A counterintuitive silver lining to the pandemic is developing: While droves of small businesses across the United States have been crushed by COVID-19 and its restrictions, others have been pushed to lift off.
There has been a surge in new business startups this year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By the week ending Dec. 5, the bureau reported, business applications were up 43.3% over the same period in 2019.
This uptick, however, is offset by the fact that about 28.8% of small businesses were closed for good as of mid-November, compared with the start of the year, based on data tracked by Opportunity Insights, a nonpartisan, not-for-profit research organization based at Harvard University.
“The truth is, no one knows what’s next because no one has seen anything like the current intersection of crises,” said Nathalie Molina Niño, author of “Leapfrog: The New Revolution for Women Entrepreneurs” and chief executive of O³, a privately held startup investment firm. “Entrepreneurs are delusionally optimistic, by design.”
A pandemic-related surge in interest: indoor plants. In August, Alexi and Brendan Coffey, started Steward, a virtual business based in New York City, to help people become successful plant growers.
“We had been working for the past two years or so, developing the technology for the app, building a team, testing, and the launch was scheduled for early spring,” said Brendan Coffey, 31. Before the pandemic, the couple had raised $500,000 from early-stage angel investors.
“We were blindsided, postponed the launch and rethought our plan,” said Alexi Coffey, 29. The Coffeys had devised a consumer digital subscription, combined with a business service to lend horticulture advice to brick-and-mortar offices and restaurants.
“With our app, clients use their phone’s camera to scan rooms in their homes, and the app creates a map that shows variations in light distribution and suggests the best plants for the space and how to care for them,” Alexi Coffey said. Some customers have even asked for help building video-worthy plant wall backgrounds for their home offices.
The company now has roughly 5,000 customers worldwide. “We have benefited from the fact that people are at home and interested in growing more than ever,” Alexi Coffey said. “Moments of planting and watering the plants break up the digital weird reality we are living in. We get to be a little bit of joy in people’s lives.”
Pickles have the power to produce happiness, too. In September, Mark Mammone, 39, a sous chef, and Joe Bardakos, 30, a chef, founded Bridge City Brinery in Pittsburgh.
Five years ago, Mammone began making pickles as a hobby.
“I started having my friends try them, and they were saying: ‘You need to do something with these. You need to sell them,’ ” Mammone said. “Once that idea set in, I thought, all right, I’m going to start a pickle company.”
But it was a back-burner idea. “The pandemic is actually what sparked the business back up,” he said. Bardakos offered to help and a partnership was born. “This is something we can do right now, and we can be in control of,” Mammone said, “and it is not going to cost us a lot of money.”
“Navigating uncertainty during this pandemic and the associated political and economic landscape is the biggest challenge for any entrepreneur,” said Sanyin Siang, executive director of the Fuqua/Coach K Leadership and Ethics Center at Duke University. “The motivator is a deep belief in the idea.”
The pickle purveyors self-funded their business with under $3,000, and asked for help from their family, friends, and their boss, who has allowed the two to work out of the restaurant’s kitchen.
The real challenge was finding supplies. “Glass jars were in short supply — it seems everybody during the pandemic was busy jarring food,” Mammone said.