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New business owners look to find their footing in an unpredictable marketplace

Imagine attempting something really hard and then having to do that already-hard thing under circumstances that make it even harder. What that vague hypothetical mostly describes is what new business owners may currently be experiencing as the impact of COVID-19 rolls on. The level of difficulty for eager entrepreneurs has been upped.

The success rate of getting a new company off the ground rested somewhere between 18% and 30% percent before a global pandemic entered the marketplace. Imagine what those odds look like now. With customers having been instructed to stay home and operating guidelines continuing to be complex, beginning a business under these circumstances is not for the faint of heart.

John Thompson, owner of Jet Setting Culinary Concepts, a Newcastle, Washington-based hospitality consulting and planning business, officially transferred his LLC from Minnesota on March 17 – six days before the governor issued statewide stay-at-home orders. The trained chef, whose business model included cooking in customers’ homes, needed to improvise.

“Once the stay-at-home order came through it was like, ‘Okay, how do we even legally drive down the street right now?” says Thompson. “So, I went to one of our clients who happens to own an office building that has a commercial kitchen and said, ‘Hey, look, I might need to use this for the next four to six weeks.’”

Thompson adapted his meal plan service have all food prepared in that one commissary kitchen used exclusively by him and his team. After some frustrating attempts to find his footing during some unpredictable circumstances, Thompson also made the call to lean into what his business does best.

“We were pulling our hair out and, quite frankly, throwing good money after bad with all the programs we were launching,” says Thompson. “So we scaled back and said, ‘Let’s stick to our guns and be who we are and what we are.’ And what we are is cooking all of our meals from scratch.”

For Allen Cox, who started Tacoma, Washington-based Advanced Mobile Auto Spa on January 1 of this year, the pandemic presented an unexpected dilemma. Because customers were driving far less frequently, the demand for car detailing dropped. The downtime allowed Cox to develop a way to tap into a sudden interest in cleanliness.

“I was pretty much just sitting back and waiting to see what we can do with our services to provide help,” says Cox. “As far as cleanliness, just like you want your home to be clean, second to that is your car. Especially if you have kids. So, we provided services that focused on fighting bacteria.”

Offering those services is one thing, but they’re valuable only if customers know they’re available. Outside of ads posted on social media or the implementation of some consumer-focused programs, both Cox and Thompson rely on positive word of mouth to attract clients to their business. Promoting trust has played a key role in helping ensure that happens for their upstart companies, especially right now.

Thompson established a meal packaging program that exclusively assigns glass containers to his clients. Those containers are sanitized by Thompson after each use and then used again only by the same set of clients for their next set of meals. Taking those extra steps and incurring some additional cost has increased safety. It has also built trust.

“Our trust that we have in the company or that our clients have us, we don’t take it lightly,” says Thompson. “You know, we take it very seriously with all of our products and so we took on the extra expense for the packaging.”

In Cox’s experience, establishing trust has proven to be the difference between a one-time customer and a regular client.

“Without trust you may get to the customer one time, and that’s probably the only time. You don’t have the opportunity to keep serving someone if they don’t have that trust. That’s what continues if you’re looking for longevity and relationships with the community in general.”

So, considering their experiences navigating through a pandemic, what hard-earned advice would these new business owners pass on to other prospective entrepreneurs thinking of starting a company right now? Focus on the present with an eye on what may be ahead, and use consumers criticism to help chart that course.

“Act today but think about tomorrow,” says Thompson. “We’re operating today and setting protocols and standards for where we think we need to be in 24 months. But we’re not going to wait for 24 months to do that.”

“Always try your best to get feedback from the customer,” says Cox. “Let them let you know what can be improved. Be able to take it as constructive feedback to improve the experience you offer.”

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Written by Ben Spradling

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