Is a Pandemic the Right Time to Start a Business? It Just Might Be - The New York Times

Is a Pandemic the Right Time to Start a Business? It Just Might Be - The New York Times

Is a Pandemic the Right Time to Start a Business? It Just Might Be - The New York Times

Posted: 24 May 2020 04:18 PM PDT

In March, as small businesses across the country were shutting down amid the spreading coronavirus pandemic, Shanel Fields was about to open one up.

For Ms. Fields, the timing couldn't have been better. Her company, MD Ally, allows 911 dispatchers and other responders to route nonemergency calls and patients to virtual doctors, to help local governments improve their emergency response systems.

"Something that a lot of people don't know is that more than half of calls that go to 911 are nonemergency," said Ms. Fields, whose father's experiences as a volunteer emergency medical worker sparked the idea. "Those nonemergency calls overcrowd E.R.s and delay ambulances."

But she also recognizes how crazy it sounds to start a business during an economic collapse. She knows that while she's hiring, many small businesses are worrying about whether they'll ever reopen.

She's not alone: New businesses are forming despite the pandemic, though at a significantly slower rate than before.

There have been more than 500,000 applications for an employer identification number since mid-March, according to the Census Bureau, although that is down nearly 20 percent from a year ago. Between mid-March and mid-April, the Small Business Administration issued nearly 300 start-up loans worth about $153 million, a 36 percent drop from year earlier. Stripe, the credit card processing firm, said it had handled more than $1 billion in sales for businesses that started on the platform during that time.

Past downturns produced some high-profile American companies: Airbnb, Disney, General Motors, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Slack, Uber and Venmo, to name a few.

"Downturns or challenging times are seen as good times to start a business for two reasons," said Rashmi Menon, entrepreneur in residence at the University of Michigan's Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies. "One is, there is less competition for resources. The second reason is that whatever changes we face, positive or negative, bring up new customer needs. And customer needs are at the core of any business."

For Ms. Fields, opening now meant greater access to top talent. She hired her fourth employee and said more than 200 qualified applicants had submitted résumés. And being in the health care sector during a pandemic has raised her profile with funders and governments: MD Ally, which is based in Philadelphia, recently signed its first customer and closed its first round of investment worth $1 million.

For others, the timing can mean low interest rates for borrowing start-up capital, cheaper equipment as businesses sell off inventory or lower lease rates as landlords scramble to fill empty spaces.

"I'm already seeing a huge uptick in requests for kitchen leases and subleases to be used for carryout kitchens or production spaces," said Jenn Smith, a commercial real estate agent in Detroit.

In the best of times, 20 percent of new businesses don't survive their first year, according to federal statistics; economic headwinds present greater challenges. A restaurant or bookstore opening on Main Street, however, faces very different risks from those of a new tech firm whose employees can work from home and whose customers don't need to gather.

"There are going to be industries that are winners, and others that are going to be losers," said David Brown, who co-founded the start-up accelerator Techstars during the 2008 recession. "I probably wouldn't want to be in a business right now that caters to business travelers, but I'd love to be in a business that helps enable telemedicine."

Determining what customers need now, rather than before the pandemic, is crucial. Ms. Menon and Mr. Brown see opportunity in offering solutions to the challenges that people now face: educating their children, working from home, managing supply chains, getting a haircut or the house cleaned, seeing doctors and therapists, entertaining themselves. Even new restaurants might be successful if they consider the future of customer service rather than recreate old systems.

"If you can find innovative ways for people to feed themselves right now, that might make sense," Ms. Menon said. "You just have to address a need."

Figuring out how to open the food hall of the future is the task facing Maarten Jacobs, the director of community prosperity at the Allyn Family Foundation, a regional philanthropic organization in Syracuse, N.Y.

Credit...Mustafa Hussain for The New York Times

That's not a role Mr. Jacobs expected, considering his background is in community and economic development. He is overseeing the foundation's investment in a new four-story, 80,000-square-foot building designed to be a community gathering space and incubator for the city's small food entrepreneurs. A mix of apartments and nonprofit offices is planned for the upper floors, but the heart of the project is Salt City Market, which will feature food stalls run by women and entrepreneurs of color, a coffee shop and a cooperative grocery store.

The project is scheduled to open in November, so Mr. Jacobs is focused on finding the safest way to open a 24,000-square-foot market even as the world is questioning when — and how — people will want to gather again.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 5, 2020

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation's job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, "start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid," says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. "When you haven't been exercising, you lose muscle mass." Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren't being told to stay at home, it's still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What's the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it's surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don't need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don't replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you've been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

"It keeps me up at night, that's for sure," Mr. Jacobs said.

He's looking at global trends on how restaurants are opening and the safety precautions being put in place to see what he might do in Syracuse this fall. He's considering foot-operated doors, mobile sanitation stations and a new furniture concept.

"In the past, we just wanted to make sure furniture looked cool; now it has to look cool and be built like a tank and stand up to robust cleaning," he said.

But his biggest worry is the entrepreneurs. He doesn't want to set them up for failure.

The foundation supported Salt City Market as a way to foster entrepreneurs who might not have the resources to open their own restaurant. It hosted a community competition to identify eight small food businesses for the market. The winners received months of technical training on everything from marketing to inventory management, as well as the promise of a commercial kitchen stall with all the equipment they need. Chefs are responsible for their own signage and small goods, like plates and napkins, as well as a start-up investment of $30,000.

"We wanted a loan that if everything goes sideways, they aren't crippled," Mr. Jacobs said.

But everything has gone sideways. So Mr. Jacobs wants to open in a way that ensures they can succeed. "We don't want to jeopardize them," he said.

So far, all eight chefs plan to move forward. But several face the hard choice of leaving their day jobs to pursue their dreams, which may have seemed romantic in normal times but is terrifying in a severe downturn.

Chef Ngoc Huynh said she was scared but still excited to open her Vietnamese kitchen in the market.

Credit...Mustafa Hussain for The New York Times

"I like to be optimistic and hope for the best," Ms. Huynh said.

She knows the challenges of restaurant life from watching her mother and aunt run a small food and catering business while working other full-time jobs. But Ms. Huynh is reassured by the fact that she's not doing this alone. She and the other chefs are receiving technical support from the foundation and collaborating on ways to open a restaurant in a socially distant world. The group is considering new menus and hiring delivery drivers to serve all the stalls.

"We're thinking about this together," Ms. Huynh said. "That's the beauty of it. We're all competitors, but there is a network of support."

You want to start a business now? Ms. Menon suggests you ask yourself these five questions first.

  • Have I identified a new need that customers have as a result of the current crisis?

  • Can I serve this need in a way that is substantially better than the current alternatives?

  • Am I qualified to solve this customer problem?

  • If I don't have the experience, can I hire others or find a co-founder to help me?

  • Do I have access to funding that can tide me over until my business is profitable?

The Atlanta Small Business Show on CBS46 and Peachtree TV: Episode 47 – [6.05.20] - Atlanta Small Business Network

Posted: 05 Jun 2020 07:00 AM PDT

On this week's episode of The Atlanta Small Business Show, we kick things off with reality star and philanthropist, Tanya Sam. Next up, we have a thought provoking chat on the importance of building relationships in the workplace with expert Shasta Nelson. Following Shasta, we welcome back author of the best selling book, The Crisis Turnaround and CEO of Atlanta based Dragon Army, Jeff Hilimire. We then speak with President of Motivation Works, Dan Thurmon, who tells us how to shatter self-imposed limitations and thrive in business. Last but not least, a preview of this past week's Atlanta Small Business Profile with Ted Jenkin where Ted interviews Derek Griffin, CEO of Speartek. You don't want to miss this one!

Want your business featured on The Atlanta Small Business Show? Tell us your story! And if you would like to advertise with ASBN, give us a call at 770-954-8609 or email us at

Tanya SamKeeping Up with Tanya Sam: Entrepreneur, Reality Star, and Philanthropist
In this segment of The Atlanta Small Business Show, we're so pleased to welcome Tanya Sam. Tanya is an Atlanta-based entrepreneur, philanthropist, Director of Partnerships at TechSquare Labs, Founder of The Ambition Fund, wife of tech tycoon Paul Judge, and possibly best known for her role on The Real Housewives of Atlanta. Watch Now

Shasta NelsonHow to Cultivate Healthy Work Relationships While Working From Home – Shasta Nelson, Relationship Expert
On this episode of The Atlanta Small Business Show, we're excited to welcome Shasta Nelson, a leading expert on friendship and healthy professional relationships. Shasta is also an acclaimed keynote speaker and author of Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness. Watch Now

Jeff HilimireIn the Face of a Crisis, Will Your Business Survive or Will it Thrive? – Jeff Hilimire, Author of The Crisis Turnaround
On this episode of The Atlanta Small Business Show we welcome back CEO and Co-Founder of Atlanta based Dragon Army and author of the newly released book, "The Crisis Turnaround: Lead through crisis and position your company for strength". Watch Now

Dan ThurmonHow to Shatter Self-Imposed Limitations and Thrive in Your Business – Dan Thurmon
In today's episode of The Atlanta Small Business Show, we're pleased to welcome president of Motivation Works, Inc., Dan Thurmon. Dan is also a renowned speaker, entrepreneur, acrobat, and the popular author of "Off Balance on Purpose: Embrace Uncertainty and Create a Life You Love." Dan has spent the last 25 years helping F500 organizations 'Lean In' to change. Dan works closely with clients to understand exactly what issues they are going through and customizes his content to deliver a transformational experience that leads to action. He has delivered thousands of presentations across six continents for business leaders, troops on the front lines and even royalty. Dan believes that we will never achieve "perfect balance" and should, instead, learn to embrace uncertainty and initiate positive changes that lead to growth. Watch Now

SpeartekThe Atlanta Small Business Profile – Derek Griffin, CEO of Speartek
On this week's episode of the Atlanta Small Business Profile, small business expert Ted Jenkin welcomes Derek Griffin, Chief Executive Officer of Speartek, a B2B platform that delivers e-commerce solutions for websites. In this episode, Ted and Derek discuss how to generate more traffic and conversion on your business's website. Watch Now

The Atlanta Small Business Network, from start-up to success, we are your go-to resource for small business news, information, resources.

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This has been a JBF Business Media production.

Trump signs revamp of small business aid into law but problems loom - POLITICO

Posted: 05 Jun 2020 09:54 AM PDT

"This bill will serve as a 'mid-course correction' by loosening restrictions on small businesses that are already facing enough challenges, and giving business owners the flexibility they need to make decisions that best fit their unique circumstances," Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said.

Trump signed the legislation at a White House event in which he lauded the Labor Department report earlier today that the unemployment rate unexpectedly dropped in May and the economy added more than 2 million jobs.

But the new law is by no means the last major change in store for the program, which has been subject to an evolving set of rules since the Small Business Administration and Treasury Department hurriedly launched it on April 3. There is growing pressure on Congress and the Trump administration to further revamp the program, including streamlining the process that businesses must go through in the coming weeks and months to convert the loans into grants.

Senators are already planning to address what they say are drafting errors in the bill Trump signed that could create unintended consequences.

A top concern for Senate Small Business Chair Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) is the way the bill, which originated in the House, would try to give businesses more flexibility to spend money on non-payroll expenses. It lowers the amount that must be spent on payroll to achieve loan forgiveness to 60 percent from 75 percent. But Rubio and Collins argue that the bill's language makes that 60 percent requirement a "cliff" in which businesses would lose partial loan forgiveness if they spent a substantial amount on payroll but fell short of the threshold.

The SBA and Treasury have not said publicly how they will interpret the language. Rubio said the administration made a commitment to addressing the bill's "inadvertent technical errors" but he added that Congress would need to pass a fix if the agencies didn't get it done. SBA and Treasury spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment on the commitments Rubio referenced.

Collins told reporters Thursday that staff was drafting a technical changes bill and she hoped to discuss it next week with Rubio as well as Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).

In a separate statement, Collins highlighted two priorities. She wants to "correct" the drafting of the 60 percent payroll requirement to allow businesses to receive partial forgiveness if they don't hit the threshold. She also wants to allow loans to be used for protective gear, plexiglass shields and renovations to meet CDC guidelines as businesses reopen.

And while the new flexibility might help jump-start flatlining demand for the program — $120 billion remains unused — some lenders believe that one of the changes in the bill might dissuade banks from offering the loans. That provision would give new borrowers at least five years to pay back the loans, a significant delay of the two-year deadline being enforced today. That would leave banks on the hook for a longer period with a low-interest loan on their books.

"I can't see banks extending a five-year, 1 percent loan," said Paul Merski, group executive vice president for congressional relations at the Independent Community Bankers of America. "It's too risky."

Lenders and consumer groups are also pressing to simplify the forgiveness process, which they say is too complicated and burdensome.

The community bank group is asking that all loans of $1 million or less be granted a "presumption of compliance" under the forgiveness rules. It also wants the administration to offer a loan forgiveness calculator and cut down necessary paperwork. Larger lenders, represented by the Bank Policy Institute and the Consumer Bankers Association, want lawmakers to automatically allow loans of $150,000 or less to be turned into grants.

"These small businesses and their employees are the backbone of our nation's economy and communities," the Bank Policy Institute and Consumer Bankers Association said. "Their time and resources would be better focused on getting the economy safely back up and running, not processing burdensome paperwork."

Lawmakers are also pushing for ways to make sure funds reach employers left on the sidelines of Covid-19 aid programs, including minority- and women-owned businesses.

Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Small Business Committee, and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) have proposed setting aside funds for the smallest firms and granting banks extra fees for serving areas in the most need of help. They introduced legislation Thursday with Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Jim Lankford (R-Okla.) that would let small business owners with criminal records apply for Paycheck Protection Program loans.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is pushing the administration to simplify the forgiveness process, according to a source close to the New York Democrat. He's also seeking to ensure that funding goes to lenders such as community development financial institutions and minority depository institutions to help get money to small businesses in communities of color. Schumer believes the administration has the authority to address the issues but if needed he would consider legislation, the source said.


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