No one knows how many of the 24 million small businesses in the United States have closed, but the number, when tallied, is likely to surpass one million. But some tiny companies have turned a corner and head into 2021 shaken and changed, but alive. Times of E reached out to incubators across the United States, who connected us to entrepreneurs whose companies survived. Ten entrepreneurs shared their stories with us. You can find others in the series at Rest of the US. Thanks to gener8tor, Arlee Community Development Corp., E For All, On Deck and Arrowhead Innovation Network.
Montana entrepreneur Carol Lynn Lapotka received a call in mid-March from a friend who is a nurse. He asked her to make him a mask when personal protective equipment was limited and being reused.
Lapotka, who is the founder of REcreate designs, a company that manufactures adult and children’s clothing from recycled materials that she started in 2005, researched patterns and made her friend the best mask design she could come up with.
She wanted to help anyway she could. Soon after that call, REcreate switched gears and transitioned 100% to making masks. “We had a sewing factory that could make anything after all,” Lapotka said by email.
Between March and October, she and her team made 17,000 masks and gathered materials for 10,000 more, which the Polson, Montana, community helped to make, she wrote. Soon, fabric, elastic and nose wire donations came pouring in, Lapotka said.
Turns out, the shift was good for sales, too. Lapotka wrote that the website got more traffic than ever before and REcreate received about 1,500 orders from new customers.
“We accomplished financial stability by doing the right thing,” she wrote. “We connected with our community in a way that no amount of marketing dollars can buy.”
A large part of Polson, Montana-based REcreate’s success last year was the connection to the community, Lapotka wrote. The donations she received and volunteers who approached her to help make masks were a great bright spot, she wrote. “This year will be known as a year of connecting,” she wrote.
While the masks did keep income flowing, one downside was they did squash some creativity, Lapotka wrote. Suddenly, the most creative choice her staff, who is used to creating original designs, had was which color fabric to use.
“It is quite challenging for a group of people that thrive in the creative world to become mask-making robots,” she wrote. “The biggest challenge was to keep going, knowing that perhaps this mass-production situation would end and we could get back to our small batch manufacturing of products.”
Lapotka is also the founder of handMADE Montana, a company that organizes events and provides resources to local artisans and makers. A large part of the company is its MADE fairs, which its team typically host four times a year in three cities across Montana. The markets typically attract 8,000 people each, Lapotka wrote, and the events and sales typically generate a combined $1 million for its artists. Lapotka almost completely shifted the events and sales online last year and continued to sell through its brick and mortar location in Polson, Montana.
Through CARES Act funding, Lapotka was able to purchase better camera equipment and take high-quality pictures of artists’ products for them to sell on her website. Their summer market was hosted virtually. It was difficult to tell if it was a success for the artists, Lapotka wrote.
“We are playing a long game, and many artists don’t have the financial resources or savings to survive this seemingly unending pandemic,” she wrote. “We share resources for financial assistance as we find them and do our best to continue to promote the MADE fair artists and community.”
REcreate designs and handMADE Montana received PPP loans, COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan through the Small Business Administration, Montana’s Covid Relief grant and a Montana Business Adaptation grant. REcreate also received a Montana Innovation Grant, Lapotka said. “We can’t know what this year may bring, but we are standing on solid ground financially and are ready to move forward,” she wrote.
This story and others on Times of E are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect with www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn.