The ups and downs for these entrepreneurs in the pandemic

By Kerry Hannon, Next avenue

It’s time to dispel the myth that entrepreneurs (and employees) in their 40s and older are stuck in their ways and bewildered by technology.

These shibboleths are a far cry from the reality I found when I checked with a handful of the 20 entrepreneurs I interviewed for my 2019 book, “Never Too Old to Get Rich: An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Getting Started. a mid-life business “. (Full disclosure: Next Avenue is the co-editor, along with Wiley, as I’m a regular entrepreneurship blogger for the site.)

I’ll tell you about three of them who have embraced the technology and devised new strategies to pivot during the pandemic shortly.

But I should also note that when I researched the group of entrepreneurs I interviewed for my book, I found that some had sold their businesses, closed shop, or made the transition to a third act. However, these changes were often not due to the pandemic.

Get redeemed, move on

For example, in March 2020, Michael Lowe and his son-in-law John Uselton sold the Washington, DC distillery they launched in 2011: New Columbia Distillers, maker of Green Hat Gin and Straight Rye Whiskey. It was acquired by a major supplier of spirits, MGP Ingredients. Uselton then joined MGP Brands as regional sales manager and Lowe remained as an advisor.

Laura Tanner closed her jewelry business in Evanston, Ill. After 13 years, shortly after my book was published. The impulse: politics.

As she wrote to her clients: “As one of the founders and leaders of the popular band Indivisible Evanston, I plan to focus on this work and build on the encouraging momentum of Blue Wave 2018. Tanner said she wanted to make “a little difference” at a “very important moment in history.”

The three entrepreneurs who are still there told me about their sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes heavenly experiences of staying afloat in COVID-19, largely by passing or developing virtual platforms and storefronts.

For many small businesses across the country, of course, the pandemic has been devastating. As I wrote in April 2021, in the spring of 2020, at the height of the first wave of COVID-19, more than 20% of small businesses closed, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and AARP. Business closures were highest among owners 45 and over (one in four).

Although the total number of small businesses has recovered, the number of businesses now owned by people 45 and over is down 9%; in contrast, there was a drop of just 2% for businesses with owners under 45.

Refine the cookie and donut recipe

“It’s been tough,” said one of the entrepreneurs in my book, Bergen Giordani, co-founder with daughter Morgan Giordani Reamer of One Hot Cookie and, subsequently, of the OH Donut Company in Youngstown, Ohio. “We started with three [cookie] stores in 2020, we’re down to one. We have reduced our staff. We have refocused. We have redefined our priorities and we are moving forward. “

The duo were already in place to sell their delicious treats on their website (although this was not a major source of income).

“We were lucky in that regard,” Giordani said. “We closed the hatches. We had the groundwork and the systems in place.

After the pandemic hit, mother and daughter focused on selling cookie kits.

“Our cookies have fun toppings, so we deconstructed the cookie and wrapped it individually, so the kids could make their own cookies,” Giordani said. Within two hours of the product launch, they sold 40 of them.

Then they created kits for their donuts and offered home delivery to local customers.

“It has become our thing,” Giordani said. “Our donut brand was so new that it put us on the map and gave us extra visibility. People were sending these cookie and donut kits to family and friends. It was really cute to see, because people were looking for a way to connect. “

The concept of the kit also inspired women to improve their packaging.

“We spent last summer working with a plastics company to develop a bespoke box that will hold our special cookies and ship them without damaging them,” Giordani said. The investment: approximately $ 25,000 for the design of the box and the new packaging.

And the small business of two generations has grown into a business of three generations. Giordani’s father, who retired in 2019, returned from Texas to Youngstown and stepped in to help manage the new initiative.

“He really has this engineering and math brain,” Giordani said. “My dad agreed to get quotes from different vendors and help us through this packing process because it was new to us. Having him by our side allowed us to reduce that weight a bit. . It has been a great help. “

In May 2021, the couple transformed one of the closed One Hot Cookie stores near Youngstown State University into a new OH Donut store.

“We’re going to have a nice, slow summer building up our team and getting all of our processes in place, and when the university comes back in the fall we’ll be good to go,” Giordani said.

The women also run mobile units for things like graduation parties and weddings, with help from Giordani’s recently retired husband. “It’s peak season for that so we’re really working on these events now,” she said.

Driven by online sales and mobile unit sales, revenues are on the rise.

“We were disjointed, worked hard and survived,” said Giordani.

They also took advantage of the federal government’s Pandemic Paycheque Protection (P3) program for small business owners.

“We have secured first and second round PPP funding for a total of approximately one hundred thousand dollars,” said Giordani. In addition, they received a state grant of $ 10,000 and a county grant of $ 10,000. “It kept us afloat,” Giordani noted.

“I think if there’s anything we’ve learned it’s that everything can change in the blink of an eye,” said Giordani. “I feel like if we get through this, we can face anything.”

Nonprofit owner pivots

Carol Nash, founder of Bernadette’s House, a small non-profit organization for girls ages 8 to 17 at risk of teenage pregnancy, drug addiction or school failure, was not about to give up on her girls just because of the pandemic.

Bernadette’s House, based in Laurel, Maryland, offers early intervention and prevention services through an after-school mentoring program.

On March 16, 2020, Nash and his team shut down their physical doors due to COVID-19. “We immediately asked, ‘Okay, how can we continue to reach the children? Nash said. “We looked at the programs we had and took what we could online – from arts and crafts to Bible study.”

But she didn’t stop there.

Nash and her team created a live talk show, “House Talk for Teens,” to discuss topics they could bring up with the girls in person, such as life planning after high school and the benefits of have a mentor as you progress in your education.

There were 30 shows with an audience of up to 300 during the shutdown, but the series is now on hiatus. “We ran out of money,” Nash said.

The show costs $ 500 per month to produce. Nash hopes they can raise money to continue programming in the fall.

Meanwhile, a team of volunteers has multiplied the ways in which girls can connect with Maison de Bernadette on social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.

Nash was able to continue paying rent and bills of $ 2,400 per month with funds from a government disaster loan program (EIDL) of $ 10,000 and contributions from donors.

The Maison de Bernadette is scheduled to reopen in July with summer theater and theater workshops in collaboration with the Venus Theater. “These classes are designed to help build confidence,” Nash said.

Yet the future of the nonprofit remains unstable. “The past month has been a financial struggle,” Nash said.

She plans to return to the in-person programs in the fall and will continue to offer virtual Bible studies, homework help and mentoring.

“I think the way we do business has changed,” Nash said. “Our establishment can only accommodate twenty girls at a time, so this [new strategy] will help reach more girls in the future. The pandemic has really strained us to reach a lot more children. “

Streamline a sustainable business

For PulpWorks co-founder and CEO Paul Tasner, 75, the pandemic provided a moment of introspection on how to use technology to streamline the San Francisco-based company that designs and manufactures sustainable packaging for the consumer products industry.

“I focused on how to make this business more virtual and fluid and with less tedious paperwork,” Tasner said.

Tasner and her co-founder Elena Olivari have cut red tape by being more discerning about the projects they take on. They are now focusing on the bigger ones.

The pandemic, Tasner added, has meant that “you are left alone with yourself in front of the screen. My role is pretty much that of a traffic cop getting things done with our manufacturing and service partners. communication”.

These days, he said, he’s still working to keep traffic flowing and communicating. “It hasn’t changed that much. I still find myself sitting in front of the computer, but a little less,” he noted.

PulpWorks never missed a beat during the shutdown, according to Tasner. Sales have also increased, with revenues expected to exceed $ 1 million this year, up 20% from last year.

And Tasner is grateful that COVID-19 provided the opportunity to do some trimming at PulpWorks.

“I suffered a lot, and it might have something to do with age, to make the business easier on the administrative side,” Tasner said, “It was already virtual, but I made it super. virtual and more portable. I eliminated a lot of superfluous relationships and things that wasted my time. “

But Tasner has no plans to step down.

“I love what I do,” he said. “I’m very proud of it. It makes me smile. What could be better than that?”

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