Small Business Stories with Gusto is an ongoing effort to collect stories from small businesses across the country during COVID-19. We hope these stories can be a resource for other business owners, providing inspiration, ideas, and insights as we navigate this new economic reality. If you’d like to be spotlighted, share your story here.
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With just an Instagram account and $1,000, Suzanna Cameron launched Stems Brooklyn into the world, hoping to make flowers more affordable for the people who enjoy them most.
Stems started inside a speakeasy bar, where Cameron hosted workshops and sold seasonal flower arrangements. Since then, Stems has grown into a thriving retail shop in Brooklyn, where Cameron and her team sell floral goods, run workshops, and manage a weddings and events business. “We help people express themselves through flowers,” she describes.
Flowers are a fickle material to work with—so rolling with the punches is part of Cameron’s job description. The Stems team was working hard to prepare for the frantic spring and summer months—the two busiest seasons for florists. But then COVID-19 hit.
“It is excruciating to see something you loved and worked on so hard be taken away so suddenly,” Cameron says.
The impact of COVID-19
According to Cameron, the events industry saw the impact of the pandemic early. “People started canceling and postponing events weeks before,” she remembers. “We saw it start to happen.”
So Cameron jumped into motion.
“I started by cutting down every expense we had,” she explains. Cameron called anyone her business paid—the landlord, bookkeeper, insurance company, farmers—and tried to whittle down her outstanding amounts. Using those numbers, she walked through different financial scenarios to track how many months Stems could survive if she had to pay all of her bills, then 75%, and kept going down from there.
That exercise gave her the reality check she needed to quickly rethink her operations.
Stems already had multiple revenue streams, including events, delivery orders, walk-ins, and workshops. So when New York City’s shelter-in-place orders were announced, Cameron had a blueprint to follow. She shut down her retail store, doubled down on delivery, and went all-in on the only thing that made sense—virtual workshops.
Stems began offering online classes on floral arranging, even delivering the supplies to local participants so they could have exactly what to work with on hand.
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It’s hard to be “excited” at a time like this. But a friend of mine used to say, “sometimes you gotta make chicken salad out of chicken shit” sounds a little gross but you get the idea. Our first Virtual Workshop experience is coming to you live tonight at 7pm. There are a few more spots, link is live in our bio. Part of the proceeds are going to the North Brooklyn Coalition Against Family Violence, something we are chipping in a little extra to support as well. ⠀ ⠀ Every month we give back to local non profits in our community and we won’t stop now. Thanks for joining us in helping bring any kind of aid we can at this messy time in history. New York City, we stand strong. Stay safe, stay well. ⠀ Contact free home delivery and call in orders available, give us a ring or order online 💐
The team had a tradition of giving back to local nonprofits before COVID-19, and they decided not to stop when so many people needed extra financial help. Cameron donated part of the earnings from Stems’ virtual workshops to the North Brooklyn Coalition Against Family Violence.
It was something, it was working, and it meant some money was still coming in.
“But then the city declared us a ‘non-essential’ business,’” Cameron remembers. “We shut down entirely.”
What that meant for her team
“I’m in a grieving process right now,” says Cameron. “The day we closed our retail shop, I had to let five people go in one day.”
When Cameron went through those financial models, it helped her roughly calculate how long she could close up shop and still pay her team. For two weeks, she thought it was doable. “But the implications down the road are so unknown,” she says. “We’re not just sitting here able to work from home.”
So Cameron made the painful decision to lay off her team instead of cutting back their hours. “I have this team of people I care about, all W-2. I knew that if I cut people’s hours back, they would have been in a terrible position with unemployment.”
After the layoffs, Cameron had to deal with another tough step—finding financial relief.
The red tape
For Cameron, “the red tape” involved with finding and applying for the right government relief programs has been a cruel part of COVID-19. “We’ve never had to deal with loans and grants before,” she says.
The difficulty of getting financial help has been a roadblock to recovery for many businesses: “We’ve already had to make tough decisions,” says Cameron. “Most of us can’t wait much longer for funds to come through. We need action now.”
While Cameron hasn’t taken any relief, the cuts she made have allowed her to open again in limited capacity.
“Planning for the future while you’re still in survival mode is difficult,” Cameron says. But like many other business owners, she doesn’t have a choice.
Stems will automatically turn into a family business, now that schools and daycares are closed indefinitely. “My son is going to be coming to work with me,” she says.
Cameron has also decided to keep her team small. “We’re going to come back really lean.” Part of that decision came from being realistic about the recovery timeline, even if they used August as a tentative start date for in-person events.
“Our wedding clients will likely be in a different financial position after this,” says Cameron. “I have to think about that, too.”
- Look at the numbers, and move quickly: Cameron is no stranger to high-pressure events and doing what’s needed to finish a job. Because she quickly cut expenses and focused on delivery and online workshops, she was able to put Stems in a better financial position.
- Consider how you can best help your team: Cameron had no choice but to lay off most of her team. She also went with layoffs instead of reduced hours because it would enable her team to claim COVID-19 unemployment insurance, and not have to stay in a state of limbo.
- Let yourself feel things: “Being a florist is about helping people express their emotions during milestone moments,” Cameron describes. She is also giving herself the space to do the same by sharing her ups and downs on Instagram. “Entrepreneurs also need permission to feel the feelings they’re having,” she says.
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