AKRON, Ohio — It’s no secret small businesses have struggled during the pandemic, with many business owners saying the key to surviving has been the ability to adapt their business model.
At Akron’s Bounce Innovation Hub, a nonprofit that houses, trains and supports entrepreneurs, startups and small businesses, businesses took various tacks to survive the bleakest months of the global shut-down, and some even flourished.
Bounce faced a struggle as well. The huge, multi-level facility, in one of the city’s former manufacturing enclaves, had just opened its public coworking space, and was poised to open a café, when the world closed down.
But, with people working from home, demand rose for the facility’s rentable office space, as many people opted for off-site office space there rather than work from home, said Chief Marketing Officer Jeanine Black.
“As far as occupancy and tenants, we’re doing really, really well. That did not slow us down at all,” she said. “Obviously, the coworking is what took a hit during that time. But it's slowly coming back.”
Operations continued at Bounce’s technology incubator and software accelerator, Black said, as well as a women- and minority-focused accelerator known as GROW (generating real opportunity and wealth).
A makerspace is also up and running, offering tools, like sewing and embroidery machines, 3-D printers and laser cutters, Black said.
In September, with more than 300,000 Summit County residents fully vaccinated helping the co-working space regain ground, Stray Dog Café opened its doors on the first floor.
Here’s how two small businesses housed at Bounce adapted to survive into the future.
White Glove Cleaning Solutions
LaQuata Williams was already running White Glove Cleaning Solutions, a successful part-time business, when she was laid off from her full-time day job.
She learned about Bounce and was accepted into the Next Level incubator program for established businesses. At Bounce, Williams made connections and began to grow her business, until the pandemic hit, she said.
“All of my residential dropped,” she said. “All of them were just gone.”
With support from Bounce advisors, Williams purchased electrostatic sprayers, which use an electrical charge to spray disinfectants, making them valuable in cleaning hard-to-reach places.
With reliable disinfecting now critical, Williams put the word out about her new capability.
“The commercial picked up, but now, the past couple of months, the residential has really picked back up,” she said.
Over the past few years, Williams also had been working on creating a line of natural cleaning products — all-purpose cleaner, glass cleaner and non-aerosol disinfectant. She attended a community event to pilot the products locally.
“Within the first 20 minutes, I was (sold) out,” she said.
Taking advantage of product development support at Bounce, Williams is now working with advisors to strengthen her brand.
And because her products are non-toxic, Williams launched a volunteer initiative called “Cleaning for a Cause.” Working in partnership with the Akron-based Kim Jacobs Breast Cancer Resource Center, White Glove Cleaning provides cleaning services for women battling breast cancer.
Modern Traditions Co.
Before coming to Bounce, Aaron Gascon was running a successful used-clothing business, selling online on Ebay, Instagram and TikTok.
His business, Modern Traditions Co., carries high-quality, but hard-to-find vintage clothing, like original, all-cotton Levi’s, painter’s jeans, mouton coats, bowling shirts, leather coats, flannel shirts and jackets with decorative patches.
“Most people are kind of getting hip to recycling, upcycling clothes,” he said.
But in an unusual reversal, Gascon wanted to transition his business from an online shop to a brick-and-mortar storefront.
He was accepted into a program for non-technology entrepreneurs at Bounce, where he was able to fill one of the facility’s spacious rooms with racks of clothing for adults and kids.
The store, packed with merchandise, represents about seven years of accumulating items he had kept stored in his home basement, picked from places, like garage and estate sales, and thrift stores, he said.
“Most of this stuff is just so fun to me. And unique,” he said. “I enjoy finding rare pieces that are like a piece of history in print. I mean, you see most everything here is going to be one of a kind.”
Bounce offers a space that’s larger than he could afford outside the program, he said.
“I'm not hitting my head in the basement anymore,” he said. “My wife's happy because I got all the stuff out of the house.”
Recently, Bounce connected him with Akron-based Crafty Mart, a nonprofit that supports makers and artists helping them grow their businesses, in part, through events.
With Crafty Mart, for the first time, Gascon had the opportunity to sell his clothing in person.
“It was massive for me. That Saturday was the most sales I've ever done in one day, so it was exciting,” he said. “Running those events helps for me to calculate, OK, this is profitable if I'm open on one day? What could I do if I was open throughout the week?”
But Gascon is keeping a cool head.
“The plan isn't overnight. It's going to be a year to a couple years of doing the open-house thing, continuing online,” he said. “I'm just going with the flow.”
Now that he has advisors who know retail sales, and product development, Gascon aspires to do more than sell clothing. He wants to learn to use a chain-stitching machine to adorn and repair clothing the way it was done in the past.
“I want to get back to repairing denim jeans,” he said. “A lot of companies like Levi's are already doing that, where they're just cutting jeans up. I want to be able to take older pieces that I find that usually end up in the trash because of the condition and then repair them.”
Mascon is excited about the future of his clothing store, he said.
“I think this is going to work,” he said. “With everybody's support and the excitement of seeing what I have here and everybody's faces glow when they come in. It's makes me happy to be a part of Bounce.”