An hour-long conversation this month with three other small business executives was “therapeutic” for Jonathan Jelks.
The Grand Rapids-based entrepreneur had shared and listened to the experience of peers from a variety of sectors about what it means to be a small business owner during a pandemic that’s now nine months long and counting. Work stoppages, loan rejections from banks, taking a “crash course” in workplace safety regulations and ensuring employees’ mental health were among the hardships executives described. Despite these hurdles, they all shared a common sense of optimism ahead of the new year and that — if systemic issues within the business community continue to be in focus — the pandemic may produce a unique cohort of small business owners who have weathered and thrived in the storm.
This month, MiBiz hosted a virtual roundtable of small businesses from various sectors to discuss the pandemic as well as their 2021 outlook. The discussion, which took place Dec. 9 via Zoom and is available to view at MiBiz.com, featured:
- Jelks, co-founder of Ambiance Kitchen & Bar, Motu Viget Spirits, GR USA Apparel Co. and Midwest Tech Project in Grand Rapids;
- Alita Kelly, co-founder, South East Market in Grand Rapids;
- Karl Kowalske, president of Seven Generations Architecture and Engineering LLC in Kalamazoo, a venture of Dowagiac-based Mno-Bmadsen, the non-gaming economic development arm of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi; and
- Alysha Lach White, founder and CEO of Little Space Studio in Grand Rapids.
Here are some highlights from the conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Where is your business at nine months into the pandemic?
Jelks: The range of emotions I felt during the last nine months has just been all over the place. We’ve experienced Apocalypse Now real quick with COVID-19 and the pandemic. It’s the same for the businesses in my portfolio. With Ambiance, it turned into one of our most triumphant achievements. Obviously, we’re excited to diversify our entertainment options downtown. Being an African American liquor-licensed business in the heart of the city and main artery there in Grand Rapids and just not being able to open has been extremely frustrating. We’ve had to learn it at a very quick pace. When you talk about entrepreneurship and the excitement of it and how much courage it takes, you never really know until you’re faced with challenges. Personally and professionally, I’ve never been faced with challenges like this during the past nine months.
Kelly: When this (market) concept was coming to fruition, we really thought we were going to be looking at a space late next year, but because the pandemic has pushed us into really leaning into delivery and curbside and people needing groceries because they’re not going out as much, it’s really accelerated our whole operation. The way the pandemic has slowed other places down, it has inversely sped us up. We’re just leaning into that right now and honored to be hiring folks right now at a time when getting a job is so difficult.
Kowalske: Since we’ve been dealing with this in March, we’ve gotten a pretty good handle on how you do the client work, engaging clients, designing, being creative when we’re used to doing all that in person. Now the focus has been much more on how we engage each other and how do we continue to build on that without getting fatigued by another Teams call or group meeting on Zoom. That’s been the biggest focus: building the community of the team.
Lach White: The main experience we have been pulled through is that the reality of our (co-working space) business and where we are and what to expect coming out of it changed so rapidly. That was the constant stressor throughout the entire time. It’s stressful enough, but from a leadership standpoint, one thing that needs to be brought to attention is just what happens when you build this team and then suddenly everything comes to a halt. We had to make tough decisions early on in March when we had a shutdown. As we grew throughout the year and pivoted our direction, we built a team that we could retain as effectively and as affordably as possible.
How was the Paycheck Protection Program process and have you gotten much guidance on loan forgiveness?
Kowalske: For us, the process started before I joined the firm. I joined in September. One of the advantages as a small business is we’re fortunate to be part of a larger holding company. Mno-Bmadsen has several companies in their portfolio. What we did was try to leverage each other in access to banks.
Lach White: I have a very love-hate relationship with banks. We are very unique. After about a year and a half, we realized we’re difficult to fund. But that’s OK. Thank goodness we found an investor. We were part of the second (PPP) wave. We tried very hard to be part of the first wave, we just couldn’t make it work with our bank. But that was a huge, huge relief for us. It allowed me to retain staff that I was really nervous about holding on to. That was just awesome.
Despite no action as of now, there seems to be widespread support for Congress passing additional aid for small businesses. Where are you seeing that’s needed?
Jelks: For the industry overall, definitely. Small businesses are just getting killed. This is kind of like reverse Darwinism. It’s unnatural selection. It’s hard enough being an entrepreneur in the first place but to have to deal with these kinds of challenges, it’s just something you didn’t plan for. Any support the feds can do when they know small businesses are pretty much the backbone of the country, the economy, I think they should do that. I definitely think there’s advocacy needed for small live entertainment stages and that kind of stuff. I’m definitely in favor and hoping for more support for businesses in hospitality. But everyone can’t be saved. The tough part about it is a lot of people are just going to go out of business.
Kelly: There is something to be said about what is birthed through this pandemic. Our business is really being accelerated because we’re reacting to the pandemic, too. Supporting businesses that are birthed because of this whole experience and are trying to address issues associated with this pandemic is really important.
Outside of relief funding, how are you able to budget heading into a year starting with so much uncertainty?
Kowalske: In the construction industry, it’s pretty lumpy in what market sectors are moving forward and what aren’t. We are a trailing business support service. Businesses need to be thriving and growing in order for our work to happen. Our individual outlook for 2021 is pretty optimistic for the first half in terms of what we anticipate continuing to move forward, projects we know have been funded. But a lot of the private sector or community-based work is on hold and is going to continue to be on hold. I don’t know that anyone can look past three or six months from now in terms of what the balance of the year looks like.
Jelks: With the bar, you just don’t know how things are going to land. We’ve been trying to give ourselves enough runway so that if we need to open in the summertime that’s what we’ll do. We did the pivot and stashed some acorns so we can make sure if we need to hibernate all winter, we can take advantage of the opportunities when people are coming back outside. With some of our other businesses, we’ve seen great momentum. Our spirits company did a deal with Meijer. It was a massive deal for us. We’re now available at about 60 stores in their portfolio. That puts us at 260 stores overall for where our products are being served. Obviously, booze is Teflon in times like this.
How have you dealt with the necessary crash course in workplace safety regulations?
Jelks: We just didn’t think about any of it within this context. If you look at any of the businesses that have been penalized for having too many people in their spaces, we’ve seen some cautionary tales that we don’t want to follow.
Lach White: There were little nuances we definitely had to be creative with. Overall, where we have had the most challenge is keeping a team functional and motivated. So much of our work was space-dependent. We’re huge advocates for mental health support. It’s important to talk about how you adapt your business to COVID, but I think that a lot of us are even more affected by our day to day workflow. That’s where most of our innovation has come from.
Kelly: Even though we have a curbside bin and delivery set up, we’re noticing as other businesses are closed down or limited that a lot of our customers still want to come into the store and shop. A lot of us are just starving for community, so we are a space for that, too. Another thing we’re learning more about as we prepare to hire more staff is we need to have more people on call to work just in case someone contracts COVID or to address the mental health needs of our staff.
Kowalske: The mental health part is spot on. Nobody has led an organization through a pandemic before. We’re all figuring it out as we go. As things change, we’re going to change, evolve and do everything we can to accommodate and share information as it comes in. We’ve said from the beginning as people start to come back to the office: Our job and goal is to make the office space the safest space that you can be outside of your house.
It’s hard to imagine we’ve been going through the pandemic for nine months. Then again, vaccines are on the way and new leadership is taking over in Washington. What’s your level of optimism heading into 2021?
Lach White: I’m definitely split on that. I have a very strong sense of optimism. My pessimism or concern going into 2021 is it is insanely stressful and everyone’s dealing with it on different levels. It puts a spotlight on what insecurities people already had and it just accentuates those. That’s a huge concern for my company and my greater community. If (businesses) are being mindful, listening to the community and listening to needs and desires and are being able to do the pivot, I believe they’re the ones that are just going to skyrocket. It just brings to light the type of grit that leadership can have in this situation. If you can make it through this, you can make it through any type of business issue in the future. I think it’s actually producing some strong leaders right now. I do want to put a caveat to that: While I’m very for that argument, I’m also very mindful that some business owners aren’t going to make it. There should be an important level of grace that comes with that. That if your business does not survive COVID, it is not your fault. That it’s OK to just accept that. Because it may feel like your own personal failure. There’s going to be so many businesses that close. We have to be supportive of those individuals who tried as hard as they could and couldn’t make it work. That part of 2021 is going to be a healing process for businesses.
Kowalske: If there is a humanity point of going through a pandemic and really trying to reach clients and customers and say: How can we help? I see that being hopefully a pivotal moment in how we all do business that people carry forward regardless of the pandemic and say, ‘We’re here to serve the customers and serve the clients.’
Kelly: I’m a relentless optimist. I usually stay in that space. I’m hopeful that because of the vulnerabilities to our food system that were exposed through COVID, people realize no one is really safe when it comes to food security. I’m excited to continue having those conversations and do the work through South East Market to address them.
Jelks: I’m optimistic. I think the country is having to look itself in the mirror and identify who we want to be moving forward. Where is our soul within all of this? We’re having a moment here and it’s a very important one. I think back to the riots that happened in downtown Grand Rapids in regards to race, civil unrests, protests. That was something that weighed heavily on my personal mental health. Not to the point when I wanted to do something crazy, but it’s stressful. I’ve been very excited that there have been some real conversations with corporate Grand Rapids that haven’t really happened before. There’s been some reckoning, understanding and enlightenment about some of the practices we have here that are extremely discriminatory. We have positive momentum and have to focus on the glass being half full in order to survive this thing.