‘Covidpreneurs’ Forge Ahead With New Business Ventures Despite, Or Because Of, Pandemic

Glenn Jordan Portland Press Herald, Maine

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Glenn Jordan reports, the increase in business startups in 2020 is a national trend. So much so, that its participants have earned their own nickname, "covidpreneurs."

Portland

A week before the coronavirus pandemic hit Maine hard in March, the corporation that employed Jennifer DeChant decided to eliminate her position in government relations.

Actually, she was given a choice: She could keep her job on the condition that she relocate to upstate New York. She declined.

DeChant took stock of her situation and her options. All around her, restaurants and shops were closing. People were being furloughed or laid off. One of her two sons had a health scare.

All of it caused her to evaluate her priorities. She wanted to continue working, but closer to home. She wanted something that would involve her family and, as the former executive director of Bath's Chocolate Church Arts Center and a former Maine legislator, "something that works with my deep love and affection for the city of Bath."

Which is how, in late June, she found herself signing papers to take ownership of the Bath Sweet Shoppe on Centre Street.

"Opening a candy store in a pandemic is kind of a crazy idea," she said. "But the other part of this is that candy and chocolates are, for some of us, a coping mechanism."

Starting any kind of business in the midst of a pandemic is certainly not for the faint-hearted. Even so, more Mainers seem to be forging ahead despite the fragile state of the economy and the uncertainty surrounding the rapid spread of a virus that can be deadly.

New business applications are rising. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Maine entrepreneurs filed 3,132 applications for Employer Identification Numbers in the third quarter. That's an increase of 60 percent from the second quarter and, perhaps more tellingly, a jump of 42 percent over the same three-month stretch in 2019.

The number of limited liability company, or LLC, filings between mid-March and late October rose by 329 over the same period last year and 680 over the same period of 2018, to a total of 5,612, according to the Maine Secretary of State's Office.

The increase in business startups is a national trend, and its participants have even earned their own nickname: "covidpreneurs."

"Some conditions are very favorable," said Nancy Strojny, a 10-year volunteer with the Portland chapter of SCORE, a nonprofit organization that provides free and confidential business mentoring services. "If you have a good credit score and you have some collateral, banks are willing to put money in your hands. In addition, almost all the economic development engines in the state are offering grants or loans of up to $10,000."

PROFESSIONAL CROSSROADS Another factor, Strojny said, is that with some exceptions — hello, working parents — a lot of folks are finding themselves with more time on their hands. With that time, they're taking stock. Is their current job stable? Is it fulfilling? Do they aspire to something else?

Starting an online business doesn't require the same amount of funding necessary to get a brick-and-mortar business underway. Beyond the cost of forming an LLC ($175 with an annual renewal fee of $85), a website or even a Facebook page could get the ball rolling.

"There's very little overhead," Strojny said of an online operation. "If you can get some market traction and social media presence, you can pretty much start a business without any market capital."

Online sales are currently the focus of The Sweet Sea Co., a vegan cookie venture launched last month by Leigh Kellis, who founded and remains co-owner of The Holy Donut, now in its ninth year. A portion of Sweet Sea's profits are earmarked for Less Plastic Portland, an organization Kellis started to help reduce the amount of plastic in the ocean.

Plans for the cookie venture have been in the works since June 2019. Kellis, whose teenage daughter is a competitive surfer, packages her cookies in a clear wrapper that looks like plastic but actually is made of plant-based cellulose. At $9.95 for three cookies, the treats don't come cheap. They're also available at select local restaurants (El Rayo, Monte's Fine Foods) and markets (Lois' Natural, GoGo Refill).

"I'm trying to figure out how to get the costs down and give away more money to our mission," Kellis said. "Right now, it's a little out of balance." She recently rented space at 89 Market St. (formerly the Old Port Sandwich Shop) for her cookie venture. There will also be gifts, a piano and an art instillation. Because the pandemic has forced so many businesses to close, retail space is more abundant. Kellis said she's been able to negotiate better terms with potential landlords, including what would happen if the governor sees fit to issue another business shutdown due to rising coronavirus transmission rates.

"If in six months we can't have customers in the store at all and I can't pay rent, let's talk about that now," Kellis said. "It actually gives people the opportunity to start something now without a huge risk."

PANDEMIC OPPORTUNITIES Karen Rich of Malone Commercial Brokers said pandemic-induced turnover has created more opportunities for incoming businesses, "and in very good locations that you couldn't normally find," such as Portland's Old Port. Rich also pointed to low interest rates for people looking to buy a building and set up shop within it. The relocation to Maine by out-of-staters leaving urban areas with higher transmission rates is another factor. If they can't work remotely, they may look to buy a local business.

"If I'm looking to start a business and I want to be on the Portland peninsula, this is definitely the time to do that," Rich said. "I hate to sound too optimistic, because it is hard on some businesses now. Some businesses are going to be closing. But there's always someone coming in who's saying, 'I can do that. I can run my restaurant here. I can weather the storm.' "

Back in March and April, Aury Souvenir wondered whether his new business would even get off the ground, much less weather the storm. He launched GSD Home Improvement in February and had only one job lined up before the pandemic hit, and that job wasn't due to begin until July and would take only two days to complete.

"I wasn't sure I was going to make it," said Souvenir, a 25-year-old graduate of Deering High and the University of Southern Maine who is originally from Burundi. "It was difficult losing the two months."

By late spring, however, folks stuck at home were clamoring for Souvenir's services, which include exterior painting, general carpentry and landscaping. He had planned on using money earned in May to buy paint sprayers, two riding mowers and a larger trailer, but without any income that month, he instead wound up getting a $25,000 U.S. Small Business Administration loan from Coastal Enterprises Inc., or CEI, supported by the federal CARES Act.

Souvenir had begun working for a painting company when he was a college sophomore and eventually became an independent contractor. Had his venture fallen flat, he could have returned to that.

But GSD, which stands for Get Stuff Done, didn't fall flat. "In June, that's when a lot of people started calling me back," he said. "I did a bunch of estimates, lined up enough work, and in July we were able to get started and now we're still working."

Souvenir has one other employee on his payroll and half a dozen independent contractors. Eventually, he plans to expand to full-house renovations with the exception of roofing, foundation, electrical or plumbing work. His first-year goal was to reach $200,000 in revenue.

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