As small firms shutter due to COVID, some have adapted. Here’s how they did it.

Starting a small business has never been for the faint of heart.

The worry list is long: Where to locate? Will it be profitable? Who will buy what we’re selling?

Although that list is already lengthy, a global pandemic has never been on it.

Until this year.

COVID-19 was added to the list in February when the coronavirus emerged, and it rose to the top of it in March when lots of businesses were ordered to close and people stayed home.

Months later, with the virus still surging, many small businesses haven’t made it. But others have, as their owners discovered ways to adapt to doing business in the COVID Era.

Rudy Harris and his wife, Tammi, own Harris Media, and things were going well for the Northern Kentucky video production firm. So well that in February they decided to move from a small space in Covington, and buy a 4,500-square foot space on Monmouth Street in Newport, a 100-plus-year-old place that had a colorful history as a brewery, a bar, and a grocery, among other incarnations. It needed a lot of work.

Then the virus emerged, grew, and never left.

“We were pretty fearful,” Rudy says.

But they pressed on, gradually renovating the building, and staying in touch with their clients, which include Kroger, St. Elizabeth Healthcare, and Fox Sports.

For them, a year that has seem almost cursed has been one of their best ever.

Pre-COVID, many of their clients held frequent large meetings, conferences, and events. Those are now a thing of the past. But as Rudy says, “Marketing never stops.” Those businesses needed to stay in front of their customers, and Harris Media was able to adapt and help them do that.

Big conferences and events have all gone virtual now and Harris Media provides high-quality video to stream these happenings to reach audiences online and on social media.

St. Elizabeth Healthcare for example, just opened a $140 million cancer center that has been years in the planning and construction. It had scheduled days of events to launch the center, including an open house, a blessing by the Catholic bishop, and a ribbon cutting. Those all became virtual, five days of events streamed live on St. E’s Facebook page and recorded by the Harris Media team.

That’s how Harris Media turned a pandemic into profit.

“It’s definitely been an opportunity for us,” Rudy says.

Stephanie Webster is a former high school biology teacher whose interest in microscopic life and fermentation eventually led her to open The Rhined, a shop that sells artisanal cheese and natural wines across the street from Findlay Market in Over-the-Rhine.

The shop is small but had a bar and a few tables where, on weekends especially, a dozen or so people at a time could hang out, sip wine, and sample cheeses. Findlay Market visitors and tourists would stop in after shopping and relax with a glass or two.

A cheese board from The Rhined.Then COVID happened. No more cheese tasting or sipping wine at the bar.

A couple of years ago, Stephanie and her husband, Dave, had also purchased Oakley Wines, a wine bar in that east side neighborhood. That too was in jeopardy.

It was so worrisome that Dave reached out to his former employer and inquired about the possibility of coming back. They thought about closing both places permanently and going to live with Stephanie’s parents in Savannah.

But they persisted. “We couldn’t just lay everyone off and head to the beach,” she says. “Although it definitely crossed our minds.”

The Rhined was considered a grocery and could have stayed open during the March shutdown, but because of the tight quarters there, the Websters closed it to customers and went online only. Over a couple of days in mid-March, they listed everything they sold online, and a couple of cheesemongers became delivery drivers.

“We've been trying to get an online shop up for two years and were forced to do it in 48 hours to pivot,” Stephanie says.

At Oakley Wines, tastings and private events had been popular but the pandemic put an end to those, and the Websters closed that shop for a while.

But in the downtime, they added tables and chairs in the alley next door, enough to seat about 20, and re-opened in June. The outdoor seating has brought the guests back during a season that was previously a slow one for the shop when it was all indoors.

“We’re actually up in gross sales compared to last summer,” Stephanie says.

Kash Shaikh started BeSomebody in 2015 as a personal blog. It transformed into a company connecting people with personal experiences, then transformed into a business that trained people in job-specific roles, contracting to do that with big companies such as Kroger.

It became one of Cincinnati’s fastest growing companies and was named to the Inc. 5000 list of the nation’s fastest-growing small businesses, ranking No. 49 for the three-year period of 2016-2019.

Its calling card was onsite, in-person job training, but that became impossible with the spread of COVID, combined with the social unrest gripping cities and big businesses struggling to improve their commitments to hiring diversity and racial inclusion. Shaikh and his team seized on that opportunity and transformed BeSomebody yet again to a provider of diversity training and education.

At the beginning of this year, Shaikh started another company, BSB Group International, a marketing and events agency. But when pandemic grew, businesses cancelled events and cut back on their marketing budgets.

“Seventy-five percent of our work would have been or was cancelled because of the pandemic,” Shaikh says.

≠That could have been lethal to a startup. But, “We battened down the hatches,” he says.

Shaikh asked his leadership team, “What do we know about the current environment, and what can we forecast will happen if we bring to life new initiatives to our partners in the COVID environment?”

They built a business-to-business specialty, helping companies understand COVID protocols, testing strategies, return-to-work strategies, and consulting on communications from leadership.

The group helped Kroger roll out COVID test sites over the spring and summer, and worked with clients to shift marketing plans, strategies, and messaging to acknowledge and respond to this new era.

“Everybody has been forced to move at light speed,” Shaikh says. “We always knew we had to be fast; it’s part of our DNA. But the speed at which we had to pivot to protect our business, to protect our payroll, to protect our team, is something I’m really proud of.”

What these entrepreneurs have in common is optimism, a trait that’s not taught in business school but is essential to managing through crises.

Starting a small business has always been a risky proposition. Even in “normal” times, about 20 percent fail in their first year and half them die by the fifth year. Online reviewer Yelp released data in September that showed nearly 100,000 small businesses have permanently closed just over the last six months.

“There’s going to be businesses going out of business, it’s the nature of the beast,” says Lisa Brann, a business coach with the Kentucky Small Business Development Center’s Covington office.

“COVID has created another challenge for us,” she says. “You’ve got to have that optimism to get to the next level.”

Pete Blackshaw, CEO of Cincinnati entrepreneurship hub Cintrifuse, calls it the “startup mindset,” and urges all small firms, not just startups, to adopt it.

“A startup mindset is different than a conventional leadership mindset,” he says. “It prizes speed, rapid prototyping, constant iteration, and failing fast to learn fast.”

According to Blackshaw, that mindset will help small firms to get through this crisis — and the inevitable next one.

“We must look beyond the present to a future that is going to be even more demanding than the moment we’re living in today,” he says.

This is the second in a three-part series on how COVID-19 will change the Cincinnati Region with expanding supply chain innovation, retooling jobs, and small business adaptation. It is made possible with funding from Google's Journalism Emergency Relief Fund.

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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.