Are the Worst of Times the Best of Times to Start a New Business?
Amber Cancelliere had worked in the salon industry for 12 years and, for the most part, loved it.
Then the pandemic hit the state hard in March, bringing with it death, havoc, and economic destruction.
“I was hesitant to go back to work in a salon. I was nervous. Everything was a blur as to what was happening,” says the Ivoryton resident. “We were not going to be opening and then we were. And then I was nervous about what being in a salon with clients would mean.”
In May, Cancelliere decided to take matters into her own hands, starting up Hair by Amber. She became a traveling hair stylist offering in-home services.
So far, it’s going well, and business is growing.
“I schedule them, go to the house, we do it outside on the patio if the weather allows. It feels nice and safe for them, not having to be around people other than me.”
Cancelliere has lots of company in Connecticut. Despite the pandemic and, sometimes, because of it, new business creation continued unabated, even during the worst months of the pandemic.
In fact, at the height of the pandemic, in March and June, thousands of entrepreneurs in Connecticut took the plunge, starting up 236 new businesses offering personal services, 300 businesses in residential remodeling and contracting, more than 200 new businesses in the professional services sector, 171 new e-commerce businesses, and “hundreds of others,” says Josh Geballe, the commissioner of the Department of Administrative Services, and chief operating officer in the Office of the Governor.
State Trying to Make It Easier
Geballe says he and other state officials understand the need to make it easier than ever to do business in Connecticut. A new initiative, he says, an online business portal at business.ct.gov, is “one-stop shopping” for the entrepreneur interested in starting or growing a business.
“This very cool tool will step you through exactly what you need to know to get a business up and running,” he says.
He estimates that, when compared to the way things used to be done in Connecticut, which hasn’t always had a reputation as an easy place to do business, the redesigned online portal could take the small business founder 90 percent less time than it used to, along with potentially saving him or her thousands of dollars in legal and accounting fees.
Starting up a new business means dealing with the Secretary of the State’s Office, the Department of Revenue Services, and sometimes the Department of Labor, at a bare minimum.
“You can do all of these steps from one portal,” says Sheila Hummel from the state Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) Office of Small Business Affairs. “So you won’t have to jump around. It’s very seamless.”
A Good Start
Cancelliere’s Hair by Amber was among several small Connecticut businesses asked to give feedback about the new portal. Cancelliere was featured at a press conference about the new portal, along with Ted Dinsmore of Killingworth, the president and managing partner of New Haven-based SphereGen, a company that creates software to solve business problems.
Cancelliere says the new portal should prove useful for new entrepreneurs, and also for people like her who have already created their business. It was tough for her to get the answers she needed when she started her business.
“[I]t was frustrating trying to juggle what they were telling me, going into the website, going back to Google. It took me longer than I would have anticipated, and I didn’t have all the free time in the world,” she says. “It will be easier to use that [new] website, filing sales taxes and all the stuff I have to charge. It’s all in one spot. It looks like an easier, quicker process.”
Dinsmore, a serial entrepreneur who has started up multiple innovative businesses, says the new portal is a great start—and that the state still has lots of room for improvement when it comes to further refining the process.
State officials agree.
They say the portal is a work in progress, and that the new portal is just the first phase. They say they understand it’s important to continue to make the state an easier place to do business. And they say they are encouraged by the number of businesses that continue to open up, and by anecdotal reports of businesses and business people saying they are considering a move to the state from big cities like New York and Boston.
Hummel from the DECD says entrepreneurs in the state are exploring new opportunities in a variety of fields.
“What’s doing really well right now? It’s all types of businesses. Cleaning services. People want someone to come in and deep clean. They’re really taking off. Lawn services. Cleaning up trees,” she says.
She heard of one new business that specializes in deep cleaning laptops, iPads, and cell phones specifically.
“Anything having to do with technology, websites. Digital marketing. Everyone not only wants to have a website, they want to know, how do you get people to that website,” she says. “Home improvement contractors, I hear, are busier than ever.”
She says there are opportunities when it comes to daycare, as many closed at the beginning of the pandemic due to the uncertainty surrounding the care of young children. Now, with uncertainty surrounding school schedules, there is huge unmet demand.
“If anyone wants to open up a home daycare, it would be good to get a license, because a lot of them closed,” Hummel says.
In addition to visiting the new online business portal, Hummel says those thinking of starting up a new business should visit the Connecticut Small Business Development Center at ctsbdc.com, which has more than 20 different business advisors available statewide. She also recommends the Women’s Business Development Council (WBDC) at ctwbdc.org as a resource. She says, in particular, Fran Pastore, the WBDC president and CEO, “has a passion for women- and minority-owned businesses.”
Hummel says state officials remain very concerned about some small business categories, including restaurants, a mainstay of the state’s small business community. Restaurants have been hit badly by necessary restrictions relating to occupancy rates, and the continued closure of bars, which have been identified as particularly problematic in other parts of the country when it comes to the spread of COVID.
As the state investigates options to help existing restaurateurs, Hummel says some restaurant and food entrepreneurs are successfully pivoting and adapting to the pandemic era.
After a Layoff, New Business Thrives
Wynter Piekarz started up her new food business late last year, working at it part time while working her primary job as a private chef. Her new gig, a meal delivery service for towns along the Connecticut shoreline, began to gain traction, and she began to worry about how she could do it all. Then March came and the pandemic swept in.
Piekarz got laid off, joining an estimated 30 to 40 million people nationwide who lost their jobs during the pandemic.
Wondering how she’d make it financially, she threw herself into her new venture, Wynter’s Whisk. Now, business is booming. In addition to her business partner, she’s hired about five to six people to work with her, including her daughter.
“Things are going great,” says Piekarz, who lives in Madison and runs her business out of a commercial kitchen in North Branford.
“We have over 200 people subscribed and are working with SCORE [the Service Corp of Retired Executives, which provides support and advice to businesses]. They just took us on last month, and love what we are doing,” she says. “We have a huge untapped market of people and it’s just about getting the word out, so we are brainstorming on how to do that.”
‘We Fell in Love’
Nesh and Kal Patel, brothers-in-law and business partners for more than a decade, in late August opened a MOOYAH Burgers, Fries & Shakes fast-casual “better burger” franchise at 1919 Boston Post Road in Guilford in the Guilford Commons. Nesh Patel used to manage five Dunkin’ Donuts, with more than 80 employees. Kal Patel has a background in computer science and aerospace, with a long career in IT at Pratt & Whitney.
The new restaurant in Guilford seems ideal for the COVID era, with an app that allows customers to order and pay without entering the store, a generous outside seating area, and all of the requisite COVID protocols in place to protect staff and customers.
Nesh Patel, in a phone interview on opening day, says his background working at Dunkin’ Donuts gave him the confidence to know he could succeed at running his own franchise. When he and Kal ate at a MOOYAH several years ago, he says, “we fell in love.” They particularly loved the build-your-own-burger concept, the way the stores looked, and the way the food tasted.
Kal Patel, who on opening day was in Norway on business for his IT job, developed a passion for food while traveling.
“This is our passion. We put our heart and soul into anything and everything we do,” he says.
So far the restaurant has seen a flood of customers and positive feedback. By midday on opening day, they had already logged more than 117 customers.
Connecticut? So Far, So Good
Kal Patel says he knows that Connecticut sometimes has a reputation for being business-unfriendly, but that, so far, they have found Connecticut to be a mostly decent place to do business.
“At the same time...we hope our leaders in politics continue to support the small businesses that are the foundation of the state,” he says. “It’s about making sure they survive, and that small businesses are provided with equal opportunity to compete with bigger businesses.”
Tony Darden, the president of MOOYAH Burgers, Fries & Shakes, says when starting a new business it’s important to pick the right town. Guilford is the right town, he says.
“The Town of Guilford has been extremely accommodating during the construction and permitting process. A build-out that normally takes 12 weeks took us 9 weeks from start to finish,” he says. “Each department communicated regularly with our construction team and with each other to ensure permits, plan reviews, and inspections were all completed and passed timely. There weren’t any delays that we’re sometimes challenged with when dealing with other municipalities. We are grateful to the contractors and the wonderful Guilford team for all their help in getting us open during a challenging time.”
Working Shoulder to Shoulder
When asked for advice, Nesh Patel encouraged entrepreneurs to work “shoulder to shoulder” with their employees. He calls them co-workers.
He says entrepreneurs should be prepared to work monstrously long hours, and many days. He took a few days off around Christmas, and that is the last time he took a day off.
“That’s true,” says Kal Patel.
“It’s about you working yourself,” says Nesh Patel. “You, working behind the counter, in the kitchen...So you make an example and if you are willing to do that, yes you can open up a business. If you’re not willing to do that, save your money and do something else. Lots of people think if they have the money, they will just hire somebody and they will run the business. No. It’s not going to work that way. If you’re not going to go into the kitchen yourself, making sure from start to finish the product execution is perfect, don’t do it. You are going to lose.”
He talked about not only how to toast a burger bun, but how much you have to toast it to make it perfectly, but not too much, toasty.
“Small things matter,” he says.
Kal Patel added that advance and in-depth research is mandatory as well, before opening a business.
He says people without previous experience opening a business can succeed if they do their research and are willing to work harder than they ever have before.
“In the COVID era, a lot of people are losing their jobs, so if this is something you want to do, you have to commit yourself, and be ready to commit more than ever... What Nesh said is 100 percent true...This is going to be something that is going to be far rougher than anything you’ve done in your career,” he says. “But if you go in with the right mindset, and use all the resources that are available to you, and commit yourself fully, you will succeed.”