Why bored twentysomethings are starting businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic
I was three weeks away from starting a new season as a tour guide in Europe when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global pandemic. My company cancelled all their trips, and I was left unemployed. Bored and unstimulated, my options were to get an uninspiring job at the grocery store or the pharmacy, which were the only businesses open during the peak of the first wave. Or, I could go back to school.
The fear of boredom pushed me to pursue a new career by going back to school while the world waited to return to normal. I had everything to gain by trying something new.
I found a graduate diploma program in journalism, an area that intrigued me, and was accepted. For the last few months, I have been studying harder than ever, but, for the first time, I am thoroughly enjoying school.
I noticed that the people closest to me were also understimulated and started using their free time to challenge themselves in new ways. But they chose a third option: starting their own businesses.
Friend after friend launched new online businesses hoping to make a little extra money, but most of all, to keep busy while the world was at a standstill.
Here are some of their stories.
JESSICA MCLAUGHLIN (Age: 26), OTTAWA, CANADA
In the Great White North, a national lockdown was announced in March. Non-essential employees were forced to work from home and social gatherings were banned, which was horrific for self-declared extrovert Jessica McLaughlin.
“I needed to find something to keep me busy because I was going crazy,” said McLaughlin. The 26-year-old government employee said that while she was thankful to keep her job, the loss of social activities left a void in her life. So, McLaughlin focused on the one hobby she could do alone within her house: baking.
Thus, Sweet Ginger Bakes (SGB) was created. Named after her red hair and love for all things sweet, SGB offers people in the Ottawa and Montreal areas various baked goods, the most popular of which are the customizable sugar cookies.
“I was a big ‘procrastibaker’ during undergrad,” she said. “I would bake to put off studying or writing papers.” In her spare time, McLaughlin would spend hours intricately decorating goods for friends and family, who saw the potential for her to start a baking company.
SGB opened its virtual doors on Instagram in April, and, for the following six weeks, McLaughlin was extremely busy.
Instagram calculated that, in 2019, 83 per cent of users discovered new products and services on the platform, which allows small businesses like SGB to find marketable audiences. Acquiring 138 followers since her launch, McLaughlin earned enough revenue to buy a new baby blue KitchenAid mixer and quality sprinkles, which, she says, “are deceptively expensive.”
Though McLaughlin doesn’t see herself doing this full time in the near future, she isn’t stopping either.
“I think the pipedream would be to open an actual store,” she said. But even if this never happens, McLaughlin said all the effort it took to get the business going, like decorating at 2 a.m. or running to the grocery store for last minute eggs and butter, were worth it.
“I find joy in making new designs and making people happy through baking,” she said. “It’s nice to be part of someone’s moment … knowing that something that I enjoy doing can make others happy.”
MARTA SANTO (Age: 28), COMO, ITALY
Italy was the first European country to enter a lockdown on Mar. 9, when the virus took over the northern region of Lombardy before spreading across the country. Marta Santo, an Italian tour guide, was working in Austria when Italy announced it would soon close its borders.
Santo was in the middle of a 21-day tour, but had to leave her group with another guide and race home or risk being stuck abroad. The journey took several days, but she made it home in time. From then on, “It was full-on crazy,” she said.
The lockdown in Lombardy lasted two and a half months, during which people were only allowed to walk a short 200 metre distance from their homes.
“There were police everywhere; they used drones to check on people,” she said.
Then, in August, Santo contracted COVID-19 and was quarantined for 18 days. With boundless time on her hands, Santo, a trained artist, started drawing again.
“It was like people baking bread, but for me it was painting stuff,” she said. Santo hadn’t painted in five years, due to her nomadic job limiting her ability to carry art supplies.
But her family, friends and the boredom of unemployment inspired Santo to open an online art store on Etsy, an e-commerce site focused on selling handmade crafts. The store, called UnaTea, launched in October, selling prints of Santo’s illustrations, as well as personalized paintings, drawings and magnets.
Santo even used the time to teach herself how to draw on her iPad so that her work could be safely stored and printed, and — when tourism resumes — will allow her to keep drawing on the road.
Since its launch, UnaTea has sold over a dozen pieces, the most popular of which are the personalized items drawn in Santo’s unique style. Santo can spend up to nine hours creating a single piece, from the conceptualization of the work all the way to the final touches.
“It’s sort of my meditation, I think, when I paint and when I draw,” said Santo, adding that she feels no pressure to make UnaTea her main source of income.
“I think it’s always going to be a hobby to be honest, and I’m happy with that,” said Santo.
TOBY MOORE (Age: 26), MONTREAL, CANADA
Starting an online business has become increasingly easier, with little-to-no funds needed to create Instagram, Facebook and Etsy business pages. According to Stats Canada, national retail e-commerce sales grew by 99.3 per cent between February and May of 2020 and many new online businesses have appeared since the pandemic.
One of them was created by Toby Moore.
Moore had just graduated from McGill University with a master’s degree in urban planning when the virus spread globally.
“That first job … that’s generally the hardest barrier to get over, so having a whole global pandemic on top of that is definitely not conducive to helping someone [find a job],” said Moore. But the 26-year-old saw his ample free time as an opportunity to learn and expand his interests.
“It started with a few ideas, interests or passions of mine,” he said. Moore had been DJing as a hobby for eight years, so naturally streaming his DJ sessions was the first step. But he wanted to expand on this idea and brainstormed, “What other online events or things can I do to bring people together?”
From inside his childhood bedroom, he created T1K, a diverse entertainment company providing trivia nights, a podcast, roundtable discussions, a radio show and many more events.
“T1K is about bringing people together in a knowledge/education/learning environment where people can share, discuss, grow [and] have fun in a positive way,” said Moore. Topics like management, the environment and careers are discussed on the podcast and at events to engage listeners and dive deeper into current issues.
The podcast, playfully named “Toby or not To be,” explores the different career paths and choices of interviewees. Moore also created a roundtable discussion centred on sustainability and has welcomed guests like Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce Mayor Sue Montgomery and Councillor Christian Arsenault.
T1K started in June but has not made any sales as of yet.
“I’m continually thinking of how I can incorporate a financial side into it,” said Moore. He believes that the company is still too small to charge customers for services and selling ad space doesn’t support his business concept.
But the project has been fruitful in other ways. T1K attracted the attention of Sur Place, an non-profit that offers free experiential arts education, where Moore is currently on the board of directors and occasionally offers workshops on podcasting.
“It’s been such a big opportunity, experiment and learning process, and I think that’s what I wanted,” he said.
Victor Hugo wrote in Les Miserables, “There is something more terrible than a hell of suffering — a hell of boredom.” And right he was.
A wave of boredom spread around the world just as fast as the pandemic, but McLaughlin, Santo and Moore turned it into an opportunity to develop their hobbies.
While the businesses differ, what is common among all three entrepreneurs is that their ventures were not created with the aim of making money or becoming a full-time job. Instead, it allowed them to use their time to do what they love within the confines of their homes.
Photos courtesy of Paula Sant’Anna