The art of growing a small business in quarantine

29 Apr 2021

Since the start of the pandemic, the global economy has most certainly taken a hard blow, with especially small businesses fighting for survival. But what is it actually like to build or even expand a small business during a pandemic? Two Radboud students and one recent alumna talk about their experience. ‘A small business is a continuous learning experience.’

Neither 2020 nor 2021 have been good years for artists or small business owners. Nanette Ashby is both. But at the same time, the 22-year-old Arts and Culture student from Germany has not only kept her small online business going – she has expanded it. ‘My business is very much focused on connecting people. And I think that really is its strong suit and why I got through the pandemic so well.’

Notebooks and postcards

Nanette Ashby

Since 2016, Ashby is documenting her journaling process on YouTube, showing her viewers how she decorates her journals, while talking about her life. Over the years, she has additionally started to sell notebooks and postcards featuring her artwork. However, according to Ashby, product sales alone would have not made her business as successful as it was throughout the last year. ‘Selling products is an addition to my business, but not its focus. The main focus is the people and the community.’ Something, the quarantine has created a market for.

With people spending more time at home, Ashby says, more have reflected on their lives and the documentation thereof. While, at the same time, they have also looked for human contact. ‘I talk a lot during my videos, mostly about my life and what has been going on. And I have actually gotten messages from people all around the world saying that my videos helped them through quarantine, just because of that aspect of someone talking to you.’

Charity events

Since the start of quarantine, Ashby has strengthened this community-aspect of her business. On the one hand through subscription-based platforms like Patreon, where patrons can join her on Zoom-calls or participate in events like Secret Santa exchanges. On the other hand through charity events like a quarantine journal project, through which Ashby raised money for UNICEF.

‘It is a lot of hard work, and you don’t get paid’

Now, Ashby is looking into opening a physical shop in the next few years, to offer workshops and a space for other local artists to sell their work. However, it is a long way until a small business can take a step like this. ‘There is that misconception that if you start your own business, it is going to go great from the get-go, but especially at the beginning, it is a lot of hard work, and you don’t get paid.’

But especially for recent graduates, the offset of the pandemic has changed entrance into the job market, making small businesses an attractive idea for young professionals. ‘The job market seems to be less accessible,’ says Mike van der Burg, who graduated with an English Language and Culture bachelor’s degree at the beginning of quarantine. ‘Before I started my master’s, I had half a gap year and tried to repeatedly find different jobs. But there was nothing available.’

Entrepreneurial spirit

Andra Maciuca and Mike van der Burg.

Together with his girlfriend, Andra Maciuca, who graduated with her master’s degree in Work, Organisation and Health Psychology from Radboud in summer 2020, he has founded a small business specialised on lino art printing. Van der Burg and Maciuca decided to take the leap of founding their small business last October. ‘We always had some entrepreneurial spirit,’ says Maciuca. ‘But when quarantine started, we suddenly had all this time and started to seriously follow through with this business idea.’

According to van der Burg, especially the flexibility of recorded online lectures has made it possible to balance the launch of their business and following a full-time master’s degree. ‘But it is still very busy, I have to plan every day meticulously.’ However, for both van der Burg and Maciuca, school and graduate jobs are still the priority. ‘We started lino printing as a hobby and we do it, because we genuinely enjoy it,’ says Maciuca. ‘If we can make money off of it on the side, that’s great. But we are not counting on it as a full-time income source.’

Five years

For the couple, especially the support they received from friends and family was the highlight of their business launch. ‘That was unexpected for us, but everyone was very supportive,’ says Maciuca. The most distinct aspect of launching a small business, however, Maciuca, van der Burg, and Ashby agree, are the constant new challenges. ‘I’ve had my business for almost five years now and I’m still learning new things,’ says Ashby. ‘But,’ Maciuca concludes, ‘that is part of the fun of having a small business. It is a continuous learning experience.’

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