.
"January 2021 is when I'm pulling the trigger on whatever closing the business means," Comellas said, "whether that's shifting to a new business, taking the brand and making it an online-only thing, or completely shutting it down and selling it."
That decision, Comellas said, depends on how his busiest months of the year – November and December – go. In the event industry, he said, the holidays are critical; if business doesn't pick up, it might cost too much to keep Aces Wild Casino Parties going indefinitely.
"If we don't see any revenue to pay the expenses of keeping the business alive while it's been closed … if we can't recoup that in December, then we can't keep it alive in 2021," Comellas said.
The monthly cost of keeping his business alive, even while dormant, is immense. It includes warehouse costs, vehicle upkeep and insurance, utility bills, and more. Comellas received an EIDL grant and a PPP loan earlier this year, but that money is long since spoken for.
"Right now would have been a slow time for business anyway, but seeing where we are on quotes and booked events … and also looking at the news and seeing how many businesses are closing down and how many people are being laid off … frivolous expenses like parties and hiring entertainment are the costs that get cut right away."
Early in the pandemic, Comellas shifted to virtual casino parties, which initially held promise for bringing in some revenue while in-person events were suspended. However, as time has dragged on, Comellas said interest in Zoom-based events has waned considerably.
"I am not hopeful; we've not seen traction with it," he said. "It's simply because of something we've all experienced: screen fatigue. At the beginning, people wanted to hang out, have some drinks. But now it's like, 'I don't want to stare at a screen anymore. I don't want to be on a webcam.'"
The challenges facing Aces Wild Casino Parties haven't stopped Comellas from focusing on other projects. He has launched a line of apparel for enthusiasts of Onewheel, a type of motorized, one-wheeled skateboard. The brand, FloatGang, is already live and focused on providing niche apparel designs that appeal to that community.
"For me, I saw there's a missing opportunity of an apparel line that's modern and targeted to people who use these things," Comellas said. "The barrier of entry is low, but the body of knowledge you need to know is high. That brand is already live and going, and I'm already pushing and getting [people interested]."
While he launches that brand, Comellas is also exploring video editing and production, a skill set he has developed in conjunction with his brother's digital marketing company. He shoots video footage using drones and serves as a photographer for other brands. Ultimately, whatever the future holds for Aces Wild Casino Parties, Comellas said he still has his entrepreneurial spirit and desire to try new things.
"People always say, 'If only I knew then what I know now,'" he said. "Now you know what's going to happen and what you want to do in the future – what you want to do when you've got nothing else to do. This forced me to do some meditation, this forced retirement; stop looking at it as a negative and use it as an opportunity to try and reinvent yourself, think of new ideas.
"You've got to see how the world has changed and how other businesses are trying to capitalize on it," Comellas added. "Learn from them."
Todd Spodek, owner of Spodek Law Group
While stories like Comellas' are common, other businesses are thriving through the pandemic. Todd Spodek, owner of New York City-based Spodek Law Group, spoke to business.com from Los Angeles, where he was overseeing the opening of a new office in Koreatown.
"Things are really good for us, to be honest," he said. "Everything worked out as planned. We're opening a new office in LA, and we already have two clients. Everything is good."
Spodek was one of the first entrepreneurs to receive a PPP loan during the first round of funding for the COVID-19 relief program. He also secured an EIDL grant and loan early in the process. That, along with cost-cutting measures and the development of goodwill programs for existing clients, positioned his law firm well for the duration of the crisis.
"All those measures basically opened up this opportunity for us to come out to LA," Spodek said. "Once things improved and we were stable, I thought there wouldn't be another chance to do this. I won't ever have three months off to appear virtually in court; office costs are low, marketing costs are low, and labor is widely available."
Spodek acknowledged that he is fortunate to be in the line of business he is in, because divorce and criminal proceedings rarely stop, regardless of economic circumstances.
"My industry is different," he said. "No matter what happens in the world, people are getting arrested and there are criminal cases. People get divorced. We were just in a good position."
Spodek was able to renegotiate office leases with his landlords, substantially lowering his second-highest monthly expense after labor costs. He also extended a stipend to his employees to pay for high-definition audio and video equipment, laptops that support increased video conferencing bandwidth, and aesthetically pleasing conference settings in their homes.
Spodek stressed that taking a different approach to business during the crisis helped the firm thrive.
"In the beginning, when this all first happened, I took the position that we're not making money and that's not our concern. Our concern is getting our name out there, doing pro bono work and helping first responders."
Now, Spodek said, the firm runs leaner and more efficiently than it did before the COVID-19 pandemic. Revenues have returned to normal levels, and Spodek is looking forward to better times.
"I don't know if it will be in three months, six months or nine months … but things will improve," he said. "As long as you secure your position, when it bounces back you will be in the best place to reap the benefits. But that encompasses a business plan that takes into consideration all these things."
Spodek gave this advice for small business owners still navigating the economic crunch of the COVID-19 pandemic: "Don't think about how you're going to monetize the situation today; think long term. You can do things that don't cost much money and do right by people, which will pay off down the line."
Kendra Eaton, owner of Sprinkled with Pink
Sprinkled with Pink had a rough start to the pandemic, struggling to secure a PPP loan before the first round of funding dried up. However, when Congress replenished the program, owner Kendra Eaton was able to secure funding and bring back her furloughed employees.
"In June, we got almost our full team back," she said. "We were able to financially stay as lean as possible and bring our employees back with safety precautions."
Now that Sprinkled with Pink is back to its full-scale operations, Eaton and the team are focusing on meaningful pivots in their collections of apparel and accessories, as well as their marketing efforts.
"We're not planning too far out," she said. "We had the Game Day collection coming out, but had to change that because Game Day is not exactly happening, or it's happening differently. So, it's a Game Day at Home collection now. We're continually reworking and staying close to our customers."
Sprinkled with Pink also launched a "virtual road trip" Instagram campaign to help its audience "travel" while being stuck in quarantine. Also, while the brand previously focused on consumer products – primarily for bachelorette parties and weddings – it has shifted its focus to business clients.
"We're working with a cafe in California, and we make 'adult Capri Suns,' party pouches for them," Eaton said. "They sell out every weekend. All their customers are tagging them on Instagram and doing different marketing for them. Helping other businesses be successful at this time through our products is important."
Financially, the business has largely recovered. While Eaton said the year will likely end with net revenue on par with 2019 – before the pandemic, they projected a 100% increase – monthly revenues have come back to typical levels.
"I think that our hard work at the beginning paid off," she said. "When the pandemic hit, we were looking at $40 per day in revenue compared to $1,500 per day. We turned it around and had our best month ever in June and our second-best month ever in July. We will still be negative for the year, but we're playing catch-up; net income doesn't look good, but it's a heck of a lot better than it was, and we'll definitely make it through."
Eaton said recognizing her team's flexibility and adaptability was key in surviving the initial shock of the pandemic. Now, the business is positioned to reach a wider audience moving forward.
"We're changing to a wider and different audience beyond bachelorette parties and weddings, which is nice," Eaton said. "When you have that downtime too, you can really strengthen your operations. We're doing everything in a more efficient way. Utilizing that time to focus on these things has made us stronger."
Of course, Eaton said, while there is so much work to be done, it's critical for small business owners to find time to relax and care for their own mental and emotional health.
"There's the importance of taking a break," she said. "Take time to yourself; make sure you're taking care of yourself as well as working your butt off. If you can't make time for yourself, then you can't take care of your employees."