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Mid Century Meow, in Bay View.

Small business owners feel the pinch, cling to hope

Much has been written already about workers in the gig economy, as well as employees of the service industry. The economic shutdown from coronavirus has been nothing short of devastating for so many Milwaukeeans, and it will get worse before it gets better.

But what about the owners of small businesses in town? It's a terrifying time to be an entrepreneur – this I can attest to personally. For OnMilwaukee, readership is very strong as our team connects with the community as never before … but we're also seeing a dip in advertising clients not experienced since 9/11. And we're not the only ones. Every small business owner is worried about our future, hoping our dreams don't go up in smoke.

I reached out to three Milwaukee business owners I know to see where things stand during this unprecedented time of crisis.

Neil Kiekhofer is one of the owners of Front Room Studios, a Bay View wedding and commercial photography and videography business. Aricka Cohen owns Mid Century Meow, an antique furniture store, also in Bay View. And Sarah Charles is a one-person salon called Mirror Mirror, a space that she rents in the Sola Salon space in Hales Corners.

Here are their stories, and ways you can help.

OnMilwaukee: How is your business being affected by social distancing?

Aricka Cohen: I have been plugging away with never before offered price slashing opportunities. This has been in an effort to salvage any traction I/the business with a baby fresh brick and mortar location has and to help others get things that they'd previously planned on getting, but with closures who are they going to get it from?! While I have no control over most things, generally, I am trying to make any attempt while I can now to help my future. This is all I have. Over the last week I have felt like the hands of time turned back and I was selling out of my home or at the warehouse, where social media was dominantly the only source of exposure, waving my arms like one of those inflatable thingamabobbers to be seen.

With social distancing I have had no option for the safety of myself and other to go back to appointment based shopping. The reality is unless an item has been paid for to be picked up no one is all that stoked to set an appointment to shop a store.

Numerous times I've heard, "I don't want to inconvenience you." Being that this is my job and I can't operate with standardized open door policy, at this juncture with social distancing appointment, first in first out is all I have physically available to offer, beyond online orders for pick-up, delivery and shipping.

Neil Kiekhofer: Social distancing for employees is remote working and only being present as is necessary. It has almost become a flip from what we did before. Before, everyone wanted to work remotely and now everyone must work remotely. This has changed how we can engage both with prospective clients and with current clients. After these changes, I think that I value a phone call and texts that much more. We are using texting as quick check ins, "how are you," "here is a meme" or something to lighten the day. The phone call now provides a deeper level of engagement and a greater level of care.

Social distancing has also transformed the how we meet with clients or conduct in person time so that it is now faster engagement. As 90% of our business is direct engagement, from head shots, video sessions and event coverage; we are very reliant on some face to face time. Now, we are welcoming people into the studio like we used to, but make absolute certain that we clean every surface that is touched. We only welcome one person at a time, only have one person engage with the client. Then we space out 30 minutes between people to allow for cleaning. This is much slower, it is much more costly; but we are complying happily. We know that first and foremost, everyone's health and safety is the number one priority.

Do you have any backup plans for revenue, like selling gift cards or e-commerce? Would it help if your clients prepaid for a few haircuts?

Sarah Charles: I have given my clients the offer to purchase gift cards now to use at a future appointment. I have also said I would be willing to do curbside pick up or delivery if any of my clients would like to purchase hair products. A few of my clients have contacted me offering to pre-pay for their haircuts. I found this to be such an extremely thoughtful gesture.

How much of your business can you do remotely or online?

Kiekhofer: Front Room Studios made a fast shift to working remotely. But most of that work is done on production of imagery that has been created in person. This creates a challenge as we must have some in person contact for almost every aspect of business. We happily comply with all CDC, state or local laws and suggestions. We are 100% dedicated to flattening the curve. But that doesn't mean it isn't challenging.

Almost all of our initial business is in person. We can do production of imagery and videos remotely really well. That being said, our team has been working on great ways to engage remotely prior to all this. With all of our tech, we can video chat so easily but some parts of business are moving at the speed of 100 years ago. We do run into a bottleneck of large data transfers, but we are trying to solve that through one person being the hard drive transfer and delivery person. What used to take us eight minutes now is done in days.

I welcome the advent of remote offices. It is awesome to give people the flexibility to work remotely. The part that is so tough for our team is that we are all really close, as people. Our office culture is one of the reasons that we have such a great product and experience for consumers. We love what we do and we love our team; it is hard to be separated from them.

As with so many other industries, if we are told to shelter in place, we will. That will also mean that we cannot create any new business. This is where we struggle - just like so many other industries. Without some safe engagement, we will not have a business. We realize that and are continuing to constantly work on and refine ways to work in today's environment and preparing for whatever tomorrow will bring.

Cohen: Much of my business is done in-store. Social media is the party, the getting to know each other part of the date. Anyone who follows me online and shops with me totally gets that I'd say a thing like that. I'm well aware that the years in and track record I've shown has earned the ear of a buyer, but it's the one on one service offered online and in person that really earns their trust and faith in the process to become a buyer.

Sure, I have customers that stalk my wares online for awhile, but ultimately it's the service and tactile element that is the sales closer. I can, for most part only truly describe and showcase a piece so far online to inspire a purchase. Considering I'm not food or libation I am surely feeling uncertain of the communities continued interest in my offerings. With the prospect of closing the doors and relying on online orders exclusively I'm looking at restructuring my present business with quite an uphill battle.

Have you found that customers are already cutting back on discretionary purchases, like vintage furniture?

Cohen: We are all processing these changes so differently. Some of us were looking into buying a home, are making every effort to close on a home, found a better rental/office to move into and furnish, or simply finally saved enough money to comfortably buy that new bedroom set, for instance. These few examples of shoppers were really excited about buying furniture for their exciting new place. From the conversations I've had with friends, strangers and customers alike, furniture is a "When it's over I'll call you back" thing.

The exception are those who have been planning and already making sacrifices for their future. These individuals have made me feel so wonderful. They see the sincere and genuine interest for quality of service and offerings in my efforts to sustain my livelihood and have stepped up. I am so grateful.

What kind of assistance would you like if you could get it?

Charles: I would appreciate being able to apply for unemployment benefits. I pay into the pool and it would definitely help now to use this resource. I've never not worked (since age 14) and I've never claimed unemployment.

Cohen: As a self employed single owner/proprietor my eyes are a little googley as to even being assisted. From all of the reading I've done between personal and professional survival, I'm, and others in my shoes, are islands. The government simply doesn't see us unless we owe them money. We are the left behind child with no lunch program prospects.

I am hoping to see grants, not loans become available to us all. On a higher level I really really hope to see mortgage and rent freezes that allow us all to stand together and still. The idea of landlords, creditors, lenders coming after those that are unable to earn is a very emotionally burdening potential. That is why I have persisted in and restricted shopping opportunities. I feel like my only advocate at this moment.

Kiekhofer: We are grateful for some wonderful resources we have already found. I must highlight the work that the MMAC is doing to engage, connect and inform the business community. They have been offering webinars that are covering all types of businesses and varying aspects running a business. They also have a COSBE (Council of Small Business Executives) group which normally meets monthly but we are Zooming bi-monthly and trading emails daily. Having a support network of other businesses has been the first step for keeping our business strong.

When I think of assistance, otherwise, I think of financial assistance. Our biggest strain is on our payroll, then rent, and then monthly utilities. We, first and foremost, welcome all options that would help safeguard our employees. If we were to receive any government - WEDC or SBA assistance - it would only be used for maintaining the payroll and essential services. Having a clear information pipeline and ability to take action is key to our ability to move forward. Information is coming from so many sources, I am taking a lot of time to investigate each one. It would be wonderful to have a resource that would streamline the multiple sources of information to one main location.

Front Room and I are dedicated to the team. The assistance that we both want and need is assistance that ensures the fabric of the business is solid. The employees are the foundation of our business and community. We know that the only way we can be #Milwaukeestrong is by keeping the fabric of our business and community together. We are all prepared to live off of only what we need to survive, financially. So, if we do ask or take any assistance, we are really looking to provide for these fundamental basic needs.

How long can you weather this storm?

Cohen: There could be so many unforeseen twists. My hope is that with my persevering resourceful efforts to continue to work and the savings I intended to use for my piece of the pie future that I will be ok for awhile. I 100% to my core understand that I am, in this unknown future, pretty lucky. Since working my way out of week to week survival I got to a place in life were I had felt stable. Without the health and help of government programs and my community I am absolutely worried about the longevity of stability I have on zero income.

Kiekhofer: We have always been a fan of running without debt and keeping some money in reserves. We have cut salaries and plan to weather the storm as long as possible. Our intent is to slowly use the cash reserves instead of draining it quickly. What this means is that we are also must plan for funds to start up again. We know this could be a long road to recovery, but with careful planning we are confident that we can come back. We have weathered the financial crisis of 2008. We know that if we all work together, we can survive this, too.

In the future, it it comes down, financially, to having to freeze the business, we will make that tough decision until we can operate again. We have had a strong business for almost 24 years and we have no intention of closing our doors. The days may have become more challenging, but we know that we are string and will rise from this and continue to be a part of Milwaukee's business community. Our plan is not just to weather the storm and survive through it, but to look to a solid future beyond this storm.

Charles: I think that my business can be put on pause without losing my clientele. I would hope that once being allowed to return to work the majority of my clients will come back to me. I do worry that other hairdressers might start to offer to do hair out of their homes and some clients would take advantage of that opportunity. Then they may not return to me. Financially, speaking, I think I can hang on for a few months before I wouldn't be able to make current payments on bills.

How are you holding up emotionally, as a small business owner?

Cohen: In some respects I feel emotionally shutdown and extremely exposed. I have a constant tension in my shoulders and back. My head is swimming with my eyes simply trying to find their sea legs. At the moment I am finding that I am gripping onto any sense of established structure in the creative business casual world I've created without too much of a tremor in my voice, but it's there.

Just today I cried while moving furniture in true multitasking fashion! I can't bring myself to give in completely or even too much right now. It's not that I don't deserve to feel and react, it's just I've worked too hard and struggled for too long to give into defeat. Without holding my head up and trying to keep my eyes clear I won't see the positive steps and impact I can make and the incredible inspiring things around me along the way. This isn't just happening to me. The stronger I am the stronger I hope we can all be.

Charles: I miss my clients already. I love what I do and I love my clients. I've only been off of work for three days and it seems like three weeks! Being able to care for my clients, making them feel good about themselves because they look good, and visiting with them is something I'm already missing. Being able to listen to them and talk about their families, job, or problems is definitely a huge part of my job. Some of my clients have been with me since I was 19. That's 25 years. I have relationships with them. They're my people. For as much as I'm giving them a service they are supporting me financially and on a one on one human connection level. I'm grateful and very lucky. I'm starting to go stir crazy and this is only the beginning.

Kiekhofer: I have moments when I am scared for my team. I know finances are incredibly hard for all. Sometimes, I get down and sad about what is happening. But I also know that, together as a team, we are creating new offerings. I have witnessed amazing ideas and growth from my team. They truly give me hope and optimism.

Emotionally, I am good today and I am going to try to be the same tomorrow. This is incredibly tough, but this is what I do. As a small business owner and entrepreneur, I fight. I innovate. I cannot give up, instead, I find a new way. That is how I have felt and hope to keep feeling. I am taking the feeling of being scared of what I cannot control and instead of turning to fear; I am looking toward innovation and finding ways to be better than before.

I have been in business long enough to experience challenges from bad business decisions, difficult recessions, and the effects of terrorist attacks. They are all stressful and awful. I have never had to lay anyone off before. I have never experienced the scope of this situation before, but neither has anyone around us. I am more hopeful than I expect. I feel optimistic for the outcome. I know that eventually this will end and life will go on. Our lives will be changed, maybe forever. But I know that I will always have my family; be it my family at home, my work family, any my Milwaukee business family. We are experiencing these challenges together, we will weather the storm together, and eventually, we will rise together.


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