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Is a Pandemic the Right Time to Start a Business? It Just Might Be

In March, as small businesses across the country were shutting down amid the spreading coronavirus pandemic, Shanel Fields was about to open one up.

For Ms. Fields, the timing couldn’t have been better. Her company, MD Ally, allows 911 dispatchers and other responders to route nonemergency calls and patients to virtual doctors, to help local governments improve their emergency response systems.

“Something that a lot of people don’t know is that more than half of calls that go to 911 are nonemergency,” said Ms. Fields, whose father’s experiences as a volunteer emergency medical worker sparked the idea. “Those nonemergency calls overcrowd E.R.s and delay ambulances.”

But she also recognizes how crazy it sounds to start a business during an economic collapse. She knows that while she’s hiring, many small businesses are worrying about whether they’ll ever reopen.

She’s not alone: New businesses are forming despite the pandemic, though at a significantly slower rate than before.

There have been more than 500,000 applications for an employer identification number since mid-March, according to the Census Bureau, although that is down nearly 20 percent from a year ago. Between mid-March and mid-April, the Small Business Administration issued nearly 300 start-up loans worth about $153 million, a 36 percent drop from year earlier. Stripe, the credit card processing firm, said it had handled more than $1 billion in sales for businesses that started on the platform during that time.

Past downturns produced some high-profile American companies: Airbnb, Disney, General Motors, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Slack, Uber and Venmo, to name a few.

“Downturns or challenging times are seen as good times to start a business for two reasons,” said Rashmi Menon, entrepreneur in residence at the University of Michigan’s Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies. “One is, there is less competition for resources. The second reason is that whatever changes we face, positive or negative, bring up new customer needs. And customer needs are at the core of any business.”

For Ms. Fields, opening now meant greater access to top talent. She hired her fourth employee and said more than 200 qualified applicants had submitted résumés. And being in the health care sector during a pandemic has raised her profile with funders and governments: MD Ally, which is based in Philadelphia, recently signed its first customer and closed its first round of investment worth $1 million.

For others, the timing can mean low interest rates for borrowing start-up capital, cheaper equipment as businesses sell off inventory or lower lease rates as landlords scramble to fill empty spaces.

“I’m already seeing a huge uptick in requests for kitchen leases and subleases to be used for carryout kitchens or production spaces,” said Jenn Smith, a commercial real estate agent in Detroit.

In the best of times, 20 percent of new businesses don’t survive their first year, according to federal statistics; economic headwinds present greater challenges. A restaurant or bookstore opening on Main Street, however, faces very different risks from those of a new tech firm whose employees can work from home and whose customers don’t need to gather.

“There are going to be industries that are winners, and others that are going to be losers,” said David Brown, who co-founded the start-up accelerator Techstars during the 2008 recession. “I probably wouldn’t want to be in a business right now that caters to business travelers, but I’d love to be in a business that helps enable telemedicine.”

Determining what customers need now, rather than before the pandemic, is crucial. Ms. Menon and Mr. Brown see opportunity in offering solutions to the challenges that people now face: educating their children, working from home, managing supply chains, getting a haircut or the house cleaned, seeing doctors and therapists, entertaining themselves. Even new restaurants might be successful if they consider the future of customer service rather than recreate old systems.

“If you can find innovative ways for people to feed themselves right now, that might make sense,” Ms. Menon said. “You just have to address a need.”

Figuring out how to open the food hall of the future is the task facing Maarten Jacobs, the director of community prosperity at the Allyn Family Foundation, a regional philanthropic organization in Syracuse, N.Y.

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Credit…Mustafa Hussain for The New York Times

That’s not a role Mr. Jacobs expected, considering his background is in community and economic development. He is overseeing the foundation’s investment in a new four-story, 80,000-square-foot building designed to be a community gathering space and incubator for the city’s small food entrepreneurs. A mix of apartments and nonprofit offices is planned for the upper floors, but the heart of the project is Salt City Market, which will feature food stalls run by women and entrepreneurs of color, a coffee shop and a cooperative grocery store.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated May 12, 2020

    • Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?

      There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • When will this end?

      This is a difficult question, because a lot depends on how well the virus is contained. A better question might be: “How will we know when to reopen the country?” In an American Enterprise Institute report, Scott Gottlieb, Caitlin Rivers, Mark B. McClellan, Lauren Silvis and Crystal Watson staked out four goal posts for recovery: Hospitals in the state must be able to safely treat all patients requiring hospitalization, without resorting to crisis standards of care; the state needs to be able to at least test everyone who has symptoms; the state is able to conduct monitoring of confirmed cases and contacts; and there must be a sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • How does coronavirus spread?

      It seems to spread very easily from person to person, especially in homes, hospitals and other confined spaces. The pathogen can be carried on tiny respiratory droplets that fall as they are coughed or sneezed out. It may also be transmitted when we touch a contaminated surface and then touch our face.

    • Is there a vaccine yet?

      No. Clinical trials are underway in the United States, China and Europe. But American officials and pharmaceutical executives have said that a vaccine remains at least 12 to 18 months away.

    • What makes this outbreak so different?

      Unlike the flu, there is no known treatment or vaccine, and little is known about this particular virus so far. It seems to be more lethal than the flu, but the numbers are still uncertain. And it hits the elderly and those with underlying conditions — not just those with respiratory diseases — particularly hard.

    • What if somebody in my family gets sick?

      If the family member doesn’t need hospitalization and can be cared for at home, you should help him or her with basic needs and monitor the symptoms, while also keeping as much distance as possible, according to guidelines issued by the C.D.C. If there’s space, the sick family member should stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom. If masks are available, both the sick person and the caregiver should wear them when the caregiver enters the room. Make sure not to share any dishes or other household items and to regularly clean surfaces like counters, doorknobs, toilets and tables. Don’t forget to wash your hands frequently.

    • Should I stock up on groceries?

      Plan two weeks of meals if possible. But people should not hoard food or supplies. Despite the empty shelves, the supply chain remains strong. And remember to wipe the handle of the grocery cart with a disinfecting wipe and wash your hands as soon as you get home.

    • Should I pull my money from the markets?

      That’s not a good idea. Even if you’re retired, having a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds so that your money keeps up with inflation, or even grows, makes sense. But retirees may want to think about having enough cash set aside for a year’s worth of living expenses and big payments needed over the next five years.