INDIANAPOLIS — The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown Indianapolis-area small businesses for a loop. Some business models were rendered moot practically overnight, an environment in which owners had to quickly adapt.
This story catalogs the experiences of four of those business owners, a rental and staging company, a tech company that works with nonprofits, a City Market barbecue place and residential and commercial building deep-cleaner.
IN-PERSON EVENT COMPANY QUICKLY MOVES TO ONLINE:
Indianapolis-based Markey’s Rental & Staging was on its way to becoming a $40 million business annually before the pandemic.
The employee-owned company built its brand on staging captivating in-person events such as conferences, award shows and evenings with prominent figures such as former first lady Michelle Obama.
But in mid-March, all events stopped during the government shutdown. As time wore on, the company cut workers and reduced salaries.
‘When the meetings and events industry stopped, it stopped us as well,’ said Mark Miller, president and CEO.
Like some other businesses faced with the reality that their services were needed in a different way due to the pandemic, Markey’s switched gears to survive. The company turned its focus to producing virtual conventions and other remote events that could take place online.
‘That’s when we really understood, ‘OK, our customers have a product,’ Miller recalled. ‘They still have a message to deliver, and how can we help them?’
‘I think that once we recognized that … we started making decisions based on what we saw as the future reality, so let’s build a company that meets today’s demand.’
To do that, Markey’s converted a 4,000-square-foot space in its warehouse into a studio. Business development and marketing employees figured out how to advertise the new product.
Others learned to incorporate existing technology into the productions. Event technicians learned how to operate it. The employees shared ideas and met regularly.
What emerged was a company with a new way of doing what it does.
‘We produce shows,’ Miller said. ‘We’re averaging about three to four live events a week that we’re doing in our studios.’
In early December, Markey’s produced the Indiana Farm Bureau’s convention. The company has invested in different platforms and created an MVP event experience.
Prior to the pandemic, clients rarely requested online streaming, Miller said, adding that viewership was typically low. Most events were venue-based. That’s changed.
Financially, the company isn’t where it was, but it’s growing. What’s important to Miller is that Markey’s gets back to profitability.
Pre-pandemic, Markey’s had 260 employees across the Midwest. It maintained a large presence in Austin, Texas, and had smaller footprints in Florida; Washington, D.C.; and Denver.
Eventually, Markey’s cut 110 employees. Those remaining had their salaries reduced. Hourly staff were guaranteed only 32 hours. A loan for personal protective gear helped bring some workers back.
Markey’s is operating at about 40% of pre-pandemic levels, Miller said. He hopes to restore salaries by March and expects to break even with the cuts.
The company now has 150 employees. At least 70% were trained to have relevant skills for today’s demands, said Miller, who’s looking toward the post-COVID future.
Miller doesn’t believe virtual events will replace live events – they’ll enhance them.
‘Once we go back and we have partly a live audience, there’s still going to be a large contingent of people who aren’t comfortable,’ he said.
‘The next step is hybrid.’
LOCAL TECH FIRM WAS A SUCCESS STORY WAITING TO HAPPEN:
Jeb Banner has at least six employees he’s never met face-to-face.
‘I mean, it’s weird,’ said Banner, CEO and co-founder of Indianapolis-based Boardable, a tech company that makes software to help nonprofits manage communication with their boards. ‘I mean, it is.’
The employees from around the U.S. and Canada were hired during the pandemic, a time that forced employers to send their staff home to work remotely, physically separated to protect against the contagious novel coronavirus.
Corporate meetings have become virtual. Communication takes place via online chat and email. Hiring decisions are made without ever meeting in person, with a heavy reliance on references, recruiters, social promotion, web cams, work samples and phone calls to get a sense of who an applicant is and whether that person would fit into the company.
‘It’s hard,’ Banner said. ‘It’s hard sometimes to feel the cultural fit when you’re not in person. That’s the challenge.’
If the pandemic created winners and losers, Boardable’s ongoing hiring is because the company has fallen on the winning side.
Last year was a stellar year for the company. It secured $1 million in seed funding from Indianapolis-based venture capital firm High Alpha Capital in May and another $3 million in December from High Alpha and other investors.
Growth was 150% year-over-year in 2019. And, Boardable planned to open a new office in Australia. It needed to rapidly hire and aimed to double its workforce in 2020.
Then the pandemic hit.
Second-quarter growth fell flat. Boardable responded by giving incoming customers a free 90-day trial of its software.
‘The pandemic became a forcing function for a lot of nonprofit boards to lean into technology, and we were positioned for that change,’ Banner said.
So by the third quarter, Boardable was converting free users to paid customers. And now in the fourth quarter, Banner anticipated growth of at least 130% over 2019.
The company, featured in Forbes and TechCrunch, has caught the eye of more investors, securing an $8 million round of funding from a group called Base 10 in San Francisco.
It also added video conferencing to its software to create a one-screen experience so documents can be seen without screen sharing.
‘Now we’re really looking to grow quickly and 2021,’ Banner said. ‘We’re doing a lot of that through remote hiring.’
It’s a lot of Zoom, Google Meet, and phone call interviews. Banner also said he’s gotten more of his team involved in the process.
‘You get more more inputs,’ he said. ‘We’ve opened that up to more of the team and, and you just have to do a few more conversations than you might have in person.’
While Boardable is looking for employees local, the pandemic and remote hiring has permitted the company to cast its net wider. Banner said he now has an employee in Toronto and hired someone from Norway but lives in Ohio.
The company has about 26 employees and seeking to grow to about 65.
Boardable was less remote work-friendly before the pandemic.
The company only made one remote hire – an employee in Mexico they were already familiar with -who wasn’t a good fit, Banner said. So far the company’s pandemic hiring experience this year has been fortunate.
‘We’re talking to people all over the country,’ he said.
BARBECUE PLACE IN CITY MARKET PIVOTS FROM HOT TO FROZEN:
Michael Gomez began the year absolutely killing it in sales, so much so that for the first time, he was able to take a real vacation.
The owner of Gomez BBQ in City Market went to Europe. Upon returning, he saw signs asking travelers about their contact with sick people.
It was a foreshadowing of the year to come.
The next 10 months became a roller coaster of surviving the problems 2020 threw at him: His friend created an online ordering platform as the state went into lockdown. He had to let his four employees go, but later hired some back with a payroll protection loan. Important equipment at work broke, including his oven and vacuum sealing machine, but an electrician fixed them.
‘It was like, what’s the next problem, how do we solve the next problem?’ Gomez said. ‘We need to get online sales, we got online. We need to deliver, so I delivered.’
The cozy, historic City Market, beloved by city employees and downtown office workers, has been tried and tested from the onslaught of 2020: the pandemic that killed foot traffic, the protests and shootings that ushered in a negative reputation for downtown, and the surrounding homelessness worsened by a national crisis.
In that span of time, several businesses have closed up shop, including the Tamale Place, Duos, Spice Box and Simply Divine Cupcakes – all casualties of the economic downturn.
The protests in the spring painted a new picture of downtown, one that was unsafe and uninviting to suburban Indianapolis. Like other business owners, Gomez tried to fight that reputation.
‘The people that decided to break windows and things like that caused a whole idea of what downtown was like, which wasn’t true,’ he said. ‘They would say, ‘Hey, it’s rough downtown, you can’t go downtown.’ No, I live downtown and I work downtown. It’s not what you think.’
The market, a nonprofit run by a board of directors that tapped a new executive director in November, has tried to help its tenants. It launched a rent deferment program and used federal aid to cover back rent and rental assistance through the end of the year.
The market is still trying to take the bad with the good, encouraging visitors to stop by.
‘We thank those businesses for giving it their all for as long as they did, however, I don’t want that loss to overshadow the 20 small businesses who still remain,’ new executive director Keisha Gray said in an email. ‘The City Market has merchants who continue to operate and have shown resiliency and grit, turning to business models such as joining online delivery platforms to attract new customers.’
Gomez, too, rolled with the punches.
Individual hot carry-out orders weren’t feasible, so he ventured into frozen goods sold online.
His new specialties: vacuum-sealed chorizo dips, cottage pie – even smoked pork loin with local Tinker Coffee BBQ rub. He began selling at the Carmel Farmers Market and catered boxed lunches.
The year still proved tough for Gomez: his father, who helped him apply for federal aid to keep the business afloat, passed away in August.
‘I’ve had some breakdowns,’ he said of surviving the year. ‘I’ve had some moments where I’m like, ‘I can’t do this anymore.”
But Gomez has tried to find the fun in his job. Right now, he’s planning out all the holiday Venezuelan foods – his father was Venezuelan – that he would like to sell.
He even brought out a Battleship board game to occasionally play with customers.
His advice to everyone else stumbling through 2020: Find some fun. No one will fault you for wanting to quit your job or try something new.
‘I understand the whole concept of work is work for a reason, it doesn’t have to be fun – that’s not true,’ he said. ‘You’ve got to make it fun somehow, or else what’s the point?’
DEEP-CLEANING COMPANY IS ON FRONT LINES OF FIGHTING COVID-19:
While the economy plummeted around him, business was booming for Jim Hamed.
The general manager of the COIT cleaning and restoration branch in Indianapolis has seen a lot over his decades in the cleaning business – he can name all the colors of mold and recalls the time the company cleaned a house with a rare MERS coronavirus exposure.
But this year, he said, has been unlike any other. The company is doing thousands of dollars worth of COVID-cleaning every week.
‘To tell you the truth, I wish we never had it,’ he said. ‘I don’t care to make the money, someone has to do it. But I would rather focus on other things to grow our business than having to focus on COVID. But you got to do what you got to do.’
The national COIT chain, which began in California, specializes in deep cleaning – such as for carpets, tile, furniture, air ducts – for both commercial and residential customers.
As Marion County reopened and employers scrambled to ensure workplaces were clean, the Indianapolis branch saw an increase in commercial clients.
The importance of work safety stumbled onto the scene. Since February, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has closed hundreds of workplace safety complaints in Indianapolis alone, many COVID-related, according to its online database. The state Department of Labor directed people to its website, where they could fill out non-formal complaints about workplace safety hazards.
Hamed and his employees, meanwhile, pulled out the big guns: hooded protective suits, ultraviolet light to clean air ducts and electrostatic fogging machines that more efficiently spray disinfectant on surfaces.
Suddenly, Hamed said, COIT had clients it never worked with before. FedEx, for example, requested preventative weekly cleaning of their trucks at the airport.
But the residential cleaning jobs have hit the hardest, when the team cleans homes of people who have died from the virus.
Sometimes the infected people were only exposed to one room. Sometimes they died in the home. Sometimes they went to the hospital.
‘A lot of them had died in the hospital. They’ve gone, they left the house, and they want it remediated before they come home,’ he said. ‘They don’t come home. This disease is no joke.’
The toughest day of the year came when he took a call from a young woman whose husband, isolated in the basement, passed away from the coronavirus. Her father, who lived out of state, footed the cleaning bill.
Hours later, a nail salon owner booking another cleaning began crying to him on the phone. She owned two salons, he said, but had to shut one of them down.
‘People losing businesses and people also losing lives,’ he said. ‘That was the worst day that I remembered by far.’
The year has also hit the staff of roughly 30 employees in different ways. One employee had tears well up in her eyes, Hamed said.
But the year, although it has been a tough one, has allowed Hamed and his employees take some pride in their work.
‘We feel kind of proud,’ he said. ‘We’re on the front lines of this, we’re helping out. It makes you feel good knowing that you’re doing your part. We can be proud of our work.’
Source: The Indianapolis Star