Amid openings and closures, these entrepreneurs share their takeaways on the market.

By Samantha Hunter
November 10, 2020
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Credit: ljubaphoto / Getty Images

Have you ever wondered how to turn your dreams of owning your own business into a reality? We can help. Each week, as part of our Self Made series, we showcase female entrepreneurs—as well as their quality, handmade goods—and share their best advice related to starting, maintaining, and growing your own business.

As we near the end of 2020, the state of affairs and life as we know it has been drastically altered as a result of the global coronavirus pandemic and its mandated quarantine. We are all seeking to recover, reset, and hopefully resume life as we know it once this crisis is over. But for many small business owners, the future is uncertain and they must face the reality that even if they survive this unprecedented time in history, their business may not.

Here, entrepreneurs take stock of the lessons they've learned over the past year about financial stability, customers, team-building, and staying motivated.

Make a human connection.

For the past seven months, Lois Teller, owner of Rolling Steam coffee shop located at New York's Pelham Metro North train station, has ensured that customers have their morning coffee—plus, a healthy helping of her spirited banter; but she's also watched the number of commuters drastically dwindle and, along with it, her daily business. Teller says that since she resumed business in early June, she's spent every day worrying if she will have to close permanently because of the drastic decline in sales with no reprieve from business costs such as insurance, electricity, and heat. "Right now I am working on surviving," says Teller, who has been in business for a decade. "I would like my business to thrive again, so I have to think of ways for that to happen. Right now, my business is down but, I believe with a lot of work, I can bring it up again."

In the meantime, Teller turns to her family for understanding and support; she shares that they've become more important to her than ever. "Family has always been important to me and I was able to show them that when I was thriving," she says. "My children and grandchildren are now understanding more and support me in what my next moves are." A GoFundMe page has been established to help assist Teller, who is affectionately known as this Westchester town's very own "Pelham Spark," and Teller reflects that through all of this she has learned to ride the waves and do whatever she can to make things great again.

Communicate with customers.

Todd A. Zuzulo, owner and president of T&L Trophies & Awards, Inc., has similarly seen his been drastically dwindle as a result of the pandemic. It put a halt to the local community and sports events that fueled his business with orders for trophies, awards, gifts, custom engraving and printed apparel from athletic teams and academic institutions. Despite the decimation of his regular business, Zuzulo remains optimistic. "Hopefully, things will start to make a gradual upturn and we will see some events come back into the fold,"says Zuzulo. To make sure of it, Zuzulo has learned that communication is key. "We are constantly staying in touch with our customer base, letting them know we are still here if they need us."

Diversify your sources.

Blair Armstrong, owner of Gilded, an online luxury body skincare company, has seen her business increase by 200 percent as her customers shop her site for items that will help them to pursue self-care more intentionally. For the last three months, Armstrong says she's worked long 18-hour days trying to meet the surge in demand for products and, during this time, has expanded her own knowledge base in the fundamentals of business. "Another thing that I have learned is the importance of diverse channels for marketing to reach customers," she says. "I don't think it's good enough to do one thing for your business. I think you have to try and engage in various channels to reach the customers. I would encourage people to always look for opportunities and look at the upside. Even during difficult and tough times, even during the uncertainty, look at how you can improve or reinvent yourself or your business."

Support your team in growth.

Josephine Xu, co-founder of MessLook Beauty & Spa, has seen a 40 percent drop in business since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, but says she and her staff are determined to "stay present" and "stay relevant." Xu says that although it's understandable that business leaders today are focused on achieving business continuity, she believes that "first and foremost, we must focus on ensuring that our employees are as safe as possible."  Xu further reflects, "Our biggest lesson from the pandemic is never to rest on previous successes and always be in expansion mode. We should have multiple revenue streams. We were fortunate to have been managing our finances in such a way that afforded us a pretty sizable amount of excess cash."

But scale back when it's needed.

In order to keep his family floral business of 42 years afloat, Christopher Graham of Artistic Manner Flower Shop says that he's had to take a hard look at certain aspects of the business and scale down. "There have been many ways in which we've had to alter our business operation, but none bigger than having to shed certain peripheral jobs, such as landscape design," he says. "We started doing corporate landscape design in 2018, but since COVID we have had to refocus on our core business of daily flower orders and weddings, parties, and events. It's unfortunate, because our landscape business was really picking up speed by the end of 2019." Prior to COVID-19, Graham says that his storefront served as a showroom for potential clients. As of today, the business has pivoted toward online transactions, which Graham says was a fairly difficult prospect for him and his family. "We've always had extra capital 'just in case,'" he says, "but now, we are in the process of building an extra layer of protection, beyond that which might be needed in regular, short-term emergency situations."  

Take care of yourself and, in turn, the business.

While personal trainer Margarita Marte's business model allows her to retain clients and continue to work in spite of the pandemic, she says that the challenges of conducting business during this time are nonetheless significant. "As a trainer, there are times where you have very few clients, sometimes, none at all," she explains. "However, since gyms have opened back up, the demand for private training has skyrocketed. People don't feel safe at a corporate gym, so they are turning to private training more and more." 

In order to meet the demand, Marte began offering virtual training sessions but she fears that her ability to provide clients with the same level of motivation and energy that in-person sessions allow has been compromised. As such, Marte has taken to texting her clients daily motivational messages. With the upsurge, she prioritizes the need to take care of herself and recharge. "I've learned to put myself first, because I always put my clients first, even if it means working from early morning to late into the evening," she says. "But I've realized that if I'm not good, if I'm burnt out, I'm not going to be able to provide the service that they need. So I've learned to be a bit more selfish with my time, so that I can take good care of myself." 

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