“We’ve Never Worked Harder”: How 3 Small Businesses Are Adapting To Changing Regulations

by Kaitlyn Wylde
Small business owners are struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic.

Despite the avocado-hued reputation that millennials get for resisting adulthood or spending too much money on pressed juices, they are statistically more business-minded than any other generation before them. According to a 2017 study by America’s SBDC, millennials already own more small businesses than Boomers, and at least 50% planned on starting a business within the next three years. But the pandemic changed a lot for millennial small business owners.

Paige, 29, a writer-turned-baker, spent the last two years finalizing business plans for a wedding cake company that would launch this spring. With a dozen couples already on the waitlist, she was looking forward to a successful first year. Now, in-person weddings are on hold indefinitely and Paige's business is back to being just a dream again. Without the foundation of a slow-baked customer base and community embrace, many new small business owners will not survive or even begin.

And now, just as some established small businesses are starting to getting the hang of running their modified operations virtually, government-enforced shutdowns are beginning to lift around the country. It's great news, but it's also complicated. Depending on the business and its ability to enforce social distancing, reopening will either save them, or further complicate an already delicate situation. Bustle spoke with three established millennial small business owners about how they're adapting in the face of the pandemic.

Emma Straub, Owner Of Books Are Magic, Brooklyn, New York

How have you had to adjust the business model to keep operating, and what struggles have you come across in the process?

We are very lucky because the things that we sell don't spoil, and they are things that we can easily send to people's doors. Before the pandemic, web orders were like 10% of our business and now it's 100% of business. Business is OK.

The hardest part is keeping up with the demand. Before we had a staff of 13, and all but three have been home for months. Day to day, it's gone from a chatty job that requires very little physicality to an entirely physical job with no chatting. We are trying to figure out how we can translate bookselling online to be more interactive. It's a lot, and we've never worked harder or been more exhausted than we are right now.

How has the community supported you through this change?

The community has been showing up for us. We got the small business loan, so we haven't had to lay anyone off yet. I recognize the extreme privilege that I have, we are healthy, the store will survive.

Can you envision what business will look like, post-pandemic?

We tried curbside pick up at the beginning and it made our employees anxious. We will try to organize a good way to do that again. I assume that we will require masks and that we will have a limit for how many people can be inside at once and events will continue virtually for some time. Even if we are able to again in some way, it won't be the same.

Kyly Zak Rabin, Owner of Zak. Eyes, Los Angeles, California

How has your small business been effected by shutdowns? As an essential-ish service, there must be a lot of gray area with operations.

The pandemic has not decreased the need for sight. Our patients have been reaching out and are eager to receive eye care. We've been able to support our community by fabricating glasses and providing contact lenses all with free shipping. Those without prescription needs are showing support by purchasing Zak. frames with blue blocking lenses, which help protect our eyes from screen fatigue...which we're all experiencing more than ever!

What does it feel like to have a business on your shoulders right now?

Emotionally, it's a rollercoaster. I feel overwhelmed, lonely, focused, defeated, surprisingly at times inspired and truly exhausted. My workload coupled with the anxiety of the unknown and heartache for the world leaves me feeling generally chaotic.

Most of my team has been furloughed, so the work falls on me. I'm spending my time dissecting the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) process and advising my team on relief opportunities. Plus, I'm strategizing the most efficient ways to pivot so we can generate some revenue, while simultaneously continuing to take care of our patient and customer eye needs remotely.

As a newer business in town, how are you fairing?

We opened about a year and a half ago. Our focus has been on our physical location but the shutdown has forced an opportunity to shift focus and give our website and social channels more attention, which has resulted in online sales growth.

What's the new normal for Zak. Eyes?

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and [L.A.] Mayor [Eric] Garcetti recently authorized routine and comprehensive eye exams. We've been strategizing our updated operations to ensure the safety of our staff, patients and community. We will be open two days a week by appointment only. From patient temperature checks and sanitation protocols to service updates that will minimize patient visits thanks to telemedicine, our goal is to provide quality care while limiting exposure. My goal is to create a safe but very calm and comfortable environment.

Emily Mitchell, Owner of Half Pint Farm, Burlington, Vermont

As an essential business, what's your primary duty?

We are here to feed people. This crisis has shed light on a broken, unsustainable national food system. I guess I never really took the time to look at the pandemic in the context of me and my family because our lives are relatively unchanged. We work 80-90 hours a week, pandemic or not, and people still need food.

How will farming, and selling vegetables change for you?

We take all Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) precautions at the field with employees (masks, hand washing, required signage). Our CSA members normally get reusable bags, which is definitely not the best practice amidst a pandemic, so we have switched to recycled paper for now.

Has the community been able to support you?

We have had to pivot from primarily restaurant sales to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) driven model. Our community has humbled us with their support by choosing our itty bitty farm among giants who have been farming for 10 times as long. We have more than doubled our CSA membership from last season to this season. It’s amazing! We feel more cemented into our community than ever before.

We are shining a spotlight on some of the millions of small businesses now challenged by COVID-19. This is part of an ongoing commitment our parent company, Bustle Digital Group, is making to support small businesses throughout the entire month of May. Tell us about your favorite small business on social media using #SmallBusinessSalutes.