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Starting a new online business during the pandemic: Two COVID-era tales of renewal in Miami

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The pandemic forced more than three-quarters of small businesses across the U.S. to temporarily close up shop in the spring of 2020, and thousands have since shut down for good.

But the COVID-19 pandemic also led to a record number of people trying to start their own businesses: 4.5 million filed new business applications in 2020, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data by the Economic Innovation Group.

That’s the highest number ever and a 24% increase from 2019.

 

And the momentum isn’t slowing. The Census Bureau says 492,000 new business applications were received in January 2021, a 43% jump over the previous month. Many more informal businesses are believed to have been created, often as side hustles, but never registered.

Few cities saw more aspiring entrepreneurs than Miami. Although new business creation was not distributed evenly across racial and socio-economic lines, green shoots of entrepreneurship popped up across the metro area, helping to bring a dose of resilience to the local economy.

Miami metro  area snapshot businesses

[At the same time, untold numbers of existing small businesses — restaurants, neighborhood shops, salons — decided to establish a digital presence, allowing them to find new customers and take orders from beyond their immediate area.

In all, the number of digitally connected microbusinesses in Miami-Dade County rose 6.7% from 2019 to 2020, according to data from GoDaddy’s Venture Forward project, which studies the economic impact of these small online businesses. The Miami metro area, which includes the neighboring cities of Fort Lauderdale and Pompano Beach, has more microbusinesses per 100 people than any other large metro area in the country.

These everyday entrepreneurs make a big impact on their communities, with each new one leading to the creation of two additional jobs, Venture Forward data shows. Additionally, each new microbusiness per 100 people can reduce the unemployment rate by .05 percentage points.

And between 2016 and 2019, every microbusiness per 100 people that’s active online was associated with a $485 increase in a community’s household median income.

Here are the stories of two inspiring women entrepreneurs who took the initiative when the pandemic upended their lives.

Natasha Nails: Rethinking the press-on

Natasha Williams walking on sidewalk

It took a painful case of contact dermatitis, a type of allergy, following a visit to a nail salon for Natasha Williams to come up with an online business idea for the future of press-on nails.

The Miami native, who lives in Little Havana, has had her nails done since her teens.

But after her allergic reaction in March 2020, she was forced to switch to press-on nails that used hypoallergenic adhesive pads.

Unhappy with the appearance of what was available — they felt cheap and plasticky — Williams started buying clear nails and hand painting them with her favorite colors and designs.

Around the same time, the pandemic shut down the local economy. A well-known tap dance performer and teacher around Miami, Williams suddenly had a lot of time as lessons and gigs dried up.

By July, buoyed by the admiring comments she got from friends and strangers on the street, she realized there was a market for her creations, so she quickly built an online store and Natasha Nails opened for business.

At first, it was as much a hobby as a career plan. But soon she started asking questions and understanding the opportunity was real.

Why did women tend to apply press-on nails and leave them on and then throw them out? Given how easy they are to remove and reapply, particularly the adhesive-pad type, wouldn’t it be more fun and affordable to have collections of nails so they could match outfits or daily moods, the way they choose which shoes to wear or purse to carry?

“I want people to be able to mix and match, like ‘let’s see what I have in my closet to wear today,’” she says.

If she can popularize this approach, women may one day not feel obliged to suffer the daily inconveniences of wearing long nails.

“Just try typing all day with these things on,” she laughs, showing off long, olive nails. “You really can’t do much. And anyone who tells you differently is lying!”

While her new business doesn’t make enough money for her to quit her teaching, she spends about the same number of hours on both.

That includes 30 minutes each morning tending to her growing Instagram account — where she has amassed more than 5,000 followers who account for most of the orders on her website — and a few hours in the evening painting nails, including custom orders, and packaging up boxes for customers who opt for her monthly subscriptions.

Many challenges remain ­— particularly how to scale production beyond her ability to hand-paint nails while maintaining the artistic quality. But Williams is definitely a long-term thinker who hopes that, some day, her creations will be featured at major retailers.

“I don’t see obstacles as problems, but as challenges,” she says of the process of building a company. “You just have to follow the steps.”

Read more about Natasha’s story here.

Starting an online charcuterie-to-go

To-go boxes from Fig & Brie with cheese, meat, and fruit

Like so many healthcare workers around the world, Maryam Kheirabi faced new demands when the pandemic hit. An oncology pharmacist with a Miami-area hospital, she suddenly had more hours, more stress and more fears of the unknown.

To deal with the growing pressure, Kheirabi decided she needed a new activity, something that would take her mind off her stressful job and give her a newfound source of fulfillment.

That’s when Fig & Brie, a charcuterie-to-go business, was born.

 

“I’m happiest when I’m extremely busy, and I wanted to create something beautiful for people to share,” she says. “In a way, I think the business got me through the worst days of the pandemic. It gives me hope, and hopefully it gives other people hope, as well.”

The idea came to her soon after the pandemic began, when she saw groups of friends eating from plastic containers full of snacks at a park across the street from her home for socially distanced get-togethers.

Maryam Kheirabi

“How cool would it be to have a charcuterie box to go,” she remembers thinking. It would give people the option to pre-order a food board that could be delivered just when it was needed.

A native of Queens, N.Y., who moved to Miami with her speech pathologist husband in 2016, Kheirabi grew up being responsible for creating food platters for family gatherings.

“We Persians are very big on hospitality, and I never lost my love for creating beautiful, delicious things,” she says.

Once the first spike in COVID-19 cases began to ease in August, she started doing research, which included the creation of a variety of charcuterie platters for colleagues at the hospital.

A cousin in New Jersey agreed to help her secure a domain name and choose website-building tools.

“The rest was left up to me, but it was mostly dealing with aesthetics, which I love, anyway,” she says.

In early November, Fig & Brie officially launched, with a range of offerings, from a $20 “solo” platter to an $85 “soiree” box.

Fig & Brie to-go boxes

The seed capital was $2,000 that her husband, Francisco, urged her to take from their savings, with the understanding that they wouldn’t spend any more if the business wasn’t profitable after a month. She ended up spending $1,900 of it in that time, but by early December the business was making money.

Kheirabi’s digital marketing strategy initially was solely based on Instagram, in part because she wanted to grow slowly at first. But sales jumped more quickly than expected over the holidays, as friends and fans spread the word. One local real estate broker ordered platters as gifts to her clients.

It wasn’t easy, but she and her husband managed to keep up with demand while maintaining their jobs in healthcare. It helps that most orders come on Thursdays or Fridays, for delivery on Saturday.

Francisco does everything from taking photos to taste-testing to driving their only car around the city making deliveries. When he once asked what he would be paid for all his work, she quipped, “Sorry, but we pay in cheese.”

Her near-term goal is to have enough demand to hire a driver or two, and then to find a way to ship around the U.S. (That will require some innovation, to either find a way to keep fruits and veggies crunchy and fresh, or to come up with boards that meet her standards without those foods.)

Ultimately, she’d like to open a storefront in Miami and share her business model so women in other places could follow suit.

“I wouldn’t be doing this if it was only for the money,” she says. “That’s just icing on the cake.” The primary reward, other than enriching customers’ lives, is to empower women, including herself.

“We’re living in a time when women are standing up and taking charge of themselves,” she says. She even welcomes the competition from other female-owned online charcuteries in the city. “There’s enough demand to go around,” she says. “Women shouldn’t compete with each other. We should lift each other up.”

Related: Research shows that women have what it takes to make great CEOs

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How to Start a Niche Foam Party Business: Kid’s Party

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Foam parties have become popular and are great fun. If you didn’t know what a foam party is, it is a party or event where participants have fun dancing amidst foam created by a machine. The machine creates bubbles of foams that envelop the place, creating a fun environment at the party. If you are a business person, then a foam party business is a great idea.

You can get a foam machine and use it to throw foam parties and make money from it – relatively affordably.

photo credit: Roaring Foam

Can you make money through foam parties?

Yes, you can make money if you have a foam machine. Parties are common, and party-goers get bored with the usual stuff. A foam party is an innovative way of partying. It allows participants to let go, dancing in joy amidst the foam. This kind of party would be popular, and you can make money by offering a different experience to participants.

Creating a niche market

When you want to make money from a business, you will find that there are many others with the same idea. You need to do something different so you can succeed. This is where finding a niche market helps. A niche market is a specific category to which you can cater. Kids Foam Party is such a niche market. While there are many businesses catering to foam parties in general, foam parties for kids is a niche idea. This is a business idea that can help you succeed and make money.

Planning your business

Now that you have found your niche, it is important to plan your business before you get started. The first thing is to be clear with what you are offering. You are offering a foam party, which is an event where there is a dance floor filled with suds. When this party is offered for kids, they will enjoy it the most. They would not only dance but play in the foam and have a great time in general.

Taking proper safety precautions like setting the depth of the foam and insisting on face coverings ensure there are no problems.

What do you need?

It is obvious that you need a foam machine if you plan to run foam parties. A foam machine is not too expensive. However, you need not buy one immediately. Since you are starting off with a new business, you can get a foam machine for rent. This is a cheaper option allowing you to rent a machine and use it whenever you need it. This will allow you to do a pilot run of your party business.

If the response is good and you start getting many events, then you can consider buying your own foam machine. This would work out better for you.

Kid having fun in foam
photo credit: Roaring Foam

Planning and executing foam parties for kids

With these basic concepts in mind, it is time you start planning your parties. Since you have chosen the niche of foam parties for kids, you need to explore different options. You can have foam parties to celebrate birthdays. There can even be parties for no reason but just to allow kids to have fun. Explore different themes for foam parties and plan the events.

Here are a few considerations to keep in mind while planning and executing foam parties for kids:

  • You need to find a venue to host the foam party. The ideal location is outdoors, so the foam does not create a mess inside. When the weather does not permit, you need to find indoor venues with a fairly big hall to organize the event.
  • Apart from the machine, you need the foam solution to create foam. You need to have sufficient foam machine solution to last the entire party.
  • Safety is a very important issue in foam parties. This is all the more important when you are dealing with kids. You need to have a clear plan for ensuring safety in your foam party. Communicate the plan with your clients so they are assured of the safety arrangements.
  • If you are doing the party indoors, you need a tarp to cover the floor and walls. It is important to cover up all the electric and other outlets to avoid them being damaged.
  • Placing plastic furniture is better since it won’t get damaged due to bubbles.
  • Safety arrangements for the kids are very important. Wearing shoes is a must. You can insist on goggles or face coverings to prevent allergies from the suds. You need to take adequate precautions to prevent kids from skidding and falling during the party. There is always a risk of accidents at a foam party, and you need to do everything to prevent it.
  • Preferably, get a waiver from guests to protect against liabilities.

With all this planning, you are now ready to execute foam parties and make neat profits from them.

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What open source-based startups can learn from Confluent’s success story

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It’s common these days to launch an enterprise startup based on an open source project, often where one the founders was deeply involved in creating it. The beauty of this approach is that if the project begins to gain traction, you have the top of the sales funnel ready and waiting with potential customers when you move to commercialize your business.

In the past, this often meant providing help desk-style services for companies who appreciated what the open source software could do but wanted to have the so-called “throat to choke” if something went wrong. Another way that these companies have made money has been creating an on-prem version with certain enterprise features, particularly around scale or security, the kind of thing that large operations need as table stakes before using a particular product. Today, customers typically can install on-prem or in their cloud of choice.

“A key aspect of these kinds of technology-developer data products is they have to have a combination of bottom-up adoption and top-down SaaS, and you actually have to get both of those things working well to succeed.” Jay Kreps

In recent years, the model has shifted to building a SaaS product, where the startup builds a solution that handles all the back-end management and creates something that most companies can adopt without all of the fuss associated with installing yourself or trying to figure out how to use the raw open source.

One company that has flirted with these monetization approaches is Confluent, the streaming data company built on top of the open source Apache Kafka project. The founding team had helped build Kafka inside LinkedIn to move massive amounts of user data in real time. They open sourced the tool in 2011, and CEO and co-founder Jay Kreps helped launch the company in 2014.

It’s worth noting that Confluent raised $450 million as a private company with a final private valuation in April of $4.5 billion before going public in June. Today, it has a market cap of over $22 billion, not bad for less than six months as a public company.

Last month at TC Sessions: SaaS, I spoke to Kreps about how he built his open source business and the steps he took along the way to monetize his ideas. There’s certainly a lot of takeaways for open source-based startups launching today.

Going upmarket

Kreps said that when they launched the company in 2014, there were a bunch of enterprise-size companies already using the open source product, and they needed to figure out how to take the interest they had been seeing in Kafka and convert that into something that the fledgling startup could begin to make money on.

“There have been different paths for different companies in this space, and I think it’s actually very dependent on the type of product [as to] what makes sense. For us, one of the things we understood early on was that we would have to be wherever our customers had data,” Kreps said.

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5 Hobbies That Make Money and How To Get Started

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Money-making hobbies range from walking dogs to blogging to creating and selling homemade goods.

Read about these profitable hobbies, as well as what you can expect to make.

1. Driving

Enjoy cruising around town? Give others a ride and make money by becoming an Uber or Lyft driver. Uber drivers make an estimated $5 to $20 an hour, and Lyft drivers earn about $5 to $25 an hour, according to SideHusl.com, a review site for money-making platforms. Note that earnings depend in part on when, where and how often you drive.

To become an Uber or Lyft driver, you must be the minimum age to drive in your area. You must also meet specific requirements related to your driver’s license, insurance and vehicle. Learn about these exact requirements in our guide to becoming an Uber or Lyft driver.

If you enjoy driving but don’t want people in your car, look into becoming a full-service Instacart shopper, which involves shopping for and delivering groceries. Uber Eats and Amazon Flex also offer opportunities to deliver food and other products to homes. Each of these gigs has its own set of requirements, though, so do your research before signing up.

2. Caring for dogs

If your favorite hobbies involve belly rubs, smooches and long walks in the neighborhood, try Wag or Rover. These apps enable you to walk, dog-sit or board pups overnight for money.

Rover and Wag work in similar ways. They both require you to be at least 18 years old, pass a background check and meet other requirements. For both, you create a profile, set your own rates, and use the app to choose which gigs to take. (See our Rover vs. Wag comparison for more specific sign-up and payment information, as well as how the apps vary in the services they allow.)

On both apps, the amount you earn depends on what you charge, how much you receive in tips, and which types of services you provide. As you would guess, boarding typically pays more than walking a dog, for example. But both companies take a bite from your earnings. Rover charges a 20% service fee per booking, and Wag takes 40%.

3. Blogging

If you have a blog that gets decent traffic, try making money from it. Blogging for money can take a few forms. One way is to host ads on your blog through a service like Google AdSense, which is free. Here’s the gist, according to Google: If your website is approved, then you choose where on it you would like ads to appear. Then advertisers bid to place ads where you designated, with the winner’s ads appearing in that spot. (People make money on YouTube through the same service.)

You earn some money when a reader clicks on one of these ads — but determining exactly how much you’ll make is tricky. Explore our guide to Google AdSense to learn more about it.

You could also try writing sponsored content, meaning companies pay you to write about their products. Or, become an affiliate through the Amazon Associates program. That involves linking to an Amazon product from your content and earning a commission when one of your readers clicks through and buys that item. Learn more about how to make money on Amazon through your blog.

4. Posting to social media

Love posting to social media and building a following? On Instagram and TikTok, many users earn money through sponsored photos and videos. Say you regularly post about your at-home exercise regimen. You may agree to post about a retailer’s resistance bands or sweatpants in exchange for cash or free products. (Sponsorships and affiliate marketing are also ways to make money from podcasts, in case that’s one of your hobbies.)

Sponsors may reach out to you to set up this kind of arrangement; you could contact them; or, in some cases, you may consider working through a third-party agency.

The type of content you post, as well as your number of followers and their engagement, will likely impact sponsorship opportunities. Learn more about how to make money on Instagram or on TikTok.

5. Selling your wares

There’s a marketplace for just about everything. So if you’re skilled in a hobby, consider trying to profit from it. For example, if you create jewelry or have an eye for thrifting quality clothes, try selling those items at a local flea market or yard sale, or on a neighborhood website such as Nextdoor or Facebook Marketplace.

Or look into an online market that could attract a wider range of buyers. Consider Etsy for crafts or Poshmark if you want to sell clothes online.

These websites charge fees that will cut into your profits. This guide to selling stuff online will help you think through the math and determine if your hobby can become a viable business.

What to consider before making money from your hobbies

Before taking any of the routes listed above, keep in mind that this work will likely affect your taxes. See our guide to self-employment taxes, which includes expenses you can deduct, and how to avoid penalties.

And as you aim to profit from your hobbies, consider whether you will continue to enjoy them through this new business lens. Let’s say knitting helps you relax. Will it continue to do so if you’re pricing, promoting and shipping your homemade wares through an online marketplace? And that blogging hobby: Will writing still be fun or cathartic if you’re occasionally throwing in a sponsored post?

It may be hard to answer these questions until you give the money-making approach a shot. But it’s worth reflecting on the potential trade-offs as you think about turning your hobby into a job.

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