How to Start a Business Despite the Pandemic: 12 Firsthand Stories
With last year’s national lockdown resulting in over 22 million jobs lost, the COVID-19 pandemic has already been called not only a global health catastrophe but the deepest economic disruption since the Great Depression.
While commentators continue to argue whether the pandemic’s aftermath is a right or wrong time to go into something as intricate as entrepreneurship, countless business owners have already taken the plunge — and won over COVID-19. This time, driven not only by passion but by necessity.
We talked to a dozen small business owners who started their business during the pandemic or in its aftermath and know first-hand what it’s like to become an entrepreneur at one of the most challenging times in history.
Here are their stories and the lessons they want you to learn from their journey.
1. Lumen SEO
Aled Nelmes was a mid-level marketing professional before starting his digital business, Lumen SEO, in January 2020. Transitioning to his own business model, immediately, he knew he wanted to work differently — minus the 9–5 routine, corporate office politics, wasted hours, and little to no time left to experience life. As an avid traveler and musician, Aled wanted the best of both worlds: flexibility, mobility, and a business that would be as helpful for others as it would be convenient for his lifestyle, after the pandemic ends.
“I chose search marketing specifically for 2 reasons: Search engine use is growing and expanding — the amount of searches made increases by over 30% every year and search is now extending to smart devices and voice control [so] demand is increasing. It can be done from anywhere — I currently work a few days in a coworking space and a few at home and it suits my personality perfectly. When the pandemic is over, I look forward to working from any country in the world.
The first few months were actually wonderful. I didn’t take the leap as they say as I am generally quite risk averse and I would recommend this method to any others who want to do their own thing but hate taking risks: I started as a side hustle after work, then as clients grew I went down to 2 days at my job, then after 3 months I left my job completely — it was seamless and I didn’t need to make any sacrifices financially.”
📍 Aled’s key lesson:
Don’t start off your business by offering a plethora of services. Do one thing but do it well. All the biggest tech companies started by doing one thing well: Facebook did it by connecting people, Google by giving information. Follow their lead: become an expert in your niche and word will soon spread.
As a couple, Michae and Quintell Allen have been together since college, and are what we’d call “inseparable”: they love doing things together. So when lockdown hit and they needed for one parent to focus on homeschooling the kids, opening a mutual home-based business became their lifeline. Ghostreaders is a Black-owned husband and wife business providing narration and audiobook recording for established and emerging Black writers.
“Michae was already familiar with recording, we both like reading, and we love the idea of supporting Black authors and writers. The first few months were a lot about learning the industry, requirements and how to connect with and find authors.
We are passionate about making sure that Black literature is properly rendered and represented. In addition to a love for literature, we also have background in acting and music production, so this comes to bear on the work that we do. In addition to audiobooks, we do other voice work as well — podcast support, commercials, and even voiceover templates.”
📍 Michae and Quintell’s key lesson:
Business owners tend to focus on running the business without making sure they understand the customer experience. As face to face interaction is different during the pandemic, make sure that your customers are comfortable working with you in every way.
3. pHERsonal Finance Day
Coming from an entrepreneurial background and an MBA from Harvard should make setting up any business a piece of cake, right? Not really, says Eryn Schultz, founder of pHERsonal Finance Day. Running a business is primarily lots and lots of hands-on experience and devotion. It was only when the pandemic closed down her regular engagements, that Eryn found time to follow her dream and create an online course in finance management for women.
“I used the pandemic to conduct in-depth customer interviews about what other female MBAs wanted out of an online course focused on money. Based on their input, I created a 10-week curriculum targeted to high-earning women which I have now gone through with two separate cohorts of women ranging from recent veterinarian grads to new McKinsey consultants.
The first few weeks were a lot of 70 hour+ work weeks that I would not have been able to maintain if COVID didn’t cancel most family and friend commitments. In addition, women were more likely to take and commit to an online class since the course participants also had more time at home.”
📍 Eryn’s key lesson:
When you put up a website, things will likely not happen overnight but if you can stick it out through weeks where you’re growing slowly and create a first-class product that you’re customers love to refer, you will grow steadily and can generate significant income. Keep your expenses as lean as possible and focus on the customer experience to avoid spending on marketing.
4. Time Now Hauling & Junk Removal
Many people want to start a business but lack the finances to jump-start their hustle right off the bat. Gathering finances can be especially tough when you’re going into a local, not digital business. Anders Helgeson of Time Now Hauling in San Diego, CA, faced a problem just like that. But instead of waiting or putting off his dream, he tried a whole new approach: hands-on financing.
“My friend and I … both had small pickup trucks that we had owned for several years, and I was renting a house that had a little extra storage space. On Craigslist one day in March, I saw a couch posted for free. It looked to be in good shape. The people clearly just wanted it gone. We picked it up, got it back to my house, cleaned it up, took really good pictures, and reposted for $299, with delivery to the customer included. It sold within a day!
Between March 18 and July 2, we had sold 43 couches at a total revenue of $15,870. We didn’t keep the money for ourselves [but] decided to pool it, not get excited, and start exploring business plans. We used the money to begin Time Now Hauling & Junk Removal in San Diego, CA. It paid for our business vehicle, several upgrades to the vehicle, our hauling trailer, upgrades to the trailer, our website, our first year insurance premiums, business taxes, LLC formation costs… and left us with a significant financial cushion to put into our business checking account for emergency.”
📍 Anders’ key lesson:
Knowing where a temporary fix is vs the business that has long-term potential is a must for first-time business owners. Instead of getting excited about the “easy” money that came to them, Anders and his business partner pooled that money towards a long-term business idea. If you’re using a similar approach to finance your passion, make sure to keep long-term goals ahead, and not waste first-time wins.
5. Alpha Pet Products
It was March 2020 when Srishti Ellson became a full-time work from home employee, fiancee, and new house owner at the same time. Being self-isolated with her German Shepherd 24/7, she quickly became aware of a problem that wasn’t evident from the office: fur. On lockdown with a beloved dog, you have fur everywhere, Srishti says, including your beloved white couch. But instead of getting frustrated, she got an idea. An idea for a new pet product line, Alpha Pet Products.
“[When starting out] I had a rough idea of the product I actually needed, but no idea how e-commerce worked. [Luckily] I got a great tip from a mentor about how to find a manufacturer: look for manufacturers that make something similar to what you want and reach out to them. With everything shut down in the US, it actually turned out to be easier to reach manufacturers overseas, and I heard back from several quickly.
I described to each of them what I was looking for and asked for an initial sample, narrowing down to a single supplier and iterating from there. With shipping slowed and factories backlogged, it took several months longer than expected to finalize the design and then further delays in actually doing the first manufacturing run and shipping it.
Simultaneously, I needed to think about the logo, branding, storyline, and distribution for the product once it was ready. I officially launched my business 3 weeks ago…and when those [first] customers call me back and tell me that their dogs are obsessed with their new couch cover and their home is cleaner than ever, it’s the most amazing feeling.”
📍 Srishti’s key lesson:
Be prepared for your new business to take way longer than you expect, so budget for that in time and money. For physical products, be prepared to invest time and money in product samples and professional photography and launch your website and social media way before your product launch.
6. Career Meets World
When Edward Gorbis and his wife got married in October 2019, they asked each other what their 10-year career plans looked like. For Edward, the dream has always been to start a coaching business, since for years he’s been unofficially helping people align with their career goals. In 2020, despite all challenges, Edward’s dream finally became a full-fledged business known as Career Meets World.
“As I launched my business, I knew I need a clear plan because balancing life, a full-time leadership position, and a new business was going to require surgical execution. The first few months required long days (16+ workdays) to build a brand.
Since launching, I’ve made multiple pivots from focusing on building a purely online brand with video courses to 1 on 1 and team coaching. I knew I needed to generate revenue immediately since I am bootstrapping this business. It has been the best roller coaster of my life and the most fulfilling one in learning how to build a company from scratch.”
📍 Edward’s key lesson:
Test your market for product or service fit and develop a strategic plan that allows for some flexibility. If you start a business of any sort, it’s going to come with mental hurdles that you may have never anticipated and there will be moments when you may want to quit. So remember “why” you started and structure your days that create moments for micro wins so you can keep your momentum going.
7. Stefano Navi Jewelry
It was April 2020 when Sheina Ebrani and her husband — coming from a family of jewelry manufacturers with a forty-year history — were starting to “lose it”. With two toddlers at home, the family had an incredibly hard time in the new pandemic-driven recession. It was then that Sheina had an “aha” moment and Stefano Navi Jewelry Home Try on Kits were born. As the saying goes, if something doesn’t come your way, you’ve got to go get it yourself.
“In April of this year […] I came up with a thought: why not recreate the engagement ring buying process from scratch? Hundreds of websites sell engagement rings, but what if a couple isn’t sure what stone they like? And what size is best for them? and the color of the ring?
Which is why I came up with a home try-on kit. It is a complimentary service, sending 6 stones in the 6 popular shapes to couples to try-on. The replicas should help give a couple clarity of what they want, and we would love to help them custom make their special piece after they have more clarity!
We just launched [and] have ways to go, but we truly hope we can help make a couple’s getting engaged period less stressful, and more enjoyable!”
📍 Sheina’s key lesson:
Everyone has a chance to turn a dead-end into a new path. If you already have a business that’s facing massive losses due to the pandemic or has shut down, don’t abandon it — brainstorm. Think about how you can turn a negative situation into a positive one.
8. Dream Learn Do More
The past year has been one of incredible social, health, and political upheavals. Noting the importance of proactive social activism at this troubled time, award-winning entrepreneurs Allison Parc and her business partner Samantha Lim launched Dream Learn Do More, a conscious apparel company with collections focused on key social and national issues.
“We launched on August 26, 2020, Women’s Equality Day, in honor of women’s right to vote with our VOTE collection. It has been seen on Kenan Thomson on the season premiere of SNL, Kerry Washington & Eva Longoria, and was in GQ, BuzzFeed, StyleCaster, Poosh and more. Our 2nd and 3rd collections (around Climate Change and Mental Health) are dropping [in October].
Every product is 100% made in the USA and 100% made to order so we do not over-produce a collection, reduce waste, and make our clothes using eco-friendly practices. A portion of proceeds from each collection is donated to a cause connected to the collection’s theme and we also ship directly from our producer to our customers which cuts down on costs and also reduces the number of people who touch a product.”
📍 Allison’s key lesson:
Self-funding isn’t right for everyone. But if you have entrepreneurial experience behind your belt and the perk of financial security, becoming a fully self-funded business will give you carte blanche to drive all of the decisions for the business yourself.
Based in the “ground zero” of the pandemic, New York City, Astrit Bauta faced one of the pandemic’s toughest problems head-on. With lockdown in place and people instructed to stay home, Astrit saw the immense problem around the most basic of human needs: food. With a population of over 8 million people and a limited number of food delivery services, NYC was not prepared for lockdown. Luckily, the city was still full of brilliant minds like Astrit who launched with his new food delivery business, Foy.
“As I started the business, I learned about Michelle Obama’s Move Campaign and the effort to partner with major retailers to provide access to healthy food in food deserts across the US. I was shocked to learn that an estimated 54.4 million people, or 17.7% of the U.S. population live in low-income and low-access urban areas.
Opening supermarkets is no easy feat — from the financial costs to the feasibility studies required and let alone the amount of time it would take. Thus, I figured if many folks have access to an internet connection, why not bring a healthy and affordable grocery store to the palm of their hands — digitally!
Foy provides nationwide delivery, carries products for many major dietary restrictions like kosher, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, etc. and has thousands of products available online.”
📍 Astrit’s key lesson:
Getting the brand out and building a customer base is one of the hardest challenges you’ll experience at the start but if you want to launch, don’t wait — get started, be patient, and be creative. Things will take longer than expected, so starting early gives you time to fine-tune.
10. Room University
When you’re consistently out of luck with something, think of it as a sign from the Universe that you’re the one destined to change it. When Johnene McBeth, CEO and Co-Founder of Room University officially registered business in February 2020, it was with a view to save others the endless troubles she lived through when organizing mass networking events. Eventually, her understanding of the struggles behind organizing large events became the foundation of a whole new service that would eliminate those pains for others.
“I chose this specific industry because I noticed this problem could affect the way I do business and life. From messy contracts to unanswered calls on event day, I felt that this was consistently happening to me because … it was my turn to make a real difference.
Originally, we felt like our new venture was toast. Venues were afraid to sign up because this was the first time they had to consider what their next move would be all of a sudden. It was understandable. [And] I personally thought, Why would people host an event right now? Then [lockdown] restrictions loosened and our team strategized.
What we realized is that our business offers a simple, digital experience, for you to book and plan your entire event though our platform online at roomuniversity.com. From accepting payments, to signing contracts to messaging hosts prior to event day, these opportunities are endless for a simple, contactless process that can be utilized even in a pandemic.”
📍 Johnene’s key lesson:
Figure out how to create a business that can run digitally while you sleep. If the process can be done online from A to Z, and be accessed from anywhere, this is the quickest way to thrive in this time of a pandemic. Also, remember to monetize off of your strengths. If you can do something well, teach your process and tell your story!
11. VPN Online
When Michael Miller started his digital cybersecurity business, VPN Online, he was acting out the timeless business adage: follow your passion. Feeling unsatisfied with “tedious desk jobs” and repetitive tasks that captivate his mind even less than they employed his skills, Michael dove head-on into digital entrepreneurship.
“VPN Online was started […] after I consulted with many Fortune 500 companies and saw the lack of understanding about cybersecurity many of their employees had.
I chose cybersecurity because this is where my passion is. This is what entices me to do more and seek more knowledge. [But] the first few months were very tiring. Aside from my passion, there were a lot of things I should know and learn how to do on my own. Things like registering my business, SEO, marketing, sales, accounting, payroll, and many more. As a small entrepreneur, you need to wear different hats and make sure each aspect of the business is taken care of.”
📍 Michael’s key lesson:
During a pandemic, there are only certain aspects of the market that thrive. To make your business grow and earn, you need something that would be beneficial to everyone, something that people will pay money for, even if they only have limited funds.
12. The Notorious ATC
On April 1, 2020, Erica Marcano and her entire staff were laid off. For Erica, this meant a hiatus from a 15+ year corporate career in management. Left with lots of managerial experience and a dream she always wanted to tackle — a holistic fitness business of her own, Erica lost no time in building her new business. She used the time during NYC’s lockdown to launch The Notorious ATC and embark on a path that really called her.
“I took the opportunity throughout my [corporate] career to take on responsibilities that were outside of my
comfort zone — I’ve done short stints in digital marketing, sales, and branding, overseen administrative operations, and gotten to see the workings of both large and small companies from a birds-eye view. I can not even express how much this experience helped me when starting my own brand from scratch.
[However] I truly believe that the forced ‘NY on Pause’ freed me to do the work I was meant to do in the world. My holistic fitness business officially launched in September, and I am feeling happier and more fulfilled than ever before!
I am now able to serve clients both in-person and virtually, while respecting my own needs, allowing me to practice what I preach and give my clients the very best I have to offer. By building my brand around my experience and philosophy, I finally feel aligned with my values and higher purpose, and am able to truly help my clients in a way I never have before.”
📍 Erica’s key lesson:
To understand where your business power lies, write a list of the things about your chosen industry that you love — or the best part of your workday in your current industry. Next, determine the qualities that set you apart from others in your field. You should ask friends, clients, and colleagues if you are unsure. Where the lists overlap, you’ll have a shortlist of the qualities you’ll want to build your brand on.
Starting a business during a pandemic has many challenges, but for anyone who’s got a dream nagging at their heart and the right doze of perseverance, the above stories prove that right now is the only right moment to start.