Perspectives; Thoughts; Comments; Opinions; Discussions

Small Businesses Like Mine Didn’t Cause COVID, But Governments Are Making Us Pay For It

Back in 2000, I left my job in San Francisco working for an entrepreneur named Bruce Carlisle. From scratch, Bruce had co-founded an online advertising agency named SFInteractive, eventually growing the business to 200 employees. I successfully started his analytics department, and then flew the coop. Los Angeles was calling me, and I’ve never looked back. The day I left, I made a pact with myself to never work for anyone else. I saw what Bruce had created and set out to create something of my own. Outside of a short stint working for the city of Malibu and a Christmas gig at Williams Sonoma in L.A., that’s exactly what I’ve done.

In 2003, my wife and I were expecting our first child, and we hadn’t figured out how to pay for her arrival yet. We were both freelancing reading movie scripts for film companies. It was enough for the two of us, and a lot of fun, but we didn’t have enough steady income to raise a family.

A wise acquaintance once said to me, “Every baby comes with its own basket of bread.” Interesting idea, I thought. Sometime after, almost on cue, my old roommate from New York reached out and asked if I knew anyone who could sell French tours on the internet to Americans.

After some serious convincing on my part (I’d never worked in travel before), my roommate vouched for me and we got the contract. Our business and child arrived at virtually the same time. We were off to the races.

For almost 20 years now my wife, Laura, and I have run Link Paris, a small boutique French travel company. We’ve had our ups and downs, but we survived the great recession in 2008, the aftermath of the terror attacks in Paris in 2015 and 2016, and the reality of giant competitors eventually moving into our niche.

On the upside, we’ve served more than 80,000 happy customers and in 2014 we were voted the “Best Online Tour Operator” by the French Government Tourist Office. We truly love this business and our customers.

Our No. 1 product is a day trip from Paris to visit the landing beaches in Normandy. It is a destination every American should see if he or she visits France. We are very proud to have helped so many people visit this hallowed ground.

Now, here we are, 10 months into COVID. Our revenue is down more than 99 percent. We’ve had a total of two clients since March — a father and daughter who were receiving medical treatment in Paris. They, and others like them, are among the very few Americans allowed abroad.

We’re still standing, but how much longer can we? How much longer can any disrupted small business last? We are hurting in my industry and many others.

This is a horrible virus and I fully understand and support the fight against it. The worry is that the government is implicitly saying to us, and a million other small businesses, that we’re simply collateral damage of the pandemic. “Yes, you had a decent life, but that is over now. You need to accept your limited prospects and move on. Tough break. But, you know, the virus.”

Yes, there has been some aid. The Paycheck Protection Program helped, and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan helped even more. But, after ten months of zero revenue, it isn’t enough.

To complicate matters, the Small Business Administration lowered the maximum EIDL loan amount from $500,000 to $150,000 in April — although not before people like Rep. Ilhan Omar’s husband, Tim Mynett, and others got their loans approved for the full amount.

Mynett’s company made $2.2 million this year from Omar’s reelection campaign. Where exactly did he suffer an “economic injury?” I’m sure there are many examples on the other side of the aisle as well. This isn’t a partisan issue, but the point is the same: the well-connected aren’t just barely getting by — they’re thriving.

Indeed, we wouldn’t have even received the EIDL loan if it hadn’t been for a Reddit user who helped us, along with a thousand other people, resubmit our application. When I originally submitted, I’d had made an error, and the SBA was so overwhelmed at the time that amending an application was near impossible — until I found the EIDL subreddit and an anonymous user named Cue378. He (or she) knew exactly what to do and we got it fixed. When someone else started a GoFundMe page for this person as a thank you, more than $100,000 was raised.

In the end, we received a loan. We are grateful for it, but compare it to the $500 million credit facility that our main competitor (Trip Advisor) initiated, and it’s essentially nothing. That is the unintended, or intended, consequence of all of this. The big and connected are getting much stronger, while the small are having their dreams destroyed.

No small business could’ve prepared for this. What started as “15 days to slow the spread” has turned into something far different. I get it — six weeks to beat the Germans in World War I turned into four long years of trench warfare. Things change.

But Washington needs to give small businesses a genuine, real chance to survive. Big business may do the heavy lifting, but we make up 45 percent of America’s GDP. Small business is the lifeblood of this economy. Don’t let us bleed dry.

John Romano is the co-founder and operator of LinkParis.com, a small boutique French travel company.

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