Not long after losing their jobs to the economic turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Jacksonville residents Carlos Gil and Reggie Williams found themselves drinking wine and doing their own mock version of the show Shark Tank while hanging out on a porch in the idyllic mountain town of Banner Elk in North Carolina.
“We do this thing called stick talk where we would be on the balcony of the house where we’re staying in and every night we would have a cocktail or a glass of wine and have these mock Shark Tank pitches while holding walking sticks,” Gil told Reckon, recalling the quarantine break he and Williams took with their families earlier this year. “It sounds hokey, but when you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of a pandemic, with nothing else to do you get creative.”
That creativity sparked what turned out to be the perfect pandemic business idea: a range of stylish and functional masks.
As the pandemic months went on, major brands also dipped a toe in the fashionable mask market, estimated to be worth $2.38 billion by 2027, according to a May market analysis. But what makes Gil and Williams unique is they got the ball rolling immediately — when top government and healthcare officials argued whether masks slowed coronavirus infections. They took a big bet on how the pandemic would turn out and they did it by themselves.
“My belief as an entrepreneur is that to be successful you have to have forward vision and be decisive,” Gil said. “Those people are able to kind of see into the future, just enough that they come out with the product first, so they’re first to market.”
In other words, they looked ahead and took a risk. But it wasn’t easy.
By the time Gil and Williams started Outlaw Masks the economic destruction of COVID-19 had already begun to take hold.
Gil, an author and professional speaker, had seen his speaking engagements dry up, while Williams, who was drafted by the Minnesota Twins back in 2007, got laid off from his manager’s job at a car dealership.
They joined the other 20 million people who lost their jobs.
While most people cut down on costs and paid off debt, as is often the case during a recession, Gil and Williams decided that it was too risky not to create new opportunities for themselves.
“I know from the last recession in 2008, that when all things go downhill, you had to create a job for yourself,” said Gil. “And the reality is, you take a risk by sitting idle and doing nothing and wait for things to return back to normal. Or you take a risk by reinvesting your time and in our case money into starting something new.”
Williams added that he had no other choice.
“We slowed down at the dealership and that was difficult for me, having a two-year-old daughter and a wife,” he said. “That just wasn’t safe for us at the time. I kind of had to rethink some things in the middle of this funk.”
Some might say it’s crazy to start a company during a recession that has claimed tens of millions of jobs. But either through necessity and desire, people appear to be continuing to start businesses all across the country, according to a U.S. Census Bureau data. In fact, entrepreneurs in the Southeast registered far more new business applications between the first and second quarters than anywhere else in the country.
Mississippi saw an increase of 62.7% during that time, followed by Louisiana with 43% and Georgia with 30%. Alabama recorded a 24.9% increase while Arkansas, Tennessee and the Carolinas hovering around the 15% mark. No other region is remotely close.
But starting a business during a pandemic isn’t that uncommon.
Microsoft, Uber, Slack and Venmo were all founded during crippling recessions.
In Mobile, Ala., Susan Shaw was laid off from her job as a marketing manager at a local engineering firm. That was in April. Within a month, she had started IMMIX Strategic, a marketing technology company that helps businesses grow. Rather than be stifled by a global pandemic and the loss of her job, she fully embraced the opportunity to get going on her own, even though she admitted feeling some apprehension about being properly prepared.
“Truly, I don’t think any entrepreneur is ever fully ‘ready’ to start their venture,” she said. “I can’t say I have ever met one that really had it all together. I think this time, yes, amidst (a) global pandemic has been a hard time to start but likely the most rewarding in that it truly does create real challenges which ultimately create and sharpen our process, and our character.”
Up in Birmingham, Olugbenga Ajala fulfilled a long-held dream of creating his own energy start-up. The Nigerian native, who has worked for over a decade in the U.S. energy field, was selected as part of the 2020 Techstars Alabama EnergyTech Accelerator. His company, Ashipa Electric, Corp. aims to develop power solutions to energize economic development in underserved communities, particularly sub-Saharan Africa.
“It has been scary doing it during this global pandemic; however, knowing the impact that our solutions could bring to vulnerable parts of the world gives me the energy to overcome my fears,” Ajala said. “I have been on this path for a long time, although my approach was not clear initially, I knew that I wanted to be a part of the solution to the energy deficit in Nigeria. While working in the utilities industry, I had a front row seat of the trends in renewables and energy storage industry and noticed the positive impact it could have on the power sector in Nigeria and across the globe. So, I decided around July 2019 that I wanted to pull the trigger in late-2020.”
But while it’s one thing to start a business during a pandemic, it’s an entirely different challenge making it successful. Gil and Williams used their marketing and salesmanship backgrounds to promote their multicolored line of paisley-styled masks on Tik Tok and other social media platforms. But things really got going after they sent the masks to NBA teams in the bubble in Orlando.
“After sending masks to the NBA and showing that on TikTok we saw a 600% growth in sales,” said Williams in a follow text with Reckon. “It was profitable before we sent the masks but after [it] was incredible.”
Paul Milsap of the Denver Nuggets and J.R. Smith of the L.A. Lakers were just two of many players who began wearing the masks and showing them off on Tik Tok. And that association wasn’t a fluke.
“We both like hip hop culture and sports,” said Williams. “So we thought of changing the paisley bandana into a mask. Unfortunately, the bandana, especially in LA, it’s associated with gang type culture. And in hip hop, it’s the same thing. But we wanted to change that. We want it to mean something that’s positive.”