A small business. A mission. An International pandemic. How we survived and what we’ve learned.
As we close out a rollercoaster year, I’ve been reflecting on our journey as a start-up business during a pandemic. I’d like to take the opportunity to share some gratitude and some of what we’ve learned while struggling to survive as a small business this year.
As you may know, we opened our doors exactly 6 months before the shut down on March 20th, 2020. We are a business with high overhead (lease and CAMS for 11,000 sq ft) and high start-up costs (renovation costs and furniture and equipment), putting us in an especially precarious position for a recession or other crisis early in our life as a small business.
With a vaccine on the horizon, we are poised to survive this crisis, but we would never have survived without four things: 1) strong business culture and the generosity of our members and supporters, 2) perseverance and grit (with a pinch of luck and privilege), 3) innovation, and 4) personal sacrifice. I’ll offer some reflections on each.
First, there is no better place than to start with our amazing Haven community
This includes our members and investors. Many of our members have continued paying their monthly membership fees despite having not stepped foot in the Haven since early March and another percentage have continued paying despite minimal use.
That is incredible. Unbelievable. Stunning.
We are eternally grateful for the members who have stuck with us and helped us keep our doors open through this crisis. It is a testament to the amazing people who choose to call Central Oregon home. It is also a testament to our relentless effort to build culture and community for the first 6 months we were open. (Thank you Chelsea and Scott!)
Many of our members support the greater mission of The Haven, which is to build community and collective success with a focus on members of our community who are underrepresented in entrepreneurship, business ownership and community leadership – women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and people who experience disability.
Lesson learned: prioritize the culture of your business from the very beginning and don’t underestimate the importance of people understanding the “why” behind what you do, not just the “what.”
As an organization, we decided to double-down on our mission during the pandemic, in spite of our own financial struggles.
We offered a “pay-what-you-can” option to all members, to ensure that anyone who needed The Haven during this time could access it, regardless of the financial impact of the pandemic on so many small business owners and contractors. We were nervous, but found that most members continued paying full price, some paid less but were able to retain their membership, and some members paid more to help those who were struggling.
Lesson learned: even in times of difficulty, make decisions from a spirit of abundance, not scarcity.
We are also incredibly lucky to have investors who support our mission and who stand behind The Haven 100% even though their return may be smaller and take longer than we originally hoped. We even had close friends offer to invest in The Haven early in the pandemic when the outlook was grim, and their generosity and belief in The Haven took our breath away.
Lesson learned: don’t take funding from just anyone – find investors who truly believe in your business, not just the potential return.
Second, was our perseverance and grit, with a dash of luck and privilege.
We applied for over 15 grants and loans during the past 9 months, which obviously takes significant time. We were rejected from many, but received a few small grants and loans that helped us survive. Although we took every opportunity to apply, we also benefited from being well networked, having somewhat flexible schedules, and being adept at technology and finances.
There were several grants we applied for where the application closed within MINUTES of opening, and if you did not have the ability to fill out the form successfully as soon as it opened, you were shut out, making it difficult for small business owners who are customer-facing, who speak English as a second language, or who have less experience with finances or technology.
We pieced our survival together month by month - never quite sure how we’d survive the next month, but keeping faith that we would. A small loan or grant one month, some rent relief another month, a temporary bump in memberships one month… we just kept doing “the next right thing” (per advice from Anna in Frozen 2).
Lessons learned: apply for EVERYTHING, and be ready to apply the minute applications open. Also, advocate for grants and loans that are truly accessible to all business owners.
Third, we had to pivot and innovate.
Yes, I know those words have been overused during the pandemic, but it’s true.
We lost 100% of our revenue from meetings, events and programming.
We had to close down our yoga studio.
We had to significantly decrease capacity, purchase health and safety equipment and completely change our operations multiple times.
We lost members and had to halt advertising.
This required us to look deeply at every aspect of our business to determine what was essential, what could be cut, and how we could meet the different needs of customers during a pandemic. In the long run, we think our refocusing will actually make our business stronger, but during the crisis it was painful to lay off staff, halt programming we were passionate about, and completely rethink how to build community without the ability to gather.
Lesson learned: Even if you’re not facing a recession or crisis while opening a business, pretend like you are. Imagine you had to cut revenue in half - what would you focus on? It will set you up for success after the recession or crisis passes.
And finally, we survived at a great personal cost.
Starting a small business is always risky, and we knew that, but we obviously didn’t foresee an international pandemic and sweeping business restrictions. Over the summer, Scott and I were forced to sell our home and move our family into a rental in order to cover our debt payments with significantly reduced revenue. Our revenue declined about 45%, making survival impossible without drastic action. Neither Scott or I come from wealth, and we had saved a long time to purchase our house.
We have a lot of privilege, and we were lucky to own a house with equity that we could sell, but the reality is that this pandemic likely set us back at least a decade or more. We don’t share this to make people feel sorry for us. We share this because it’s important for people to understand the real risks of entrepreneurship.
And because we know many people in our community want to support small businesses, but if you’ve never owned a small business, you might not quite understand just how important it is to support them during this time. It is likely that many small business owners are facing the same difficult choices we are. When you spend money at a local business like The Haven, you can be confident that your money stays local, supporting local employees and other local small vendors and businesses that make Central Oregon a great place to live.
Lessons learned: when you start a small business, you must be prepared to lose everything (but it’s still worth it!) and SHOP LOCAL.
There is a lot more I could say, but I’ll keep this relatively short for now. The crisis isn’t over and I’m still processing much of what has happened. As the mother of small children, a full-time nonprofit CEO, and the Chair of the Bend-La Pine School Board during this time, I’m dealing with trauma and exhaustion from this pandemic unlike anything I’ve ever faced. I’m sure the consequences, both good and bad, will be long-term, and I’ll continue to learn and reflect on this time over the years.
But at this moment, I mostly feel grateful – for our members and supporters, for Rose, Tiffany, and Nancy (and so many others) who have been rockstars during this time, for my amazing family and village of friends and colleagues, for the chance to step back and refocus, and for the special place where we live.
If you are reading this, you are likely part of our village too – so THANK YOU. Cheers to 2021 and better times ahead.
Carrie Douglass, Co-Founder