Necessity and inventions: How these entrepreneurs are adapting to a pandemic

Josh Rivera, Brett Molina, Coral Murphy, Mike Snider, Jefferson Graham and Jazmin Goodwin, USA TODAY

From bookstore shopkeepers to cafe owners to disc jockeys, entrepreneurs across America have been among the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

Small businesses in the U.S. employ nearly 60 million people, and 57 million are self-employed independent contractors, gig workers, temporary and part-time workers. Benefits like health care coverage or sick paid leave are not guaranteed for all of these workers and many rely on their income to handle these expenses. 

With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to limit the social gatherings and local governments mandating the closure of nonessential businesses to help curb the spread of COVID-19, these business owners have a major challenge: Find creative ways to adjust in a time of crisis. 

Here are seven entrepreneurs who are innovating and reinventing their businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.

A bookstore all to yourself

Capital Hill Books, forced to close during the coronavirus, had come up with two ways to help it maintain business during the shutdown: shopping by appointment (four shoppers or less) and virtual grab bag book collections shipped to shoppers.

Even before Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser ordered all restaurants, bars and gathering places in the District of Columbia to be shut down, the owners of Capitol Hill Books had been preparing for a new chapter in its business.

Foot traffic had slowed during the March 14 weekend. Usually on weekends, the cozy, three-floor used book store gets quite packed.

"Things were slowing down, and we also anticipated there would be some orders coming down from local government to close," said Kyle Burk, one of several co-owners who purchased the store in July 2018.

That led the store's operators to consider how to keep the business open while keeping "social distancing practices and reduce contact with our employees and the public," he said. 

The book store closed Monday, March 16, but they began taking appointments for groups of customers of four or less. "When they come to the store, they knock on the door. We unlock it and we immediately have hand sanitizer and gloves for them to put on," Burk said. "Once they have sanitized and put on the gloves, we ask just that they keep 6 feet apart.  They have the store to themselves for an hour, and after the hour we charge them for whatever books they buy."

The book store, which is just about six blocks east of the U.S. Capitol, also began another service for customers: custom book selections.

Book lovers can call or email them a book genre, topic or author they are interested in, how much they would like to spend and the store's employees will select a collection of books for them. Capitol Hill Books will ship or, if the customer is local, curbside pickup can be arranged.

So far, the store hasn't had to lay off any of its five employees, Burk says. While these new strategies do not replace the traditional walk-in customers, they may "allow us to remain viable as a business," he said. "That is our main goal right now."

Curling up with a good book can be a way to cope. "It sounds like it is going to be a long hard slog to get through this and people are going to need books to get through it," Burk said.

— Mike Snider 

Social media brings the money

David Lopez

He has done hair for Ashley Graham, Hailey Bieber and Chrissy Teigen. But with no events to attend, his celebrity clientele has no need for his at-home services right now. 

David Lopez is a hair and makeup professional whose main source of income is in an industry that requires physical proximity to his clients. During the coronavirus pandemic and directives from the government to close all nonessential businesses, the beauty industry finds itself in a predicament. 

Lopez, 35, is also an Instagram influencer with more than 48,000 followers. That has been his saving grace.

"I have had more requests for sponsored content (product reviews or features on Instagram) in the last two weeks than I've ever gotten," said Lopez, who focuses on self-care advice that works for all genders. He says he took "a week of planning to be sensitive to the times (and figure out) content that makes you feel good." But he added that in order to do those things, he really had to "hone in on what my message is on social media."

From his residence in Brooklyn, New York, Lopez can shoot his own videos and photos, thanks to an in-home studio he built. Whether he's doing a video shoot or an Instagram takeover, in which brands give him control of their social media accounts, "from home, I can just put on a wig and do a tutorial on hair care." 

As an ambassador, or sponsor, for brands like Ulta Beauty, Kenra Professional, Byrdie Beauty and IGK Hair, Lopez is able to maintain a steady stream of income through those contracts. But Lopez has also experienced a change in commitments from some clients such as home-shopping network QVC. 

"I host classes and present at hair shows, which have been canceled. I (also) do work for QVC and had to dial-in for my last airing," said Lopez. "The rate was different because I wasn't there, but it was great that they were able to accommodate."

— Josh Rivera 

At School of Rock, the show goes on

A student participates in a remote lesson through School of Rock.

School of Rock, a multilocation music school,  has inspired would-be young rock stars with its "performance-based" music education program. The closure of its schools because of the coronavirus pandemic forced a school focused on group-based learning to rethink its approach.

"Like most people, we had a seizure of terror," said School of Rock CEO Rob Price on closing its schools.

Instead of fully shutting down, School of Rock launched a virtual, one-on-one remote program, where students use video conferencing tools to continue music lessons with teachers. The school teaches more than 40,000 students around the world.

School of Rock will accept new students during this time, offering singing lessons and instruction on instruments including guitar, bass, drums or keyboard.

"You have tens of millions of people dislocated, with time on their hands feeling anxiety, grief, fear and dislocation," said Price. "We know from 21 years of experience that music is one of the best natural antidotes to those conditions."

— Brett Molina 

Facebook Live party sustains DJ

DJ Yamil

What started out as an act to distract Puerto Ricans stuck in their homes quickly became disc jockey Yamil Torres' new business model.

A curfew issued on March 15 urged millions in Puerto Rico to stay at home to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez imposed a 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew that will run through March 30, fining violators up to $5,000.

With the island under lockdown, Torres, known as "DJ Yamil," thought a Facebook Live party would lift the island's morale after a day of working or studying from home. From his home in Aguadilla, located in western Puerto Rico, the 32-year-old recreated a busy club environment.

The first of several virtual parties, on March 19, garnered over 21 million views and hundreds of thousands of comments, with some of them asking how they could contribute monetarily.

"Many people were thanking me for helping them alleviate stress from their lives," Torres told USA TODAY.

Torres attached his phone number in the description of his second Facebook live so his audience could make donations through the money transferring app ATH Móvil, as well as PayPal.

The governor even congratulated Torres via social media.

"What an excellent initiative by DJ Yamil for everyone's entertainment!," read Vázquez's temporary Instagram post in Spanish. "During these times of social distancing, social media can turn into an extraordinary alternative for everyone’s virtual enjoyment."

Torres said he hopes to continue his parties on a weekly basis.

— Coral Murphy-Marcos 

Social clubhouse goes digital

Ethel's Club is a social clubhouse in Brooklyn, NY.

Social clubs and coworking spaces have long been a place where entrepreneurs, freelancers and gig-economy workers can connect with like-minded people. However, that has abruptly changed as many of these gathering places have been forced to shut their doors amid the worsening coronavirus pandemic. 

Ethel’s Club, a social and wellness clubhouse located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn is no different. But creativity in a time of crisis has allowed it to thrive in a different form. 

The coworking space – which provides members development programming and a space to network for a monthly fee – opened in November and shut its doors on March 13. 

"When the coronavirus started to hit its peak, we felt that it was best for our community to shut doors. It was important to think about our members first," said Naj Austin, founder of Ethel's Club. 

In a week's time, Austin and her team had fully conceptualized a way to convert their brick-and-mortar space into a virtual model. "We always wanted to include digital memberships. We replicated everything that we do here and put it online," she said. 

On March 20, Ethel’s Club launched its digital-only membership, which includes daily streamed content through Zoom and Vimeo three times a day. 

The programming, which mirrors that of the physical location, spans from meditation and breathwork sessions for members to cope with anxiety and stress, to other interactive offerings, such as live DJ sets and skill-building workshops around photography and content creation. Other membership perks include exclusive discounts and a remote job list. 

"It has always been about giving access and people of color the ability to feel uplifted, empowered and supported," Austin said.

While the physical space is home to more than 200 members and includes a waiting list for others to join, Ethel's Club's digital community has unlocked access for an unlimited number of virtual members to join nationwide. 

"The pivot to virtual has allowed everyone to be a part of what we've been doing here," Austin said. "We can't predict the future, but we want people to know we're building a place that people can depend on."

— Jazmin Goodwin 

Bookstore moves club to Zoom

{pages a bookstore} in Manhattan Beach, California, has moved its weekly bookclub to Zoom, to keep in contact with customers during the COVID-19 crisis

When local officials mandated that all nonessential businesses were to be closed, Linda McLoughlin Figel and her partner Patty Gibson went into action, sending out an email newsletter to customers of their Los Angeles area book store. 

They let them know that books, puzzles and gift cards could still be ordered from the {pages: a bookstore} website, that they would be offering curbside pickups for books every day from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and that the popular book clubs would still be meeting – except that they would be online. 

With the "tech assist" of her 28-year-old daughter Sarah, Figel put the "Coffee Time" book club on the Zoom video conference service, where it plans to remain for as long as the store has to be physically closed. 

"It's a great way to connect," she says. "People are isolated."

The group usually has 20 people who meet weekly at the store, which is in the Manhattan Beach suburb of Los Angeles. For the Zoom conference, she had 12 people join in to discuss "Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead" by Olga Tokarczuk, which she considered a major success. 

Zoom is free, but only for video calls up to 40 minutes. So Figel paid the $14.99 fee for longer calls, and the club met for an hour, as they usually do at the store.

The benefit of video conferencing? "We were a little more efficient. There were fewer sidebars."

The downside? Some people choose not to have their face on the screen., "There's something you gain when you can see everyone's facial reactions," Figel says.

The traditional in-store book club meetings usually end with participants going to the cash register to buy the next book. That happened for the virtual book club, as well – except they bought it online.

The {pages} website has experienced a dramatic increase since the COVID-19 crisis, with customers buying more books and puzzles, mostly for pickup, "which is great," Figel added. 

— Jefferson Graham 

Cafe chai at your doorstep

Kolkata Chai Co. is NYC's first South-Asian owned chai cafe.

After businesses in New York were forced to move to takeout and delivery amid the coronavirus pandemic, the highs of opening a new food and beverage spot quickly dwindled for brothers, Ani and Ayal Sanyal. 

"Life as we know it had been completely turned upside down; we knew our lives would be changed forever," said Ani Sanyal. 

Just six months before, the two were celebrating the grand opening of their masala chai cafe, Kolkata Chai, with a line wrapped around the building. The shop, located in the heart of the city's East Village neighborhood, is the brothers' nod to the South Asian drink they enjoyed during summers spent in Kolkata. 

"Coming to the store was the entire experience," said Ani. 

In a pinch, they were forced to figure out how to survive without a shop as an option. They found delivery services, at the time, weren't accepting new vendors. 

"When you're forced into improbable situations, it forces you to innovate, whether you have that in mind or are a little bit behind," said Ani. "These set of circumstances forced us to innovate on the food and beverage side at a level that I don't think we knew we had the capabilities to do." 

Within 48 hours, the two had created their own delivery infrastructure and converted their entire business model to stay afloat. By using Squarespace to integrate their payment system and bringing on full-time help to coordinate deliveries and a real-time map for orders, Kolkata now makes deliveries of chai and other store delicacies, samosas and Indian biscuits Parle-G's right to customers' doorsteps. 

Weekly revenue rose due to new online orders, gift card purchases and generous tipping from customers, according to Ani. 

In the coming weeks, Ani and Ayan plan to offer a DIY chai kit to give customers the opportunity to make their authentic chai from home. 

"Amidst all the chaos, we have built two new verticals of our business, e-commerce and delivery. We rapidly pivoted to make sure that the legacy of this business and what it means for our family as first-gen immigrants don't die," Ani added. 

— Jazmin Goodwin 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus: How 7 American small businesses are adapting