By Cory Phare
Colorado is slowly reopening for business from COVID-19 closures under Gov. Jared Polis’ Safer at Home order. While the economic outlook remains uncertain, the state’s small businesses are pivoting to meet the demands of the new normal. Here’s how eight small businesses in the Metropolitan State University of Denver community reacted to the COVID-19 crisis and how they are moving forward.
As a serial entrepreneur, Luther has seen his enterprises affected in drastically different ways.
His legal technology company Law Father relies on providing courtroom media equipment rental and support staff, which has seen business ground to a standstill with in-person legal proceeding being suspended through the summer. Spinoff legal software company TrialLine has actually seen an uptick in business as more attorneys are working from home and seeking means to collaborate virtually, he said. Meanwhile, a third business in his portfolio, Queen Anne Pillow, had an initial drop in sales but then saw a dramatic rebound as consumers became focused more on household comforts.
“The first thing I did as the government was talking about PPP loans was to go out and secure a personal loan to have on hand,” the MSU Denver behavioral science graduate said. “I was hopeful the federal government would do something to help small businesses, but I didn’t want to find out the hard way otherwise.”
Luther did indeed secure some support from the governmental aid programs, a factor he attributes to working with Lakewood-based FirstBank instead of one of the larger institutional lenders.
In addition to working with smaller banks, community lenders or credit unions that more intimately know details of individuals and their companies, he recommends that small-business owners have all their materials ready to go as they launch into this next round of funding. Likewise, remember that there’s no queue from previous applications, he said, you’ll have to reapply and start from scratch. And don’t apply through multiple locations, since that will just slow down the process.
“If you’re just entering the workforce as an independent contractor, you’ve got to file for a business license for yourself, either as an LLC or sole proprietor. A lot of folks in those positions are hurting right now – without the protection and benefits that legal status affords, you might be locked out of these benefit programs.”
Small-business owners were already faced with overhead expenses such as commercial space, equipment and labor before they had to start scaling back their physical operations.
“Many are struggling to find that presence now, but it was also a reality before – which is why e-commerce is so important,” said Sandusky, a graduate of MSU Denver’s marketing program who with his wife, Julie (a hospitality alum), own Idea Chic, a small stationery and handmade-gift store in Glendale.
The couple started to see sales dip a week or two before the stay-at-home order; after things really went into shutdown, parts of the business declined by about 70%.
Fortunately, the business already operated lean and with a diverse-enough product line to be able to absorb such a hit. Shifting the focus to the online arena has also been critical. And as Sandusky noted in a recent LinkedIn post, it’s paying off: Pinterest engagement has increased to pre-COVID-19 levels, suggesting a return of consumers to product-based businesses. Historically, Pinterest traffic has also afforded him the ability to predict sales.
This combination of continued local support with a global reach may be the right formula to help small businesses such as Idea Chic press on.
“We started online with an analog product,” Sandusky said. “If we can ship a greeting card to the U.K. during a pandemic, you can do almost anything.”
Hanzlick, a 1996 graduate of MSU Denver with a degree in Business Management, was climbing the corporate-finance ladder when the 2008 Great Recession struck. Finding herself out of work and helping her family clean out her grandmother’s house, Hanzlick decided to use her severance check to buy a dump truck, launch Clutter Trucker and dedicate herself to becoming a voice for those suffering from hoarding disorder.
Now she faces another economic crisis, this time as the owner of a thriving small business.
“Although we’re considered an essential business, people aren’t spending money like before and our revenue has been cut in half,” she said.
In line with Clutter Trucker’s mission, the first thing Hanzlick did was cut costs – with people in mind. With cash flow critical, the business stopped auto pay for larger bills and withheld payroll and quarterly taxes in order to keep all employees on staff. As a result, the business stayed in line for SBA assistance and the team came together to tighten the business operation.
“There will always be opportunity to help more people if we are open and flexible,” Hanzlick said. “We’re in a new environment and we are not going back to the way things used to be. We are able to adapt as needed and trust that everything will work out as it should.”
Vieyra is answering a lot of questions right now.
“We’re a relationship-based industry – a lot of business happens over lunches or coffees that obviously aren’t happening,” said the founder of Denver Legal Marketing. “Folks are wondering, ‘Should we market right now, or does it come off as tone-deaf? What does business development look like?’”
The company, whose clients are all small law firms and solo practitioners, is relying on strategic maneuverability and was able to switch her operations fully online essentially overnight.
“My advice to (clients) is to plan for different scenarios – business as usual, continued quarantines and a potential recession – then look at how consumers respond.
“People will spend their money differently – including on legal services.”
The 2010 MSU Denver graduate in Chicana/o Studies and criminal justice also teaches a marketing-of-legal-services class in the University's College of Business that affords undergraduate students the ability to connect with professionals including judges, bar-association professionals and practicing lawyers.
When it came to choosing a lender to access the most recent round of PPP loans, Vieyra opted for an online platform instead of one of the larger legacy options. And though she runs a lean operation with minimal overhead, she sees the funds as a safeguard, especially as consultancy lacks reliable revenue streams by its operational nature, even in the good times.
“I’m watching my market and looking ahead, just like I’m telling my clients,” she said. “It’s critical to have a game plan in place for every possible situation you may face.”
When Moore purchased a kickboxing franchise on March 1, the longtime entrepreneur had a plan.
“We’d developed a whole marketing campaign to get us to where we needed to get to become profitable,” said the 1999 MSU Denver marketing graduate. “But 15 days in, I had to shut the whole thing down.”
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, Moore had to move quickly, switching to a virtual instruction environment. The operation now offers online workouts and instruction for patrons, with different tiers featuring equipment such as bags and gloves, one-on-one coaching and fitness challenges.
Shifting those deliverable product offerings has been critical for Moore, who missed the cutoff for the Small Business Administration and Paycheck Protection Program loans by two weeks with his March 1 purchase date of the business. Instead, he took out a personal loan.
While he had to cut employee hours, he has been able to keep all six of his employees.
“Having a strong staff in place was so important,” Moore said. "They already had a process in place, which meant I could focus on the business side and keep things afloat.”
For more than 50 years, business has been blooming for family-owned Longmont Florist – and all things considered, it’s been weathering the COVID-19 storm.
“We’re extremely lucky to already have the digital infrastructure in place,” said Golter, general manager and future owner of the floral shop that his parents currently run. “We’ve actually seen the delivery side growing – people want to show love to others they can’t physically see, and flowers are a great way to do that.”
That’s not to say everything is rosy. After the lockdown, sales dropped precipitously before the business adopted tactics such as contactless delivery and ramping up online marketing, including a social-media campaign to give flowers to community helpers.
A first-year graduate student in MSU Denver’s MBA program, Golter attributed the business’ success in securing a PPP loan to early filing with a local bank that the family already had a relationship with.
Cost-cutting measures included across-the-board pay cuts to support part-time employees. The business also rearranged workstations to safer distances, and enacted policies to keep interactions to a bare minimum.
“Through this whole thing, we’ve been people-focused,” he said. “Whether it’s employees or customers, they’ve been a big part of why we’ve been successful in the past – and everything we do to move forward is because of the relationships we’ve developed. Never sacrifice your people.”
As a seasonal business, Duran’s US Veterans Landscaping and Design is used to ebbs and flows in the business cycle. And now that the weather’s getting warmer, the company continues to generate revenue and gain clients, even in the midst of the pandemic.
“There hasn’t been too much of an impact – we’re really fortunate in that regard,” said the 2015 MSU Denver criminal-justice and criminology graduate.
Duran is also founder/CEO of another venture, HoneyCutz, a postworkout-supplement company launched after transitioning from active duty in the U.S. Navy to a reserve unit. The timing of the COVID-19 crisis also happened to correspond with his deployment to Washington, D.C., until September, a move that already saw him switching his focus to manufacturing.
The newly elected MSU Denver Alumni Board vice president said the ability to mobilize and change direction quickly is critical, as is making strong professional connections.
“Networking is often more valuable than money,” Duran said. “Staying connected is more important than ever, and I’m always available to help others.”
As the owner of fundraising event-management company AES Colorado, McClure is involved in all aspects of planning, training, execution and evaluation of her clients’ activities.
So what happens when everything shuts down from a global pandemic?
McClure and her team made the quick change to hosting virtual events with software-supported online bidding, along with livestream platforms to host live auctions and cash calls for donations. Additionally, their communication strategies have switched to focus on how they’re helping their nonprofit partners triage their fundraising goals as much as possible.
Ultimately, the advice she has for other small-business owners is to invest in the individual.
“Do what you can to take care of your people – your employees – by keeping them safe and healthy,” McClure said.
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