DENVER — Most experts would say that a recession brought on by a pandemic is not the ideal time to start a business. A financially timid public paired with an ever-changing network of regulations to keep them safe is hard enough for seasoned business experts. They might say starting a business is a fools errand.
But for two entrepreneurs in the Denver area, starting companies during the pandemic, though fraught with challenges, has helped them shape their business plans to be more sustainable in the future.
Tom Schurmann owns 6 and 40 Brewery in Lakewood that he and his wife, Eileen, have been dreaming of opening for years. The taproom opened in September after years of planning.
Maris Johansson opened Broomtail, a small boutique store tailored for children and toddlers, in May. After signing her lease in January she could not have imagined the challenges ahead, but she says her business is stronger after months of adaptation.
Both entrepreneurs say there are lessons to be learned from the pandemic, and the businesses that push through will be better suited for the future.
1931 E Kentucky Ave, Denver
Maris Johansson's small store in the heart of Denver's Wash Park neighborhood is a dream come true. Broomtail is a children's boutique, as she describes it, with clothing and accessories for toddlers and parents.
"I just felt like there's so many options online, it's really overwhelming as a new parent to figure out what you need," explained Johansson. "I had this dream of having a shop in a neighborhood and a community where parents could come and they would be able to find a curated selection."
Unfortunately her dreams had poor timing, colliding directly with a pandemic and lockdown that resulted in an economic recession.
"I kind of have to laugh about it, because my timing was so poor, because I negotiated the lease in January," she said. "I got the keys in March and was gearing to open right when everything shut down."
Opening and maintaining the business has been a difficult task. However, Johansson says that she has learned how to adapt and build her business even amid major external challenges.
"I feel like I can be really flexible. I have an interaction with a customer it might spark an idea. Literally I can start implementing it right then and there," she said. "Anything that you can do really quickly adapt and make customers feel welcome is key to surviving all of this."
Unable to advertise at the outset, Johansson relied on customers sharing with neighbors and friends about her store.
"Word of mouth from people in the community means so much," she said, explaining that the movement to 'shop local' is even more crucial during the pandemic. "I think you have to thingk about a small business in your neighborhood and what that business gives back."
Given all the challenges of 2020, and all the challenges to come, she says she is excited for whatever comes her way.
"I'm still having fun," Johansson explained. "I feel like if I'm having fun now it'll only get better."
6 and 40 Brewery and Tap
883 Parfet Street, Lakewood
If you feel lost driving to the 6 and 40 Brewery, you are probably headed in the right direction. The brewery and taproom is located in the middle of a industrial complex and that, according to owner Tom Schurmann, is part of the appeal.
"It's an off the beaten path location, but there's no one else around us," Schurmann explained. "People will joke about they'll say, Well, it wasn't easy to find, but it was worth it. You know, that's a good thing."
As businesses vacate normally attractive locations like downtown Denver or shopping centers, Schurmann says irregular locations can have unique appeal. They are also much cheaper.
"A lot of people still think everything is location, location." he said. "I pay probably a third of what the places in a (mall) pay for per foot."
Schurmann also says that the new business landscape calls for personalization, not mass production. HE has declined to sell his beer by the keg, instead selling cases of beer and growlers for people who come into his store or buy online.
"You wholesale a keg or a half barrel, and it might be $110 to $150," he explained, noting that demand for high volume is diminshed because large gatherings and events are less frequent. He says he can sell the same amount in "the tap room, and it's $700 to $800."
Adapt and Survive
2020 may go down as one of the most difficult years for small businesses to survive since the Great Depression.
"There's just more and more challenges," said Mac Clouse, a professor of finance at the University of Denver. "The big challenges are the same, and now they are more difficult to solve."
Clouse agrees, however, that there are lessons to be learned in this environment, and the businesses that adapt to changing consumer demands and an ever-shifting regulatory landscape will be better suited for the future after the pandemic is over.
"The basics are more important now than ever," Clouse explained. He says the basics are "Defining a problem, solving a problem, monetizing it, and executing."
For the two business owners, there is one more factor to include. Given the ups and downs of business, it is important more now than ever to love the work they do.
"And it's great to get to know people, I just, I love it," said Schurmann, "When it's not fun, I won't do it. But I enjoy this"
Maris Johansson agrees.
"I'm still having fun. I feel like if I'm having fun now it'll only get better."