Want a great boss? Work for yourself
A lasting legacy of the pandemic
BY DEVON JACKSON PHOTOS BY KITTY LEAKEN
According to John Couch Haltiwanger, distinguished professor of economics at the University of Maryland, College Park, these numbers were 53 percent higher than in pre-pandemic 2019 and 63 percent higher for “likely new nonemployers” or “solopreneurs” — that is, businesses consisting of just one person.
“It’s a bounteous time to go solo,” says Kenan Fikri, director for research for the Washington D.C.-based Economic Innovation Group. Compared to pre-pandemic levels, New Mexico new business application numbers are up 33 percent, slightly above the national average of 25 percent. “This trend started in July 2020 and hasn’t let up,” Fikri says. “That this surge has lasted as long as it has has been quite surprising. And there’s no sense that people are done being entrepreneurs yet. It looks like a lasting legacy of the pandemic.”
Katie Keener opened her gift card shop, Pushpin Collaborative, last May. Keener came to Santa Fe from Pennsylvania, via a gig as a costume draper with the Santa Fe Opera. She worked at various art fairs around the country and for five other Santa Fe businesses as an inventory specialist. She’d never worked in a card shop before, but when stores started closing down after the lockdown, she says, “I saw an opportunity.”
She did her research, connected with Melanie Lenci, another peripatetic East Coaster and founder of Kick-Ass Entrepreneurs of Santa Fe, met other people who were also opening their own businesses and hasn’t looked back. “I was ready to go off on my own,” says Keener, who stocks her store with work from more than two dozen local artists and small businesses across 22 states. “I’m very much a self-starter. I don’t necessarily fit the mold. I’m my own incubator.”
Keener’s also youngish (33) and grew up in business. “I’m a fourth-generation business owner. My parents ran their own personal businesses. So the concept wasn’t so far out of my reach.”
In a Salesforce blog posted last June, Brett Grossfeld noted that a company survey in April 2021 showed that more than half (57 percent) of respondents cited “being in charge as the main inspiration for starting a business.” More than half (59 percent) of the responding businesses employ five or fewer people, and 52 percent of the new small business owners had founded their companies “with less than $10,000 in funding.” Most of these new businesses are also “digital-first, mostly requiring nothing in the way of physical space or equipment.”
The Great Resignation continues to spawn the Great Entrepreneurialism.
While roughly 33 million Americans have quit their jobs since last spring, a mammoth 5.4 million new business applications were filed
last year, eclipsing the record 4.4 million applications filed in 2020.
Bridget Dixon, president of the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce, points out that “tech has also allowed people to start their own business. Some people, all they really need is a smartphone.” While there is no hard data yet for the city of Santa Fe, the number of new business licenses issued in Santa Fe County went from 49 in 2020 (with 12 commercial and 37 home businesses) to 77 in 2021 (25 commercial and 52 home).
According to Liz Camacho, the city of Santa Fe’s economic development and communications administrator, “We have seen an increased interest in entrepreneurial programming across our Entrepreneurial Support Organizations (ESOs). One such ESO is Creative Startups Food LABS, which has helped create 30 new food businesses.”
With its Local Economic Development Act, Santa Fe has also partnered with the state Economic Development Department to “invest in entrepreneurial growth on a national scale,” says Camacho. She says that “two companies are in the pipeline and two more are coming on board later this spring. Additionally, we have invested in our ESO partners, Creative Startups and Innovate+Educate, who are launching two nationally recognized conventions slated for this spring in Santa Fe: Creative Experience (CX 2022) and Crossing the Cactus Summit.”
While it’s difficult to say exactly how many new businesses have cropped up in Santa Fe, pretty much everyone — from the Santa Fe Business Incubator to Dixon to Lenci to Camacho — agrees that, anecdotally anyway, there’s been a surge in new businesses of every sort.
Health and wellness, senior services, accountants, tech and anything that people can sell online have mushroomed. “Almost every sector in every state has seen an increase,” says Fikri. “Non-store retailers have seen the biggest growth. Over 70 percent. It’s what we call the Etsy phenomenon.” “We’ve definitely seen more younger people going in,” observes Dixon. “And then the older people who are going out on their own tend to be people who’ve relocated to Santa Fe, while other people who’ve moved here see that they can successfully work from home. It’s all evidence, too, that the city can’t be solely dependent on tourism anymore.”
One enterprising young couple are Nick Salazar and Audrey Enriquez — two local millennials whose lives were “turned upside down by COVID.” He had been an IT manager for the New Mexico Department of Public Safety (the state police), and she was a dental hygienist. “We didn’t want to waste another second doing something that wouldn’t fulfill us,” explains Salazar. “So we decided it was time to build a Santa Fe lifestyle and outdoor brand, as well as build a community around the Santa Fe outdoors.” Thus was born Santa Fe Trail Outfitters, their downtown brick-and-mortar store.
Their timing was good. During the lockdown especially, people turned to the outdoors for relief, leading to significant growth in the outdoors industry over the past couple of years. But the change hasn’t been easy. Even though “owning a business allows for more freedom to do something we are passionate about . . . the flexibility to spend time with our young children,” says Salazar, there have been unusual pandemic-centric challenges.
Chief among those challenges has been the unpredictability of the supply chain. Santa Fe Trail Outfitters has had to suspend orders online
because of logistics. Keener has faced off and on paper shortages. And the supply chain has been a major headache for Caley Shoemaker and her Altar Spirits partner, Jeff Gust, who recently opened their Railyard distillery and tasting room. “The supply chain is very difficult,” admits Shoemaker. She and Gust also run a small craft beverage consulting firm they brought with them from California.
These entrepreneurs find it exciting to have their own businesses. “I identify with the concept of leveraging a career’s worth of experience to create something truly your own,” says Shoemaker. But Enriquez notes that “the pandemic and associated challenges have made starting a business very difficult. Everything from employee safety to cash flow projections takes on a new level of complication.”
Nevertheless, Shoemaker remains encouraging to others wanting to break out on their own. “I’m seeing many of my friends and colleagues strike out on their own, in big ways and small,” she says. “Santa Fe is full of people who are inspired to create — so it seems natural that this is a great place for people to begin something new.”
While Salazar is also supportive of other new businesses (one of his and Enriquez’s best friends, Theo Olinger, is in the process of opening Barrel Cactus Spirits Distillery), he remains skeptical about Santa Feans being more entrepreneurial than people in other cities and is chagrined at the level of official support. “I don’t think Santa Fe is quite as bullish as other areas of the country when starting businesses,” he says. “We have a high barrier to entry in Santa Fe, as commercial real estate is very expensive.” The city, he adds, tends to be difficult and even standoffish with people starting new businesses.
Despite all the challenges, no one seems to regret having gone for it — especially because opening one’s own business is often a life change, not just a career switch. “Some people saw the pandemic as an opportunity to reinvent themselves,” says Hilary Kilpatric. She and her business partner Andrea Adedi plan to open The Kitchen Table, a fully equipped commercial kitchen (a kind of culinary WeWork space for cooking and prepping) in Santa Fe this summer. While the women are not reinventing themselves, their venture is a risk, but one they consider worth taking.
Besides, adds Salazar, “businesses are better for starting in this climate. If they can build a business in a challenging time like a pandemic, it makes owners more resilient to learn how to operate in times of turmoil. When things are more normalized, running a business will feel like a breeze.”
Yet Fikri cautions that new businesses opened in any year are likeliest to be among the first casualties in an economic downturn. “Businesses fading or dying out is a much slower process and harder to see than the starting of a new one,” he says. “It will probably be five years before we see the fallout.”
Not that that matters now. “Opening a new business — it’s an opportunity to take that leap of faith,” says the Chamber’s Dixon. “To pursue that dream.”
Devon Jackson is a writer in Santa Fe. He has written for “The New York Times,” “Outside” and “Rolling Stone” and is the author of “Conspiranoia! The Mother of All Conspiracy Theories.”
Santa Fe New Mexican