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Published in Small Business
Skyelar Hoort launched Grand Rapids-based Loie Apothecary during pandemic-related downtime. Skyelar Hoort launched Grand Rapids-based Loie Apothecary during pandemic-related downtime. COURTESY PHOTO

Startups in the time of COVID: Entrepreneurs launching businesses this year discuss pandemic setbacks, successes

BY Sunday, October 25, 2020 06:42pm

With widespread wedding and formal school dance cancelations during the pandemic, Archie Sudue’s newly opened men’s suit shop has been struggling.

Sudue planned to open Mel Styles LLC at 315 S. Division Ave. in Grand Rapids in July, but the pandemic set him back about two months.

“My focus is to change the way young men present themselves with affordable, custom-fitted suits,” he said. “I’m just glad to be able to survive during COVID-19 times and am just trying to stay in business.”

Despite a year full of unknowns and setbacks for most businesses, entrepreneurs like Sudue have managed to connect with community resources and are launching new businesses in the middle of a global pandemic. 

Programs including Lakeshore Advantage’s SURGE BoostCamp and the nonprofit SpringGR have still hosted mentoring programs for startups despite remote working constraints. SpringGR switched to a virtual format once the pandemic hit, while SURGE BoostCamp’s 12-week program kicked off its virtual program in September.

Sudue secured a $10,908 retail innovation grant last year from the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority as well as a couple of smaller grants to help launch his business. But Mel Styles doesn’t have enough employees to qualify for most state and federal pandemic business relief programs. 

The 35-year-old moved to the U.S. from Liberia about 15 years ago. He worked at Men’s Wearhouse and Macy’s before operating his suit tailoring business in 2017 from his Grand Rapids apartment. Sudue built a following from satisfied customers and word of mouth, but he realized he needed a brick and mortar store after his neighbor called the police after seeing an influx of people coming to Sudue’s house.

“They saw people stopping by all the time and assumed we were selling drugs,” Sudue said. “But I was fitting them for suits.”

Despite kicking off his business in an economically challenging environment, Sudue said he is still grateful to have a downtown storefront and believes his business will be able to weather the pandemic. 

“I just opened my business knowing that there would be a light at the end of the tunnel,” Sudue said. “We are stronger than COVID-19.”

‘A shock at first’

New businesses are still opening despite the pandemic because entrepreneurs are “eternal optimists,” said Luciano Hernandez, a SURGE BoostCamp participant launching his business, Spirit Fire Aftermarket Products.

The 56-year-old Fennville resident has developed a patented solar-powered marker light. The wireless lights can be affixed to vehicles and do not require the usual wiring or drilling holes, and automatically turn on when a vehicle is in motion.

“If you want a light anywhere on your vehicle you usually have to get inside and mess around with your battery and do the wiring,” Hernandez said. “This takes a lot of time and many people do it wrong and can short-circuit their battery during installation.”

Hernandez’s solar-powered marker light does not require batteries and is designed to only turn on when a vehicle is moving. He plans to meet with a manufacturer to refine the product, which he hopes to start selling straight to consumers in early November. 

“Even though I’ve been running my own business for a long time, I haven’t sold my own product before,” Hernandez said. “As entrepreneurs, COVID-19 was kind of a shock at first, but then you adapt and figure out ways to work around it and what you need to do.” 

Extra time brings opportunity

When the pandemic caused the temporary shutdown of The Lafayette House bed and breakfast in Grand Rapids, co-owner Skyelar Hoort knew she should use the downtime to launch her new business. 

Hoort sells homemade bath salts, salt scrubs, pillow sprays, face masks and sage bundles under Loie Apothecary. She makes the products by hand and sources ingredients from small, local farms. 

“It’s been the best thing for me to use this extra time to dedicate to the project,” Hoort said. “I started doing some sales at the Fulton Street Farmers Market, which got the word out.”

Receptive customers were in search of gifts for people they could not see in person during the lockdown, or were looking for self-care items for themselves, she said.

Now that The Lafayette House has reopened, Hoort has not made it to the farmers market as often, but she sells wellness products on her own website and on Etsy.

“I don’t have a physical location, but I’m getting a production space soon,” she said. “It’s been such a weird year, but I’ve been able to do most of it online. A lot of people are looking for something easy to take care of themselves.”

Hoort is also a member of SURGE BoostCamp, which has pushed her to get feedback directly from customers about the Loie Apothecary products. 

“The mentors are phenomenal, they have such good experience and just know the right questions to ask,” Hoort said. 

Taking the leap

Colton Credelle also felt pushed by the pandemic to take a risk and start his own marketing and design firm, Colt Creative LLC.

The 28-year-old Grand Rapids resident had been contemplating leaving his full-time job as a marketing director for a real estate company to start his own marketing business. He officially registered the LLC for Colt Creative in late January.

“There was no turning back,” Credelle said. “Things were already in motion for it to happen, but the pandemic really made me focus more on the details.”

Credelle went through the SpringGR program in the spring, which helped refine his business plan. 

“My focus is predominantly working with small businesses or smaller organizations and nonprofits,” Credelle said. “I realized my services really appeal best to them because I’m kind of like a pseudo full-service agency.”

Running a small marketing operation allows Credelle to be fluid and more personal when working with clients. He’s seeing more companies move away from having an in-house marketing staff to contract out the work, he said — which is paying off for Colt Creative.

“I haven’t had to do any hard marketing, everything has been word of mouth,” Credelle said. “Already I’ve almost doubled my projections of what I expected I would earn in the first five months of business.”

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