How young business owners survived during the pandemic

By Nora Ebaid

Starting a business is not for the faint-hearted. It takes a lot of commitment, investment and hard work. Maintaining the business and keeping it afloat is not easy on a normal day, but during a pandemic, it is extra difficult. 

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as reported by Entrepreneur Asia Pacific, around 20% of small businesses fail in the first year, while 30% of businesses fail in the second. Another half will fail by the fifth year and only 30% remain to hit the decade mark. This is true for most businesses pre-covid, in the past year Fortune reported that by August 2020 more than 97,966 businesses would permanently shut down during the pandemic.

While most businesses had to shut down, or went out of business, others had to fight for survival. Young entrepreneurs who had just started their business, some with no experience before, share with us their entrepreneurial journey during the time of the pandemic.

Marion, creating French delicacies

Marion, a 29-year-old French citizen, started a business with her husband Doje, a 31-year-old Malaysian citizen. They started a small French café in Cherating, Malaysia, named Café Marion. The parents of two lives on the East Coast of Malaysia since 2016. They opened Café Marion in December 2019, during the monsoon season, which meant that the beaches were flooded with surfers bringing a lot of business to the local community. “It was quite a success and we were happy to start this new experience,” said Marion. “But we never expected that on the next March 2020 a world pandemic would arrive.”

Marion Cafe. Source: Instagram

During the pandemic, motivation and determination fell short, as Marion said “When you realise that all your projects are going to fall down, it’s really not easy to accept it,”

But Marion didn’t give up. Marion and her husband worked on other ways to keep the business going such as by improving their social media presence, deliveries and takeaways. “We had to re-organise the space at the café because people cannot go in. We created a delivery option and takeaway services. We also became really active on social media,” remarked Marion. And turned out, it wasn’t all bad. “People cannot travel outside of Malaysia so they explore their own country which is actually good for all small and big businesses in Malaysia,” remarked Marion.

Many young entrepreneurs already face different challenges including financial burdens posed by student loans and other related costs, in addition to lack of experiences and resources. However, with determination, many young entrepreneurs were able to build successful companies even with the challenges they faced. But during corona, companies worldwide had to shut down due to the lockdowns and lack of travel and movement. 

Shavkat, the IT guru

Another business owner, 29-year-old Shavkat, shared with us his experience. Shavkat owns a newly-created IT company called Ecompile, that focuses on creating digital products for various industries, including personal well-being, the legal industry, commerce and many more.

Originally from Tajikistan, Shavkat has been living in Malaysia for over 10 years now, and less than two years ago he started Ecompile. “When we first started, everything was very exciting as any new venture would be,” shared Shavkat. “We met so many talented folks from all kinds of paths of life, and together we’d discuss and find various ways on how we can create digital products that’d be useful to everyone. A number of interesting ideas came along and few of those are available on the internet today.” 

One of the biggest challenges Ecompile faced was the instability of the pandemic. “When we went into the first lockdown, we thought that now was the perfect time to spend a few months building a digital tool that would benefit everyone once we were allowed to go out of our houses again. So we spent a few months planning and building one or two websites,” he said. One example of these websites includes a platform for finding personal help online. 

“In the beginning, everything worked out. Lockdown was over and we started rolling out, but then three months later it was a lockdown again. So our whole plan to gather more users had to be reworked. And then [another lockdown] happened again. Now we are on the third lockdown already and instead of executing one plan, we keep coming up with new plans every three to four months. Even now we are not sure what’s going to happen in the next six months,” Shavkat added. 

Ecompile is one of many companies that had to go through changes, uproots and rebuilding to fit the new systems of the pandemic. As an IT company, there were some benefits to being able to work online, unlike most offline businesses, where some were forced to go online, while others had to shut down completely. “Despite all the quick changes we have to adjust to every few months, general demands have increased. We have more visitors and users on our platforms than ever,” shared Shavkat. 

Even as an online IT company, Shavkat hoped that this pandemic does not last for a very long time. “If it does, we might look into becoming a full-time service-based company, where we will outsource our services to other businesses and individuals. This could work for the next year or two, but eventually, we would definitely have to come up with a better plan,” he continued.

Rizky, the jack of all trades

Rizky Akbar Bahtiardi, also known as Abe, is a 22-year-old Business Administration student at Universitas Padjadjaran in Indonesia. “While in college, I started several businesses to increase my income and also apply the knowledge I learnt during class. I live in a district that is quite far from the city. I started several businesses such as a clothing brand (Whoops!), a media partner (Explore Pangandaran), a clothing manufacturer (Lokvl Vendor), an agency for small businesses (Mekar Creative) and ready-to-serve drinks (Little Junkie),” Abe shared. 

Abe lives in a small town in Indonesia called Cijulang. He shared that he first started a clothing brand with as little as Rp. 500,000 ($35) capital. “I made 12 pieces of t-shirts with two different designs. But not all of these items were sold, but I was able to produce new items with the sales I made. When starting the clothing brand, it was quite difficult for me. I couldn’t produce t-shirts near where I live because there were no production sites yet. I had to find someone who could produce good quality T-shirts and those were only in big cities,” he said. After learning the ins and outs of the business, it slowly became easier, and he started his own brand.

Whoops! Shop in Cijulang. Source: Instagram

“I don’t have a team yet, I still do it all alone. However, I am surrounded by very supportive friends, some of them are freelancers who I can work with,” he explained. After a few years, Abe’s university became interested in his business. The university proposed creating a clothing production shop with labourers from the local area where he lived, helping to uphold community empowerment. His university also provided four sewing machines to use for free. 

As the pandemic hit in 2020 though, things changed. “All of my businesses have decreased dramatically. But I must still be able to survive in this situation. I opened a new business, Little Junkie with the hopes of earning more,” he said.

Little Junkie drinks. Source: Instagram

“I have faced so many obstacles during this pandemic. I think this pandemic is very influential for small businesses. It forced me to be more innovative about products and services. Not only did it have an effect on the business itself, but the pandemic also affected the purchasing power of consumers. Many people were affected by this pandemic, people lost their jobs and had no more income,” he explained.

Nevertheless, Abe kept fighting and striving. “Due to the pandemic I learned a lot of new things,” he said “Maybe this is what entrepreneurs need. Entrepreneurs must be able to survive, innovate, and have a strong mentality.”

Abe explained that he adapted to the pandemic and the lockdown by taking his business online, focusing on his website and social media. While Indonesia was affected gravely by the pandemic, due to the economy being strongly dependent on tourists, this didn’t stop local businesses from finding other ways to make income. “If entrepreneurs cannot keep up, then the business can fail. As much as possible I have to survive during a pandemic like this. The business model must be replaced according to what is happening at the moment. Although it is quite difficult, I have to push myself, I have to keep learning while I am young,” stated Abe.

As difficult as the pandemic was on local businesses and young entrepreneurs, this has been a learning curve for most on finding new ways of survival. Some businesses even took off during the pandemic doubling the sales that they normally did before, with everyone being online and bored. Many online businesses were able to take advantage.

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