Pandemic Alters Launch Trajectory

By Brad Johnson & John Townes
Published May 26, 2020
Berkshire Trade & Commerce

Start-up ventures thrust into uncharted territory by COVID crisis.

The process of starting a new business can be exhilarating, exhausting and expensive – with entrepreneurs tapping every bit of their time, energy and financial resources to get their ventures off the ground. To improve their chance of success, this rite-of-passage into the realm of business ownership should include detailed planning for a wide range of situations and scenarios the business might confront once the “open” sign is hung on the door. But who plans for a pandemic? While businesses of all sorts and sizes are being adversely impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, it is those ventures just getting started that are perhaps most vulnerable to the unprecedented economic disruption the pandemic has precipitated. And this heavy rain of hard times is likely to wash the fragile foundation out from under more than a few start-ups before they get a chance to get going. However, with youth often comes resilience, and some start-ups may find themselves in a better position to pivot in response to the pandemic than older, established businesses that are set in their ways. Over the past few weeks, BERKSHIRE TRADE & COMMERCE contacted operators of several new businesses that had been featured in recent issues of this newspaper to see how they have been affected by the coronavirus crisis, what they have been able to do to adapt, and how they view the prospects for their ventures going forward. Their tales of how they are grappling with a situation none could have envisioned are presented below.

THE FOUNDRY

In its first year in operation as an arts and performance center in West Stockbridge, The Foundry surpassed the expectations of its founder and owner, Amy Brentano. “We had a stellar first year in terms of my own modest goals,” said Brentano. “The Foundry was very vibrant, and we hosted many programs and activities here. We were also hopping throughout the winter, and events consistently sold out then. We were booked with events through the coming summer.” But then the COVID-19 crisis and state emergency order emerged, which suddenly brought the curtain down on this momentum. The Foundry is now in the limbo of an enforced intermission of unknown duration and long-term impact. Last year, Brentano purchased the 3,600-square-foot building at 2 Harris St. in the center of West Stockbridge and converted it into a regional

center for cultural programs, live entertainment, and other community gatherings (June 2019 BT&C). The Foundry (thefoundryws.com and Facebook page The Foundry) hosts live theatrical performances, concerts, open mikes, readings, discussions, educational workshops, art exhibits and other activities in a “blackbox” theater and other gallery spaces. It has also been a stimulus for revitalization in West Stockbridge. In addition to local audiences, it draws attendees from throughout the Berkshires and adjacent regions. Brentano operates The Foundry as a for profit business that both sponsors programs and makes the facility available for rentals and other arrangements with producers and community groups. She also relies on additional earned income, such as on-site beverage sales during events.

Early in the coronavirus crisis, Brentano closed The Foundry and has cancelled all activities through May. “We’ve left the schedule tentatively in place for June, July and August,” said Brentano. “But everything will depend on the situation. I’m not sure when we’ll reopen, or what we’ll be able to do.” Brentano also donates use of the site to the weekly outdoor West Stockbridge Farmers Market. She said she expects to do that this summer, but that will also be subject to current circumstances and how they affect operation of the farmers market. Brentano said she intends to keep The Foundry alive through the current crisis and recovery. She emphasized, however, that she is in the same position as other small businesses with limited resources. “I’m determined to get through this summer, and I’m also looking forward to autumn,” she said. “But I can’t predict anything. I can adapt for now but I can’t carry it indefinitely. I have to start generating revenue again, and I have daughters to support.” She said the sudden shift from success based growth planning to struggling to survive has been very frustrating.

“April was supposed to be LGBT Awareness Month, and we had some great programs lined up for that,” she said. “We also had an exciting seasonal schedule coming up, including local, national and international performers. Not being able to do all that is very disappointing.” The shutdown has also impacted Brentano as a businessperson. She said she had been preparing to implement a revised business plan based on the first year’s positive trends. “For example, the people who work here have been independent contractors,” she said. “I was about to change that by creating staff positions as full employees. But that’s been put on hold.” While her mission is similar to other cultural organizations and community-based venues, The Foundry’s status as a business has closed off some forms of support. “It’s a unique position, because I haven’t been able to turn to grants or other sources of funding that are available to nonprofit organizations,” she said. Instead, she has applied for government emergency funds for businesses, including a small business loan. She also has been negotiating some form of loan modification on her mortgage. Unlike other cultural organizations and businesses, Brentano has not attempted to develop alternative programs, such as online video performances or other virtual activities. “I don’t want to put my energies online,” she said. “ I think there’s already a glut of that. To me an online performance or video is not a substitute for the experience of human beings coming together through live performance, and the interactions and sense of community that results.” She added that The Foundry’s basic purpose is contradictory to current necessities imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. “My vision for The Foundry is the opposite of social distancing and staying at home,” he said. She noted that she is very appreciative of the support shown by the community before and during the crisis. Despite the current problems, Brentano is philosophical about her dilemma. “I’m being affected by this just like everyone else,” she said. “I feel guilty if I start feeling sorry for myself. I realize my problems are insignificant compared to the more severe impacts this is having on many other people, organizations and businesses. So, instead I try to focus on the future and preparing plans A, B and C.”

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