Claire Vondemkamp (left) and Jami Sollid check out customers at Just James Boutique in Stanwood. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Claire Vondemkamp (left) and Jami Sollid check out customers at Just James Boutique in Stanwood. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Crazy or just brave? These folks opened businesses this year

In spite of the pandemic, the number of new businesses is up sharply compared to last year.

STANWOOD — Is it something in the water?

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of people who have opened new businesses this year is up sharply, according to U.S. Census Bureau, which tracks applications for employer identification numbers.

Stanwood residents Jami Sollid and Jessica Frank and Arlington resident Jeremy Elkins are among those who hung out shingles this year.

In June, Sollid launched Just James Boutique, which offers “classic” women’s and men’s apparel and home decor. The boutique got its start inside a 12-foot cargo trailer that Sollid renovated to look like a “hip, attractive walk-in closet,” she said.

“I’d been watching food trucks take over, so why not do a mobile boutique?” Sollid said.

Two months later, she opened a brick-and-mortar store in downtown Stanwood.

It hasn’t been easy, said Sollid, 39. She’s had to constantly flex to comply with state-ordered restrictions. With social distancing rules in place, she allows only one person at a time into the trailer to shop.

“I have definitely questioned my sanity,” Sollid said of her decision to brave the pandemic economy. “But I’ve been daydreaming about this for a long time, and I didn’t want to wait.”

In Washington, the number of business applications was up 32% in the third quarter of this year compared to the same period a year ago, according to Census data.

Across the U.S., business applications topped 1.5 million in the third quarter of this year, compared to 859,345 the third quarter of 2019, Census data indicate.

Is it crazy to start a new business now?

Across the country, existing businesses are shutting their doors permanently. It’s particularly tough for restaurant and retail stores that depend on walk-in traffic to fill tables and aisles.

In a recent poll of small business owners, nearly half of those surveyed feared they wouldn’t be able to earn enough money to stay afloat this year, according to the Alignable Q4 Revenue Poll.

The odds aren’t good, even in the best of times. A third of new businesses fail after two years. By the five-year mark, only half are still operating, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.

So how do you explain the uptick in new businesses this year?

One reason is that unemployed or underemployed workers are trying to make ends meet by becoming entrepreneurs, a Lending Tree study says.

Another is that the attitudes — such as “you might as well give it a go” and “you’ve go nothing to lose” — are more prevalent during an economic downturn, according to a study by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The study found that half of the companies on the Fortune 500 list in 2008 and 2009 were founded during a recession or bear (declining) market on Wall Street.

In other cases, startups that opened this year were already underway before the pandemic struck.

Claire Vondemkamp stages clothing at Just James Boutique in Stanwood. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Claire Vondemkamp stages clothing at Just James Boutique in Stanwood. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

In May 2019, Sollid quit her job at a Seattle engineering firm after eight years to focus on opening the boutique.

“It had been my dream for a decade,” Sollid said.

In January, she bought a cargo trailer and a used pickup truck to haul it.

“And then COVID breaks,” she said.

In March, Gov. Jay Inslee ordered non-essential businesses to close temporarily.

“Sweet, now what do I do?” she recalls herself saying.

Sollid put her plans in park.

“We rode out until June 24 and the restrictions were lifted,” Sollid said, who took to the road for the first time and began holding pop-up events across the state.

While the pandemic and the rules around it thwarted some of her plans, she’s not called it quits.

“There are times when I’m scared out of my wits,” said Sollid, who opened the brick-and-mortar store in August. “And then suddenly, you have these incredibly busy times and everything is alright.”

Jami Sollid, owner of Just James Boutique, started her business in a trailer and now has a brick-and-mortar store in Stanwood. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Jami Sollid, owner of Just James Boutique, started her business in a trailer and now has a brick-and-mortar store in Stanwood. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

A gamble

When it looked as if the pandemic wasn’t going away anytime soon, Jeremy Elkins, 36, and his two partners took a chance and became entrepreneurs.

His five-year-old woodworking hobby had outgrown the garage, and if the Arlington resident wanted to take it to the next level, it meant opening a shop.

“If we waited for the pandemic to go away and return to normal, we could be waiting for years,” Elkins said. “So, we took a gamble on it.”

Elkins creates tables, cutting boards and other items from raw wooden slabs and colorful resins.

In June, he and his partners rented a combination workshop and showroom in Arlington and opened UnTreated Art at 105 North Olympic Ave.

Two trends looked good for their venture. With more people spending time at home, the urge to spruce things up around the house was fueling new furniture sales, and online shopping was taking off.

Elkins, though new to social media, began using Instagram and YouTube to promote his products.

People tune in as entertainment to watch time lapse videos of the furniture-making process and become customers, he said.

“I would credit most of our success to videos, most of them 60 seconds,” Elkins said.

Online orders account for about 95% of sales, he said.

“We get enough people to purchase tables so far that we’re seeing a slow increase in growth,” Elkins said. “It looks like were going to make it the first year.”

Opportunity knocks

Lauren Anderson, 27, has been selling baked goods since 2015 at farmers markets, pop-up stores and through custom orders.

“We offer a range of gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, paleo and keto-baked goods,” said Anderson, a Bothell resident.

For two years, she searched for a storefront. “I’ve been using the facilities at a commercial kitchen in Seattle to bake,” Anderson said.

This fall, a storefront in Snohomish became available.

“It was the right size, the right fit and the right price,” Anderson said.

The combination swept away most of her fears about opening in the midst of the pandemic.

“We were a little bit nervous, but it was our only option to keep growing,” Anderson said. “I took a leap of faith.”

Anderson added eight new employees when she opened Grain Artisan Bakery at 717 First St. in Snohomish in November.

“We opened the store with 11 people and we’re hiring three more,” Anderson said.

“It’s been so much busier than we could have expected,” she said.

Jessica Frank (left) checks out a customer with employee Delaney Fitze at Copper House Stanwood. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Jessica Frank (left) checks out a customer with employee Delaney Fitze at Copper House Stanwood. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

‘We couldn’t just walk away’

In December 2019, Jessica Frank, 42, signed the lease for a 1,500-square-foot building in Stanwood. Renovations began immediately.

The dream had been a gleam in her eye for years: Open a “joyful” restaurant and gift shop that stocked local products and gave the community a place to gather.

“The premise of our business is the five joys,” said Frank — gifts, ice cream, warm beverages, chocolate and tasty bites. “I’m trying to bring a pinch of joy to people’s days, however small.”

In March, with renovations still underway, the governor ordered all non-essential construction projects to temporarily shut down.

“There was a lot of crying, tears and not knowing what to do,” Frank said.

But with the lease signed and the build-out in progress, the only choice was to continue.

“We’d already put our life savings and our house into this,” Frank said. “So what else are we going to do? We couldn’t just walk away.”

In August, she opened Copper House at 7208 267th St. NW in Stanwood after a months-long delay.

“About 90% of our retail items are made by local businesses or are U.S. made,” Frank said.

The ice cream sandwiches are made by Susie’s Baking Co. on Camano Island. 5b’s Bakery in Concrete supplies the cafe’s gluten-free bread. The ice cream counter is stocked with products from Lopez Island Creamery.

It’s been a struggle, Frank said.

Tables and chairs were replaced with increased retail space at Copper House Stanwood due to COVID restrictions. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Tables and chairs were replaced with increased retail space at Copper House Stanwood due to COVID restrictions. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

“Most of us that opened up in the middle of the pandemic aren’t eligible for federal grants. You have to be open a minimum of a year,” said Frank, referring to federal CARES Act grants made available to small businesses.

It helps to be a quick-change artist, she said.

When the governor issued new restrictions last month banning indoor dining at bars and restaurants, Frank wasted no time removing the tables and chairs from the dining room and converting the area into a “safely spaced retail space.”

“We worked tirelessly to get everything moved so people could come in and shop,” she said.

“Every small business that’s designed like us have a little family standing behind it” said Frank, who launched a GoFundMe page in November to help support the business and its three employees.

She hopes more people will stop in.

“We would appreciate even a smiling face,” said Frank. “Just come by and peek at all the fun stuff here.”

Janice Podsada; jpodsada@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods

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