Women business owners embrace pandemic, find opportunities for growth | Current Edition

Like a lot of small business owners, the pandemic hit hard for Stacey Hart. In

Like a lot of small business owners, the pandemic hit hard for Stacey Hart. In her case, this meant basically dismantling the direct sales kitchen tool business that the 50-year-old Gillette woman had spent nearly 25 years working to create.

Last April, however, as COVID-19 shut down in-person gatherings and ushered in a variety of new public health restrictions impacting the way she typically did business, Hart suddenly found herself at an impasse as her business ground to a halt.

Her option at this point was to establish a presence online, which up until now, she’d been resistant to try, given her limited computer skills. Now, however, she had little choice but to try, and it turned out that treading into unknown upended her life in ways she could have never imagined.

It was around this same time that Hart’s friend called her with a renewed offer, inviting her friend to leave Gillette and join her on the road as a full-time nomad in her restored 30-foot, 2006 Airstream trailer. A couple of years ago, her friend had purchased the trailer, which, at the time, had Hart pretty jealous.

Hart, who was then newly divorced and set up in a nice townhome with all three children grown, had been toying with the idea of being a full-time nomad, but always thought the time was not quite right. There was some reason always in the way, she said.

“I always told her that one of these days I’d do it,” Hart said, and that day seemed to have finally come as Hart ran out of excuses.

It was like the universe was giving her the perfect reason to throw all caution into the wind, she said, so she figured she would take plunge while she was still young and healthy enough to enjoy it.

The challenge was paring down her life, but in the end, Hart gave away or sold off all of her possessions, with the exception of a few photos and sentimental trinkets.

“It was really hard at first,” Hart said in late March from Minnesota, where’s she currently parked for a few days visiting family and friends before heading off to the Oregon coast. “But, it gets a lot easier when you realize that most of the stuff in your home is just filling space, but doesn’t have a lot of value.”

The hardest part was dwindling down her massive cookbook library, as well as selecting a small cache of kitchen tools and accessories, which included a hot pressure cooker, air fryer, and a few other odds and ends that she needed to produce her product demo videos in her now tiny, portable kitchen. It ended up being a lot easier than she might have thought to move her business onto a social media platform where she can essentially do everything she could in person, and, in fact, finds it much less stressful.

Along with running her full-time business, Hart and friend also save money by volunteering at various state parks, cultural centers and nature reserves through the volunteer.gov program, which affords them a free RV spot and hookups while they make their way across the country.

Despite the double jobs, Hart finds she has much more spare time and enjoys her life much more now, which, in part, has to do with cutting the ties to her earthly possessions that has freed her up in ways she’d never imagine. With the free rent and constantly changing scenery, she feels like she’s on the brink of a second life.

“It’s absolutely amazing,” she said as she described the many sights she’s seen in her almost year of life on the road, as well as the community of fellow nomads with whom she’s already sprung tight friendships and camaraderie.

It’s the first time in her life that she woke up and feels no stress, she said, noting that now she also gets to see her family and friends much more frequently.

When asked if she has any regrets about leaving home, she doesn’t even hesitate. No way. Instead, she talks about all the places still to explore as Hart joins a growing demographic of nomads who work and live on the road.

Had it not been for the pandemic, Hart said, she’d likely still be in her condo, doing in-person product demos and parties. For better or worse, COVID-19 definitely changed her trajectory, both in business and life by encouraging her to throw all caution into the wind and take a chance.

Amanda

Amanda Waldron knows exactly what Hart means. The 33-year-old Casper woman, who also runs the middle school expulsion program for Natrona County School District 1, saw the pandemic as an opportunity to launch her own skin care studio.

Waldron, who has been a licensed esthetician since 2005, had been putting together her business plan when the pandemic struck. And where some might have been wary planning to open a new business in the wake of public health restrictions that closed personal care salons for months, Waldron figured then was as good a time as any to start planning to head out on her own.

Did the pandemic give her pause?

“No,” she said, with a wave of her hand. “I knew I wanted to branch out on my own. I knew what I wanted in my business down to the last detail, and just started to put my plan together.”

In February, Waldron launched the Skin Studio in downtown Casper, offering facials, skin care, makeup artistry, waxing, spray tans and lashes. So far, it’s going better than she expected, and though Waldron plans to keep her day job for now, she’s enjoying doing what she loves.

Cassandra

Over in Cody, Cassandra Wagler also found her new Etsy-based business, WaglerGirls, impacted by the pandemic. Wagler had taken the plunge and quit her full-time job in the finance industry to pursue her hobby full time in July 2019, less than a year before the world ground to a halt.

WaglerGirls, which then focused mostly on glitzy, fun costumes that she designed and handcrafted for small dogs and pets, had been doing reasonably well after finding a niche among pet owners. The sole purpose of the business, according to Wagler, was to create silly, fun costumes that make people laugh.

“Is there anything more fun than seeing a dog wearing clothes?” she asked with a laugh. “As cheesy as it sounds, it’s just a way to make people smile.”

This often meant Western-style tutus, princess costumes, with smiling watermelons, bespectacled owls or dog-boned printed skirts trimmed with colorful balls. The more over-the-top glitzy and outlandish, the better, Wagler said.

Business had been fairly steady with the help of craft shows and social media marketing, then the pandemic hit in April, less than a year after opening. As the gut-sinking realization set in that she’d quit her job to pursue this full time, she worried.

Then face masks became an everyday item. As a seamstress, Wagler saw an opening, although given her outlandish fabric selection, as well as her inexperience actually sewing masks, she wasn’t sure if her particular wares would prove popular.

After posting a few in her online store, she quickly realized she’d hit pay dirt as the orders flew in, and in one month, she’d made somewhere between 600 and 800 masks. The silly masks, she said, hit a chord with many in Wyoming and across the country who were looking for a little laughter in an otherwise dark time.

“My biggest sellers were the ones that made absolutely no sense,” Wagler said, recalling the dozens of smiling lemons, unicorns and rainbow masks she’d created. “I think people were just looking for silly things to make them smile.”

Likewise, her pet costumes also became a coveted item – including at least three orders for cat costumes that Wagler still doesn’t understand – which, again, she attributes to more people being home and looking for bright spots and ways to entertain themselves.

In a million years, she said, she wouldn’t have seen it coming that sales might actually go up in the midst of an international pandemic. Sewing so many masks, which was really hard on her body, made her reevaluate the future of her business and move beyond just selling pet costumes, which had been really inconsistent.

“It sent me in other directions,” she said, “as I began to lose my passion for sewing.”

This led to her delving into embroidery and launching a whole new line of similarly fun badge reels for doctors, nurses, teachers and anyone whose job requires them to wear a badge. So far, it seems to be a good move, she said, as she once again reinvents herself with a new trademark product and design.

Who knows what direction her business might have gone in had it not been for the pandemic, she said. Regardless, it allowed her to stay afloat and follow her dreams and passion that she’d not been able to realize in her former career working in a variety of office settings, and she’s very happy that she took the chance to start her own business.

“It’s scary as heck,” she said, “but you are the only one who can make that decision.”

Another Amanda

Amanda Clower gets it, too. She quit her full-time track coaching job at the University of Wyoming to pursue her own photography business in Laramie in 2012.

Right before COVID-19 struck, the 36-year-old mother of two finally reached a comfortable point in her business, with several newborn photography appointments set that spring, which were promptly canceled as public health restrictions put the state and country on lockdown.

With that income lost, she tried to think of ways to keep her business afloat while also staying busy. Her solution came in the form of front porch mini-sessions where families would pose in their front yards while Clower snapped away at a safe 6-foot distance.

The response was pretty overwhelming, Clower said. For starters, people were excited for the company and the $30 rate for family photos.

“A lot of families had never had their pictures taken because it was too expensive,” she said.

This made it cost-effective, she said, and also provided a much-needed release from the doldrums of the pandemic, during which she photographed more than 215 families expressing themselves by posing in superhero costumes, pet cameos, stuffed animals and even a goat. She also provided the same low-cost photos for high school and college graduates, to give them an opportunity to celebrate, if just by tossing their caps in photos.

And though she definitely lost money during the pandemic, she nonetheless found a way to stay busy while making other people happy, and in a distant sense, giving her a connection to her family in her native New Zealand that, due to constraints from the pandemic, she still has not been able to visit.

“(The pandemic) provided a weird opportunity to find new ways to connect with people while thinking of creative ways to keep my business afloat,” she said.

And who knows where that might lead in the future, as entrepreneurs and business owners throughout the state find ways to grow their enterprises in the face of unknowns.