Running a small business has never been easy. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic changed everything about the way we live, work, and shop, getting an independent business off the ground and keeping it afloat was difficult. But being your own boss also comes with the promise of incredible fulfillment.
Be it a coffee shop, a nail salon, a gift shop, or a bookstore, local businesses are often community hubs, spaces for people to come together — both for the people who own them and for customers who become regulars and friends. The Goods spoke to four small business owners across the country about why they decided to try and make it on their own, the struggles they’ve faced along the way, the moments that make it all worth it, and whether they feel like they’ve “made it.”
Despite their differences, every person we spoke with expressed a combination of joy, anxiety, and confidence in what they’ve built — even now that things are so uncertain. In most cases, there wasn’t a single lightbulb moment that made them feel like they had finally made it. It was a series of things, or even just the joy of doing something entirely their own.
Some of the people we spoke to have been in business for years; others opened their doors in the middle of a pandemic. Some had owned or run businesses in the past; others turned a side hustle or an ambitious idea into a full-time job.
Maria and Jason Darling, owners, Cute Nail Studio; Austin, Texas
Jason: I’ve been doing my nails since I was 20 — I’m 42 now. I found, every time I went to get my nails done, that they’d try to steer me away from getting colors, or they’d be kind of laughing behind their hand at me. I didn’t care. I grew up in Texas, I can handle homophobia all day.
Maria and I, we own a company that makes silicone mermaid tails, and that was taking up a lot of our time. It was fun, but we really wanted to try a brick and mortar. We had a daughter, we wanted her to grow up and have a place to grow up in and have a little community through the business. When we started Cute, it was during a sort of surge in the trans community’s visibility, as far as the mainstream.
We were talking about it, and we were like, considering how frequently I had to deal with [being mocked], going to a nail salon and trying to get a beauty service [as a young queer person] and even being lightly mocked [must be] heartbreaking. We decided to start a gay-inclusive, rainbow nail salon.
Maria: We also wanted to celebrate nail art. It’s such a cool and interesting medium. It’s always changing, and there’s a lot of really fun stuff — science and chemistry. We wanted to celebrate nail art and that form of expressing yourself, which is why we call ourselves Cute Nail Studio instead of Nail Salon. We want to remind people of art studios.
Jason: Opening was nuts. We were over budget and past deadline to open. Our first open day was during South by Southwest, and we’re downtown. Most people thought that our building was a pop-up for South by. There were people shooting music videos on the outside of the building. We had a couple rappers walk through. It was crazy.
Maria: It was also crazy because we had no idea what we were doing. We had never done anything like this at all. We were really making it up as we went along. We did a lot of stumbling and falling and making mistakes at the beginning. We had to learn it all as we went along. It was not easy in the beginning, that’s for sure.
Jason: It’s way easier now. We’ve got a really solid team, and I get to sleep at night, and that’s cool.
Maria: A personal philosophy for me, even before I had Cute, is that failure is a really great teacher. For all of the troubles that we had with the beginning of Cute, all of those things made us a better work environment and salon today. It really is a well-oiled machine now. Even though it was hard in the beginning, I never felt fearful that maybe it wasn’t going to work. Once it started going, once the rainbow hit the outside of the building, I was like, this is going to happen, and it’s going to be cool.
Camille Hay, owner, Romy Studio; Washington, DC
I started in early 2019, so it’s still fairly new to me, having a small business. I started it just as a side hustle. I was a full-time graphic designer, but I was working for a very corporate firm. I just needed another creative outlet that was just for myself, so I started making jewelry and eventually opened an online shop and started selling it. I started locally — a lot of small shops in the DC area — and it’s grown a lot within the past few months.
It was still primarily a side hustle; I still had a job. It’s within the past few months that it’s gone more full-time. In June, with the Black Lives Matter protests and the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, there was this big push to support Black businesses, so a lot of people with large followings were sharing my work. Within a few days, my shop was sold out.
It changed the landscape of my business. My income was primarily coming from wholesale and from in-person events; I wasn’t having to keep my online shop that stocked up. But now it’s grown quite a bit, so I’m having to treat it as my full-time job now. I still have a part-time job, but I’m still mainly focused on my jewelry.
I feel like I keep waiting for the ball to drop, like, “This next restock, I’m not going to have any sales — it’s going to die down.” But so far, I’ve been pretty lucky because it’s been pretty consistent. It’s hard to gauge when you’ve made it. I feel pretty good about where I am right now. I have these big partnerships that I never thought would happen. But also because of what this year has been, it’s hard to gauge in the long run if this is feasible.
I think with small businesses, you’re always shifting. I work for myself — I’m the only employee, so I only have to pay myself and I get to choose who I work with and when I release collections. It’s really hard to tell right now.
Alicia Gray, co-owner, Genara; Houston, Texas
I’ve switched back and forth between the food industry and retail for my entire working life. This [gift] shop has been something that has been in the back of my mind for a really long time. In 2019, I decided to make a plan for how to move forward. It’s been a long time coming, and it’s been a slow build. Finally, when we were able to open our doors, it was the middle of a pandemic.
Luckily, we already had our website going. We didn’t open and get complete silence. We opened the doors to the brick and mortar in July, but shutdowns started in March.
We were very surprised at how busy we were in March and April. In our little world, our little business, we were staying so busy. We were sending out so many care packages. We offer gift wrapping and gift notes on our site. The notes that people were having us send out for them, to their friends and family across the country, were so moving and heavy.
Part of why I wanted to start this business was to help people connect with each other through gifts, and sharing meaningful items to be really used every day. It was very bizarre and confusing to feel like, “Oh, we were so successful in that mission, and people are really connecting and they are finding the sweetest gifts. But I didn’t want it this way! I didn’t want them to be gift shopping with us so intensely because they couldn’t see their friends and family.” It was not the way I wanted to see my dream fulfilled, but of course, I’m so happy that I can be a tool to help people still connect with each other, and that I can provide the service.
When we were shipping out care packages in March and April, that was when I felt like “Okay, people are connecting with what we’re doing, and we’re helping them send their love across the country through the offerings we’ve pulled together.”
Another time where I felt like I was successful in my intentions was when we actually opened the physical store, which I was very nervous about for months. I tried to put it off, but eventually I just had to open the doors. It was time to pay rent! A big intention and focus on the physical space was to make it feel like a calm, peaceful retreat. People were coming in and they would just comment on how instantly and immediately at ease they felt stepping in.
For people to come in and really connect with the space has been so rewarding. I didn’t want people to be so desperately in need of a relaxing distraction, but I’m very happy that they’re able to come here and feel at ease.
Kalima DeSuze, co-owner, Café Con Libros, Brooklyn, New York
My best friend and I had been talking for years about women opening businesses and finding a space for joy, and a source of joy that’s outside of the paid work that we do. After going through a thousand different ideas, we decided to look in our own spaces and see what we spend the most money on. I spend the most money on books — it was very clear to me, like, yes, if I’m going to do anything that I love, that’s going to just be pure joy, it’s going to be a bookstore.
In 2015 I went to Ethiopia and I went into a coffee shop, and it was the most transformative experience that I had [there]. It was bright orange, and all the local taxi men would come into the coffee shop to drink coffee and check in with one another. I absolutely loved it, and thought, “This is what I want to create. I want to create a space that, when people come into the space, they feel like, ‘I’m so happy to be here. I’m so happy to see you.’” Folks who don’t get to see each other, who are ordinarily not friends but are neighbors, can meet up at the coffee shop, deepen their relationship, and eventually become friends.
Prior to Covid, I had a very active book club. We had met together for almost two years, a core group of people. Slowly, we’ve seen that core group of folks fizzle out. It’s hard to reproduce that [community feeling] over Zoom when people’s entire lives are on Zoom at this point.
I’ve always believed in the idea. I always felt strongly about the business. I think Black-owned bookstores have [recently] seen an exponential increase in revenue. I think that’s the only time I’ve felt like, “This is viable.” But in terms of a meaningful, real thing, it has always felt that way to me. The good thing about it is that I’m not relying on the bookstore for income, so I have a different relationship with it. I poured my paid job money into the bookstore, and that’s what was holding it up. For me, it was sustainable and viable as long as I had a paid job.
Every time I open that door, I am humbled, even today, by what we’ve been able to create. I remember our first book club meeting when we had twenty-something people in that tiny little space and folks were sitting on the ground, so excited to be part of our community. I was like, “This thing that I created that was in my head, I knew it would be powerful, and here it is manifested in the flesh.”