If you asked Julie Barnes, Amy Zellmer or Greg Fischer at the beginning of 2020 where they would be by the middle of 2021, odds are that running their own business wouldn’t have been their first answer.
Of course, there’s a lot about the past year that many people wouldn’t have predicted.
Barnes found her job at Kohl’s eliminated in a restructuring just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world. She is now signed on as a franchisee with Dogtopia, a national chain of dog daycares, and hopes to open her first location on the East Side of Milwaukee by September.
Zellmer’s job in the events industry no longer existed after COVID-19 hit. In January, she launched AIM90, an experiential design company that turns client content into an immersive experience.
Fischer found himself unsatisfied with his corporate job during the pandemic. After a lot of research and open and honest conversations with family, in August he launched Burn Pit BBQ, an online resource for those new to grilling and barbeque that also sells rubs and sauces.
Regardless of the reason or the type of venture, Barnes, Zellmer and Fischer are not alone in striking out on the entrepreneurial journey during the pandemic.
Nationally, new business applications were up 24% in 2020 to around 4.35 million. The trend has continued in 2021 with applications up 62% from the previous year and running nearly two months ahead at 1.37 million.
Wisconsin hasn’t missed out on the trend, with applications up 20% in 2020 at 52,620. In the first 15 weeks of 2021, applications are up nearly 67% over the same period in 2020. Wisconsin’s increase ranked 20th in the country in 2020 and 21st so far this year.
There’s reason to believe the trend could continue — if not increase — in coming months.
“I think we’re going to see the strongest small business formation in the second half (of the year) that we’ve ever seen,” Frank Bisignano, president and chief executive officer of Brookfield-based Fiserv Inc., said on a recent earnings call. Fiserv’s products include payment processing and point of sale systems used by many businesses.
Passion was a driving force for Barnes, Zellmer and Fischer to launch their businesses.
Barnes said she started the process of looking for other jobs.
“I very quickly figured out that my passion and my interest and going back into the corporate world, it wasn’t where my heart was,” she said.
Even though she loves dogs, she didn’t know she would want to open a dog daycare. In the middle of her life with two teenage sons that will soon be starting their own lives, she was ready for a new direction.
“I really wanted to create a next chapter for myself that was more service oriented,” Barnes said.
She worked with franchise broker Meg Schmitz, whom Barnes praised for taking the time to get to know her and her personality, and she landed on Dogtopia. Barnes said she was drawn to the growing industry, offering a service that helps people live more fulfilling lives, and a company approach and culture that fit what she was looking for.
Barnes said going with a franchise provided her the benefits of owning her own business while also providing structure and support.
“It can feel like an island sometimes,” she said. “You’re used to being in an office all day or even during COVID, you’re having Zoom meetings. Well, when you start a business ... it’s really me on my own doing this at this point.”
Barnes said she has made a lot of connections to other Dogtopia franchise owners, some of whom have a similar story. Hearing how others transitioned out of the corporate world into entrepreneurship gave her confidence.
“Having been so ingrained in the corporate mentality for so long, I didn’t realize or recognize all of the resources that are out there to actually start a business,” Barnes said.
“My eyes became opened very quickly to, wait a second, this is something that can become a reality. It always felt like it was something that was out of touch because it’s not something I spent a lot of time thinking about. But when I had that time to do my research and understand what my options were and recognize that, yes, I actually can do this ... it became much more of a reality,” she added.
After COVID hit the events industry, Zellmer knew she would need to start down a new career path or pave her own.
“I chose to pave my own,” she said.
Zellmer created an idea board and held focus groups to research the direction she should take. She landed on AIM90, which she says combines her passion for program design and prioritizing human experience over tactical delivery of information.
Fischer had a passion for grilling and barbeque and even had other side gigs related to it, one of which, GrillingTshirts.com, is still running. When he found himself unfulfilled by endless meetings and projects during the pandemic, he thought it might be time to take advantage of people spending more time at home.
“I just was being pulled to do something else,” he said.
So, Fischer and his business partner worked to develop a business plan for Burn Pit BBQ that included an initial roadmap for the company, market vision and a longer-term vision. His conversations with family members and a financial advisor helped turn those ideas into reality.
“One thing that gave me the confidence to actually make the leap was that strategic planning on the family side of things,” Fischer said. “I think for me, I would still be in my corporate position if I didn’t have a strong financial plan, if I didn’t seek out those resources for health care and then put together the family plan on top of the business plan.”
The initial plans focused on e-commerce and some small retail, but Fischer said Burn Pit BBQ has also found some traction at craft and artisan fairs, which demonstrated consumer interest in supporting local businesses.
“From a retail perspective, at least from a small business, there is an undercurrent in the economy that’s really propping up and supporting small businesses and there’s a want to support them, just from a consumer perspective,” he said.
Finding traction in unexpected places highlighted the importance to Fischer of adapting the business plan in some cases.
“You have to be flexible, you have to try different things out, because you never know what’s going to be successful if you don’t try it,” he said.
Zellmer said seeking feedback is also important, in addition to being flexible.
“You have to be open to feedback, whether it be negative or positive,” she said, adding she preferred the former. “I love the positive, but the negative was going to make me better.”
She suggested entrepreneurs also need to be willing to lean on experts where needed.
“If you’re not really good at accounting and you need somebody to set up your books for you, then let them,” she said.
Zellmer also emphasized the need for patience in getting a steady flow of business established.
“Too many people go into opening their own business thinking that ‘build it and they will come,’” Zellmer said. “You have to build that pipeline and be patient.”