From crying to thriving: Pandemic life as a small business owner
On March 11th, 2020, I was preparing my presentation for the Chicago SHRM Elevate Conference which was the next day at a hotel in downtown Chicago.
For Knuckleball Comedy, our professional development, team building, and leadership workshops are our bread and butter. With several hundred HR professionals in attendance, this was a marquee event for us to gain a handful of new clients. I was excited to present because it’s what I genuinely enjoy, and even more excited to grow my business which has been my baby since 2016.
You know what happened next.
(Knuckleball Comedy virtual happy hour in November of 2020)
Less than 24 hours before I was to present, the conference was canceled. What a punch to the gut.
In addition to the fun corporate events we run, I built my business teaching and performing improv comedy to children.
On Friday, March 19th, 2020, we got word that schools would be shut down for two weeks. We would later learn it would be the entire school year and the following one as well. We went from working with a few hundred kids per week to zero.
Since the first punch already landed squarely in my gut, this next one was straight to my head. The business I had worked tirelessly to build for nearly five years suddenly didn’t exist anymore. I just had a name, a website, some advertisements running to customers who were no longer in the market and about 1000 business cards I had nothing to do with. But no more customers, nothing good on the horizon and definitely no money coming in.
That’s when I started crying. For a few weeks I gave up. I figured I had to think about another career, who knows how long this pandemic will last. And even when it is over, do I even have what it takes to bust my ass and build it back up again? At the time I certainly didn’t think so.
I know I am not alone and I know plenty of people had it worse than I did.
2020 sucked, the pandemic sucked and it still sucks. 2020 was taking a 95 mph fastball right off your elbow, and then rinse and repeat. It hurt, it sucked and it still stings.
My elbow was still stinging, but I slowly felt like I had some more fight left to see if I could save Knuckleball Comedy.
Everything and everyone went virtual and I didn’t want to miss the boat so I began my virtual journey. We teamed up with some other awesome child enrichment companies to run a virtual summer camp. It wasn’t much. Revenue-wise it was a tiny drop in the bucket for what we’d otherwise bring in for the summer camp programs we run with kids, but it was something.
Then a law firm who I was supposed to run an event for asked me if I could do my professional development workshop virtually. In my head I thought it was impossible. But I said yes and had faith that somehow I’d figure it out. A few weeks later we did the virtual workshop and it was by all accounts a smashing success. I had to charge a lot less for it, and nothing beats an in-person event and that goes for anything, but I was pleased and thought I might be onto something.
So I started fleshing out my virtual professional development workshops and I began advertising for it. I had conversations with all sorts of people every day to learn more about what I could offer virtually and to try and sell.
I didn’t sell much but slowly but surely I gained a few more clients mostly from hard, old fashioned selling. It took me months before I realized that companies were just looking for fun virtual happy hours and not so much interested in the words “professional development.”
So I changed some things and synced up with what companies were looking for. It took months, and the whole while I was barely making any money.
Then 2021 happened and people were receiving their vaccines and were going back to doing things in-person. It wasn’t 2019, but it was better than nothing. Kids didn’t go back to school yet but summer camps were gearing up for a big year and I pushed hard to get back into the 40 some camps we were in during the 2019 summer.
Simultaneously, companies began reaching out for in-person events with some virtual events still sprinkled in. After feeling like I had nothing to do for a full year, now I had everything to do.
I doubled my revenue from summer camps from 2019 to 2021 and tripled my revenue from corporate events from 2019 to 2021. I was hurt by kids not being in school but made up for it elsewhere.
Now with 2021 almost in the rear-view mirror, it feels like we may go backwards a few steps in this pandemic. I had an in-person corporate holiday party event already canceled, and that stung too as it was a big one.
More and more virtual events might be on the horizon. It’s not what I’d prefer, but I am definitely prepared.
The pandemic sucked and it still does. It will always be a black cloud in my memory as I am sure it will be for everyone.
But I already spent my time crying and I am done with that. I spent months adapting and I will never be done with that. And now the arrow for Knuckleball Comedy is pointing up once again.
It feels good. But there’s lots more work to be done.
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