RENDERING: An example piece of work from Joe Soelberg’s Business, Sonny+Ash. (Photo courtesy of Joe Soelberg)
RENDERING: An example piece of work from Joe Soelberg’s Business, Sonny+Ash.

Photo courtesy of Joe Soelberg

COVID-19 and Small Businesses: A Business Owner’s experience during a pandemic

May 5, 2020

Founded in 2006, Joe Soelberg’s business Sonny+Ash is a design communication agency that specializes in 3D computer graphics that are used within design presentations for the design industry. Soelberg now works at home as the global COVID-19 pandemic affects small businesses across the globe.

Photo courtesy of Joe Soelberg
DESIGN GRAPHIC: Sonny+Ash creates computer generated renderings to represent designs for possible customers

How was the transition from a regular working day to a virtual working day? “For our business, it’s gone really well. As a business, all of our work product is digital. So that’s always been done virtually, so there’s really no change for us there. There are some team based benefits of [a virtual working day] in that artists can talk to one another and help each other out with problems they run into and creating a certain look or feel for the renderings and animations they’re working on. But, in terms of the actual labor and production itself, it was really easy for us to go remote. I feel for a lot of these companies, [companies] my friends are in or I have heard of, that are having a tough time or are going remote.”

What is a positive and a negative from the transition to a remote working day? “The negative has been that the artists can’t talk to others face-to-face or play off each other. For me, I enjoyed going [the studio] and talking to everyone and having those face-to-face interactions. The biggest positive has been discovering that we really may not need the physical space anymore. There may be some things we can do to all get together every now and then, more like activities and things like that. But, if I could get rid of the rent expenses, that’s pretty huge. [Another positive is] Being able to search for talent globally as well, instead of only looking for folks that essentially live in the area.”

How heavily did face-to-face contact weigh on your business? “Not a ton, delivery and production can be done completely remotely. The sale side is the area where it does rely on that and that’s definitely taking hits. I went out on sales trips. Maybe 15% of [time spent on business] is travel and that’s spent on sales and customer visit related. It was nice to be able to visit people in their studios and their offices. There’s a significant number of conferences that happen as well, where we’re missing out on. For existing customers, we have all of the contact information, but trying to go out and find new customers is really difficult in an environment like this because you don’t necessarily have that information yet. You have an office number, but no one’s in the office. It’s been hard trying to get new customers to generate business.”

What types of communication are you using? “Our office is set up with google suites, so we use google hangouts a lot. We talk to customers that way. We have been able to set up meetings that way and it’s been pretty effective. Using teleconferencing and calling customers if we have their number.”

How have government grants benefited you and your business? “I applied pretty much as early as you could possibly apply for two different loans. One was the payroll protection program loan and the other was the Economic Injury Disaster loan and we have been fortunate and got the Payroll Protection Program loan and funds have already been deposited into our accounts. We got a part of the Economic Injury Disaster that’s called the ‘advance’. Right now, that all comes from through the small businesses administration. [The Small Business Administration] told me that they have done 14 years worth of loans in 14 days, so they’re pretty much tapped out. I don’t think there’s going to be any more funds until July. We’re one of the fortunate ones while many businesses and friends have not yet received any funds yet.”

What is the biggest thing you’re most concerned for about your business? “We cater to the hospitality industry so we work with designers, architects that design and build hotels/restaurants/bars. Of course, those have gone down to zero essentially, for what it looks like for two months or longer. It was the middle of March when it all got shut down and now they’ve announced that it’s going to be shut down all through May, so with these places and no revenue coming in, they can’t afford to build new hotels or renovations and that’s what our renderings do. We’ve seen existing projects finish, so we haven’t seen anyone put a halt to existing projects, but we’re having trouble getting new projects started. My main concern is seeing how quickly we will be able to get back to ‘normal’ and see that jump of orders return.”

How have you prepared for the uncertain future? “We’re trying to be creative. We’re trying to reach out to people in new ways and try to find new customers. We’ve created a product that we’re advertising as a virtual reality trade show booth, which has gotten a decent amount of traction and people seem to be interested in that. [Customers] want to be able to show their own customers what they’ve got at the same time and that’s a great way to do that.”

What does a typical workday look like during quarantine? “I don’t have to go into the office anymore, which means no commute which is great. But now I find myself doing more things with my family, or working in the yard, or taking a run in the middle of the day. I tend to work a little later in the evening, so while my family shuffles to bed, I’ll put in an extra hour of work. A definite positive of this situation is being with family more and spending time with them, and that’s certainly been enjoyed.”

Have there been any events that could’ve possibly benefited your business but then canceled/postponed by COVID-19? “There was a conference in Las Vegas in May that we were going to go to. Of course, that’s not happening and that was a huge opportunity to ‘get in front of’ a bunch of customers at one time because everyone goes to this thing. We’re trying to fill that in as much as we can by scheduling meetings and stuff like that. The hospitality industry is a very relationship-based industry and so you would definitely want that interaction as much as possible.”

What kinds of advertising are you using during this time in an attempt to spark interest in new customers? “We are mostly doing, right now, email advertising. We do email blasts out to existing customers and new customers advertising our virtual reality conference booths that we are creating. We’ve done a couple of [email blasts] to generate interest and things like that.”

What kinds of help have you received from friends/business partners, excluding government-based aid? “[Customers] are always willing to help. I’ll call [customers] and say something like ‘Do you have any projects you’re working on at the moment? Anything we can help you out with? We’re starting to see these orders go down,’ and they’ll say ‘Yeah, let me see what I could get together for you.’ It’s been really cool to see that people are looking out for each other and trying to help each other as much as we can.”

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