Startups forge ahead with launches despite pandemic pivots

July 13, 2020

By Rebekah Tuchscherer, for Sioux Falls.Business.

Travis Nye signed the lease just two weeks before COVID-19 appeared in Sioux Falls.

A practicing magician for more than 17 years, opening a magic shop in the Sioux Falls area was something Nye had wanted to do for a long time.

But just as he committed to a rental space at 5413 W. 41st St. to open Spellbound Magic Shop & Theater, other businesses started closing their doors temporarily and shoppers stayed home in fear of contracting a virus that has claimed more than 100 lives across South Dakota.

“A lot of people were asking me if I should move forward with it,” Nye said of his magic shop. “In my mind, I’ve already signed the papers for the lease and I’m paying the rent — I might as well see what happens.”

Despite COVID-19, other Sioux Falls entrepreneurs also have forged ahead with business plans. Some have pivoted their efforts from in-person connections to online conversations with target consumers through Zoom calls, Facebook Live events and online storefronts.

According to Brienne Maner, executive director at the Zeal Center for Entrepreneurship, many startups and small businesses have leaned into technology to continue creating communities, whether that be with other business owners or consumers interested in their brand.

“It’s been great to watch the business community come together and work twice as hard as they normally do to keep these businesses afloat and keep them abreast of opportunities and information that they need to move forward,” Maner said.

Maner said Zeal has a 45,000-square foot facility that houses 10 established businesses, seven startup companies and 14 individual co-working and associate members alongside its seven anchor organizations, including the U.S. Small Business Association.

Maner said one startup moved out of Zeal because of COVID-19, and two co-working members canceled their memberships.

However, many entrepreneurs have still managed to launch and find success by pivoting online.

Building community

Flyover Country, a brand created by Vaney Hariri and Joshua Novak, launched online in April.

While tangibly an online apparel store, Flyover Country focuses on giving visibility to the overlooked, specifically by providing a platform for Midwesterners to tell stories about themselves and their communities.

“There’s a person in a small town somewhere doing something that will change the world, and there’s not people looking for them,” Hariri said. “We want to change that.”

While the co-founders originally planned to launch April 3, they pressed pause on operations until early June to re-evaluate the logistics of delivering apparel and building community online despite the coronavirus, according to Novak.

But after launching social media accounts, a website and a local influencer campaign, Hariri and Novak said the pandemic might have helped their business, especially as those staying home craved online community.

“There’s still energy around it,” Hariri said. “I don’t think it would have been as prominent if people had the distractions that they normally have.”

At Spellbound Magic Shop & Theater, Nye also has been focused on building an online presence by demonstrating magic tricks, interviewing notable magicians and doing unboxings for new merchandise available at his shop via Facebook Live.

He has started testing the waters with in-person classes and magic shows. So far, he has hosted two magic classes for kids that attracted 18 participants and hosted a parlor show in June that sold out his 30-person theater.

“This is what I’m passionate about,” Nye said. “And when I’m passionate about something, I will make it work. I will find creative ways to let people know that it’s here.”

But not all entrepreneurs have been able to keep operations going through the pandemic. The Kitchen, a co-working space for women, closed its doors temporarily after a month and a half before shutting down permanently.

Food-related businesses have been among the hardest hit. Making tacos for about a year and a half, Rudy M. Navarrete’s Tex-Mexican Restaurant on 57th Street closed at the end of March as the pandemic hit Sioux Falls, and Dakota Seafood closed inside Pomegranate Market about the same time. Books n Brewz Pizzeria appeared to be headed for a permanent closure until an investor stepped in to give it support.

Connecting online

While Zeal closed physically as the coronavirus first reached Sioux Falls, Maner said the organization still found ways to connect with the small-business community.

She said the number of small businesses reaching out to Zeal has increased recently, especially as owners sought help applying for Paycheck Protection Program loans and pivoted to online and contact-free models.

Zeal also has helped startups stay connected by moving events online. For example, the 1 Million Cups Sioux Falls chapter for entrepreneurs has continued to meet via Zoom every Wednesday.

“I think people have craved to be around other like-minded people and bounce their ideas off one another,” Maner said. “There’s nothing that can replace face-to-face interaction, but we’re doing our best to do so virtually.”

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