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Pandemic Entrepreneurs

Pandemic Entrepreneurs

Two small business owners who began their journey during the pandemic reflect on the genesis of their business idea, the challenges of social media, and what it’s like to start a small business on their own.

According to the United States Census Bureau, almost 4.5 million new businesses opened by the end of 2020, a year marked by financial insecurity, joblessness, and the fastest and deepest recession in modern American history. The COVID-19 pandemic proved challenging for families and individuals across the globe. However, droves of tenacious entrepreneurs saw potential in the bleak time and carved a new path to financial opportunity.

So, where does someone who wants to brave the entrepreneur expedition begin? According to David Choi, a small business and entrepreneur practitioner and professor at Loyola Marymount University, it first starts with identifying problems. 

“In entrepreneurship, the first thing we learn first semester is how to identify problems because if you identify problems, then you can find solutions. Then you can make a living or make great wealth,” according to Choi. 

A small business owner who started her business by identifying a problem is Taylor Hermes, a 23 year old Orange County resident. She decided to claim her corner in entrepreneurship early in 2021 when she noticed a gap in the market for expressive smoking accessories. Hot Mess Resin was born in January, launching the first product drop in April. 

The idea was conceived from a craft where she purchased a 20 dollar grinder, a packet of dried flowers, and art resin. Hermes quickly realized that there was potential for the desire of aesthetic smoking accessories that hadn’t been cornered. 

Photo by Taylor Hermes. The first grinder Hermes made and the one that inspired Hot Mess.

“I kind of saw a gap in the market for these accessories that allowed you to express your own personal style and interest through even just something that you own, that you use every day…and all the items that people would use, and the items that I had were ugly.. If they did have designs, it was nothing that was of interest to me or would make me want to show my friends like, “Hey, look at this, look at how dope this is” said Hermes. 

Hermes combined her love for music, album covers, the relationships forged by loving the same artist. She incorporated that love into her products with the intention for them function as conversation pieces and collectables. 

“I love music, and I love the culture of music. I love the expression that’s in music album covers…I think that they’re so dope…I thought, how cool would it be if you are a regular smoker and you carry these items around on you every single day, to be able to have items that express your interest and your favorite album,” said Hermes. 

According to Business News Daily, the number one reason individuals enter into the world of entrepreneurship and small business is the freedom and flexibility, being their own boss. For Hermes, it was because she was always told by family that the best way to build a sustainable income is by creating a business. With that in mind, it was only a matter of time, waiting for the right idea to come. 

“Growing up I always thought you had to have a million dollar idea. Like you almost had to be an Einstein and come up with this big equation or life changing thing,” said Hermes. 

According to Choi, one of the biggest mistakes first time entrepreneurs and small business owners make is thinking the idea matters. 

“Usually what happens is, once you start with an idea, you work on it for a few months, you realize your idea has changed in so many different ways that the idea doesn’t really matter,” said Choi. 

Times change, jobs change, consumer needs change, and a smart business owner won’t get too bogged down on the original idea. According to Choi, adaptability is crucial for entrepreneurs. 

Hermes recognized the need to be adaptable and wanted to reach more consumers. A business that was originally for smoking accessories, Hot Mess Resin, was quickly changed to Hot Mess by Hermes

“When I was assessing my business at first I was like maybe Hot Mess Resin is too confined, that’s going to keep me in a resin box. I wanted to change the name to Hot Mess by Hermes because that’s my last name and anything that comes out of Hot Mess is an extension of me.” 

Not wanting to limit her business to only people who smoke and use smoking accessories, she decided to expand. For now, it’s grinders and ashtrays, but Hermes has plans for clothing, perfume trays, coasters, and other home decor. 

Another young entrepreneur who established himself in the small business world is Joshua Hill, a 25 year old Los Angeles County resident, who founded Creativ LA, a hat company. Creativ LA was born very early in the pandemic. The idea came to him two weeks into the stay-at-home order in March of 2020, but inspiration was already rousing. Hill was following another hat brand, Kill The Hype, a company who made waves by flipping logos upside down. 

“It’s cool but it’s not creative, so it made me want to create something different and new that people have never seen before,” remarked Hill. 

According to Hill, he has always loved wearing hats and street-wear hat fashion. Similar to Hermes’ desire to create a sustainable income, Hill jumped on the idea because of the desire to make his own money. 

“It kind of started off out of jealousy. I was like man, I’m jealous that this brand really blew up doing something cool…I want to make money like him. That was the first week of the pandemic but I didn’t know what to put on hats. Then maybe a week and a half, two weeks later, I was lifting weights and it hit me. Recreate logos.”

The first step for Hill was finding his way in the hat industry, researching hundreds of different logos, brainstorming, and designing something new that incorporated unique with original. Behind the scenes production included manufacturer testing, making sure the best quality hats and embroidery were being made to sell. Six months after the genesis of Creativ LA, sales began.  

“Hats can take any outfit to the next level, it’s at the top of your head. If you have a hat on, that’s the first thing someone is going to see, especially if you have a cool hat that no one has seen before. Mine is going to stand out,”said Hill. 

Photo by Summer Strong, Instagram @summzz

Similar to Hermes, Hill has plans to expand his business beyond the original idea. While hats will remain the main priority, Hill has plans for beanies, sweats, socks and more, recently dropping his first non-hat apparel piece, a recreated Laker shirt. 

Both Hill and Hermes are solo business owners, one person doing the jobs of many. According to SCORE Los Angeles, a mentorship resource for small business owners, a few of the hats small business owners wear are designing and producing, marketing, website management, sales, bookkeeping, product and service monitoring, collections, shipments and many more. According to Hill and Hermes, marketing and social media is the most time consuming and challenging hat. 

Social media has evolved and commodified since the dawn of its existence and now powerhouses, such as Facebook, function as advertisement mediums. According to Choi, it’s no longer the amazing free marketing tool it once was. 

“Things have changed. Anytime you want to get anything viral or get a lot of people to look at your stuff, you have to pay so much money,” said Choi. 

According to an article written by Kamil Franek, a business analytical professional, “The Facebook business model is based on offering its tools and services mostly for free to billions of users and then making money by allowing businesses to show Facebook’s users advertising.” 

In a 2018 Senate hearing, Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, sat before the Senate’s Commerce and Judiciary committees regarding data and privacy. When Senator Orrin Hatch inquired how Facebook sustained a business model where users do not pay for the service, Zuckerberg replied, “Senator, we run ads”. In 2020, advertising made up 98% of Facebook’s $86 billion revenue

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As small business owners, social media marketing is crucial. According to Statistica, social media marketing has become one of the most successful and favored forms of digital marketing. That is due to the ability to reach billions of different consumers, demographics, and potential customers by paying Facebook and Instagram to advertise. According to Statistica, benefits of digital media marketing includes increased exposure and traffic, the ability to generate leads, improving sales, developing loyal customers, and providing marketplace insight. 

Hill is taking advantage of the Facebook business model and pays to promote his company, but navigating the backend of advertisement has been yet another learning curve. 

“The hardest part is trying to figure out how to market successfully and how to use social media successfully, because you could pay to use ads and not know what you’re doing and waste money. But if you know what you’re doing and how to scale your brand and use Facebook ads correctly, then it can be really profitable. That’s why I feel like it’s worth it…and it’s been helpful for me, but the hardest part is learning the backend of things,” remarked Hill. 

For Hermes, social media marketing has been a bigger challenge and that’s in part to her product. Facebook and Instagram have community guidelines against the promotion of marijuana or anything related to marijuana. Even without actual cannabis in her product images, paying to promote her business is not an option. 

TikTok is the one social media app that still makes it possible for small businesses to blow up free of charge and that’s due to the “For You” page algorithm. According to Tech Times, “The social media platform will also provide the user’s “For You” feed with content that may be different from their interests. This feature is used to add diversity by allowing users to encounter new creators and new content categories, giving them new ideas and perspectives”.  Unfortunately for Hermes, the community guidelines restrict her from taking full advantage.

In April of 2021, Hermes posted a TikTok promoting her products before the business launched. 

“I got 10,000 likes on it and 50,000 views. 50,000 people saw my post about my business and saw my products. 10,000 people liked it and I got 2,000 new followers in a day,” remarked Hermes. 

Because of a viral TikTok about her products, Hermes made a 100% return on investment for her first launch, but due to TikTok’s community guidelines against cannabis promotion, the video got taken down, as did another viral video for Hot Mess, and it has been impossible to sustain promotion on the app for Hermes. 

Hermes said, “Social media has been the hardest thing so far and it’s the one thing I constantly have at my fingertips.”

Choi stressed the importance of adaptability. Technology has evolved so quickly and will continue to do so. Being flexible and adaptable to change is a necessary trait of an entrepreneur. According to Choi, entrepreneurship is a test of endurance. It takes time, money, creativity, the ability to fill different roles, and lots of learning. 

Small business owners like Hill and Hermes are challenged everyday and continue to labor the test of endurance. 

​​The challenges and learning curves of a solo small business owner are numerous. Hill says “I was going through the small business stuff just winging it…a lot of stuff was trial and error for me. I wish I had someone who could’ve helped me from start to finish to make sure I’m doing things right.”

Hermes remarked on the struggle of being a first time business owner, saying, “No one knows what they’re doing. When you’re starting your first business, you’re really dropped in the deep end. Sink or swim. You’re figuring it out as you go, especially if you’re by yourself.” 

Photo taken by Justin Martinez, Hermes with her first orders ready to ship.

Reflecting on her journey, Hermes said “You figure it out as you’re going then you look back and you’re like wow I did that…it wasn’t easy, but I did that.”

Hill left off with a piece of advice to people considering entrepreneurship, saying, “If you love it, do it. If you don’t, don’t waste your time because it’s a lot of time and effort put into it. I was never the type to have fast anything, so if you love it, do it and go hard.”

The test of endurance for an entrepreneur is a long and challenging one according to Choi, but coming out on the other end is very a rewarding feat.