Adapting Your Small Business in a Pandemic

Kristina Modares and Jane Hervey are entrepreneurs who, like so many, are forced to pivot in the face of COVID-19. Modares is co-founder of OpenHouse Austin, an event center and real estate educational hub, and Hervey is founder of #bossbabesATX, a Texas nonprofit that empowers women and nonbinary creatives, entrepreneurs, and leaders. They discuss how their businesses are adapting and what they’re doing to build morale.

Kristina Modares and her business partner, Steph Douglass, founded OpenHouse to create a gathering place for first-time homebuyers and people new to investing to receive education and support, and for community members to rent out for special events.

Jane Hervey’s organization, #bossbabesATX, uses conferences, markets, festivals and meet-ups to give spaces for the community to share crafts, find collaborators, learn new skills, seek guidance, and provide one another with practical and emotional resources.

As you might imagine, the COVID-19 pandemic has shaken up how they operate, since community events are such a huge part of both of their personal and professional lives.

Modares and Hervey recently discussed how they’re finding new (and fun!) ways to engage their respective communities, forging new, socially distant ways to socialize, and supporting one another during this involuntary time off. It’s especially challenging for people like them, for whom staying isolated and quiet isn’t quite what they do best, especially in times of uncertainty. 

We can’t just shout blind positivity—we have to acknowledge how difficult this is for so many of us and lay those problems flat.

Kristina Modares: When COVID-19 hit, we’d just finished growing our team from two people to nine. Our company values and culture are so important to us, and we were nervous our new employees weren’t going to get the support and structure they needed from us while they were still in training. I felt scared and lost, so I could only imagine how they were feeling. 

Jane, you and I have both had to quickly change the way we do business and support our teams and communities. What does that look like for you? 

Jane Hervey: We’re really all in similar boats, aren’t we? At bbatx, we’ve had our own fair share of adapting to this new normal. Our team was already accustomed to working remotely, so moving to Slack and Zoom wasn’t too big of a shift for us. Emotionally, though, it’s set us all back! 

To pivot from hosting thousands of people through our events and programs to chatting in smaller groups on video calls was a bit disorienting at first. But we decided to focus on what we do best, which is thinking long-term, getting creative, and finding new ways to be resourceful. 

We set a few goals: We’re committed to open communication about our capacity, taking as much time off as we need, and adopting clear boundaries around work-life balance. Externally, we knew we needed to continue to build morale within our extended creative and entrepreneurial community. So now, we’re focused on bringing virtual versions of our programs to life and developing free resources and tools for those of us who are navigating setbacks and difficult situations. It’s been an experiment and had its roadblocks, but it’s been uplifting, to say the least.

KM: For us, the last thing our team needed was to be stressed about hitting targets that were set before this all happened. We met virtually with each person on our team to talk about how they’re doing and set new goals. Steph and I also really dug into what our big picture goals are for Open House. We also had to figure how we’d turn our most popular gatherings into virtual events, starting with our homebuyer workshop. 

It was stressful at first. I’d never really used Zoom, so I didn’t know how to host a webinar. Luckily, our amazing events coordinator took charge and helped come up with a structure. We played around with different scenarios to pinpoint how to give our audience the best experience. Our first webinar went off without a hitch, and I got the same rush of excitement and gratitude as I do after a successful live event. 

JH: I know that feeling all too well. I hosted one of our bbatx workshops in a virtual setting, and the eeriest part was speaking to a silent “room.” Typically, at our live events, I have all kinds of strategies to get the crowd quiet. I got the same feeling, though—that rush of endorphins that comes from meeting in person. The virtual workshop was a success. We had 50 community members tune in, and the chat was abuzz the whole time with questions, validation, and people sharing their experiences.

I’ve come to find that that has been an important part of building morale. We can’t just shout blind positivity—we have to acknowledge how difficult this is for so many of us and lay those problems flat. It’s hard to work, it’s hard to communicate, and it’s hard to think clearly right now. Instead of ignoring those realities, I’m doing all I can to recognize them, accommodate for them, and do what I can to keep the wheels turning. That may look like taking a few days off after receiving some disappointing news, or introducing a new, funny Zoom background to lighten the mood. I’m trying to be kind to myself and allow for some experimentation in the ways I respond to setbacks and challenges. We’re all struggling to figure out the appropriate and “right” way to be right now.

KM: Exactly! How are we supposed to feel? What are we supposed to do? Being an entrepreneur is almost always a roller coaster of emotions, but right now I feel it more than ever. Some days I’m left feeling so many emotions at once that it leaves me debilitated. And you know what? I’ve finally learned to just let it happen. I’ve been allowing myself to have slower days and take time to go for walks, meditate, and just watch TV. I’ve been seeking a more thoughtful life anyway, and this is the perfect time to really sink into that. 

This new normal has also allowed me to be more intentional with my business. Instead of trying to jump into a whole new business model, I’ve thought, how do we make what we were already doing even better? I love building a strong foundation with anything I do, and it’s been nice to have some time to really think that through. 

An event we’ve put on recently that has really been fueling me is our investor meetup. When we launched it a few months ago, it was stressing me out. The concept was so important to me, and I didn’t feel like I had enough time to make it really inclusive and valuable. When I first got into real estate and investing, as a young woman, all the meetups were so uninviting. I knew I didn’t want to host something remotely like them. We’ve been able to successfully host the meetups virtually, and it feels good to still be able to help women learn how to make their money work for them. 

JH: Taking that leap to do something differently—especially to reimagine what you’ve already created or worked so hard for—can be pretty emotional. It takes a lot of courage to grieve a future you were planning for, while optimistically pivoting into a new one. I think recognizing the ambiguity, conflict, reflection, and hope that comes along with that is important.

Slowing down has accelerated some of the changes we were hoping to make at our organization, too, like launching a digital membership and making our programs more accessible. It can feel a bit overwhelming, because beyond solving for the countless problems that emerge in a crisis, we’ve got some new and big ideas on the table. 

I’ve decided to meet that pressure and urgency by building any changes we make into a three-year plan. With so many changes in the short-term, though, tackling a long-term strategy can feel like sitting in a pile of molasses after downing three shots of espresso. I’ve been talking to other friends in the nonprofit world and creative space, and they’ve echoed similar feelings. We’re all focused on finding ways to build resiliency around ourselves and around our businesses, but we all know that that kind of thing takes time and headspace. So, how do we find that headspace, that clarity? I think recognizing the moment we’re in and feeling those feelings is probably the best place to start.

Photo credits: Jinni J (Jane Hervey, left) and Chelsea Francis (Kristina Modares, right)

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