Moving Forward In 2020

Welcome to the new normal; It’s a lot to take in, but one thing that’s really helped me stay optimistic and focussed during these last few months of shutdown and financial insecurity, is seeing (and talking to) people who are still continuing to work on, and move their businesses forward in spite of all the current challenges facing small businesses – especially the ones here in Hawaii.

With that said, I’d like to take a moment to introduce you to Jessica Gauthier R(B) and Justin Ko, who have both recently started their businesses within the last couple months of the COVID Pandemic/Shutdown, and have graciously agreed to share what it’s like to start a new business and move it forward in the middle of a global pandemic. – jz


Me: First, thank you both for sharing…Could you start by briefly describing your business and the services you offer?

Jess: Salt Water Real Estate is my new real estate company in Hilo, Hawai’i that puts sustainability, care for our island and people first.

Our motto, ‘salt water heals everything’ provides the words of our commitment to a healthy lifestyle for ourselves, our clients and most importantly, our island home, and it’s our goal to be your single source for real estate advice, sales and management in east Hawai’i.

Justin: Ko Flooring LLC provides tile and flooring installation services. My primary focus is tile installation (bathroom showers, floors, kitchen backsplashes, etc.), but I also install LVT (Luxury Vinyl Tiling), VCT (Vinyl Composition Tile), and Carpet Tiles.

Me: Nice. So when did both of you first get the idea to start your own business, and what made you decide to finally take the “leap”?

Jess: Over my 15 years working in real estate and 10 years working in vacation rental management on the Big Island, I built a great team of staff, partners and a great client base while working under the brokerage of a large company.

Over time, however, changing market forces continued to highlight the fact that a small business approach would serve my clients best.

I talked to my team and they all supported the idea of opening my own firm. In fact, my team really gave me the support and encouragement to take the leap!  I owned a small business in the 1990’s and knew I had the capabilities and know-how to make it happen.

Justin: I’ve always had the dream of having my own installation company – the thought of being my own boss and being able to set high standards for workmanship and uphold them was appealing to me.

Work relations at my former company eventually became too negative and discouraging…so I decided it was finally time to move on.

Me: I know for a lot of business owners (myself included), timing is everything…What made you decide to start your business in the middle of a major shutdown/pandemic?

Jess: Haha!  Well, the timing was on a much longer curve for me.  I made the decision in December 2019, spent a few months creating the business structure and branding and filed the necessary paperwork with the Real Estate Commission in late February 2020.

This process would normally take a few weeks to be approved but the Commission had to close their offices and work remotely in March…So I was in a weird limbo until my Principal Broker license was approved by the Commission in May 2020.

Justin: The timing was definitely not ideal. I realized it would be basically impossible to get a small business loan and general business because of the huge number of failing companies, but I made a list of pros and cons for going out on my own and the pros outnumbered the cons, so I decided to go for it..

Me: So how has business been going for both of you so far

Jess: There have been some real positives to starting my business during the Covid-19 shut-down. The Legal Short Term Rentals I manage were all government mandated to shut-down so we haven’t had any customers to service.

Of course this means no income coming in, but I have had a lot of time without the distractions of daily business in which to train my team on new processes and software. The real estate sales side of my business is doing fine as residents continue to buy and sell property.

Justin: Business has been great! I have had a steady flow of work, and it seems like people are still re-doing their floors/bathrooms and offices, even in the midst of a struggling economy.

Me: A lot of small businesses are currently struggling to adjust to this “new normal”…What are some of the challenges you’ve either experienced or possibly see your business encountering in the near future?

Jess: Fortunately I already worked from home, so no major change in my daily routine.  However, a lot has changed in the way Realtors conduct business out of the office due to Covid-19.

First and foremost, any physical visits to properties are subject to mask wearing and social distancing practices.  Some of our routines like the weekly Realtor caravan and monthly meetings have all moved to virtual online meetings.  This has meant a quick scramble to learn how to use new tools like zoom for meetings and video tours for property showings.

As of July 1st, we are still not fully open so we watch the news for Governor and Mayor Pronouncements about when and how we may conduct business in the re-opening of Hawai’i – which has had a definite impact on the Vacation Rentals side.

Justin: One struggle I’ve encountered is the delay in flooring materials arriving on island. It takes a while for orders to get across the ocean anyway, but we have been told to add an extra 2-3 weeks delay in anticipating materials, simply because distribution centers on the mainland have slowed their production due to COVID.

This makes it harder to plan out jobs, and makes it even harder for our customer who wants their home or office to be completed so they can also gain a sense of normalcy.

Me: Interesting…How have you dealt with, or plan to deal with these challenges going forward?

Jess: For the vacation rentals side, we’ve created enhanced cleaning and disinfecting practices for cleanings between registered guests. We also now block a full day on the calendar on either side of guest reservations to allow amply time for the enhanced cleaning.

This will reduce the number of days in a month that we can rent the homes, which will decrease revenue…but the safety of our guests and staff comes first, whenever we’re allowed to reopen.

Justin: I just offer complete transparency with the customer, in communicating about their selections and the anticipated delays.
Usually custom orders take longer, so I have them prioritize which is more important: the job completion time or their choice of material. Then we adjust accordingly.

Me: I always say running a business is like being on a never ending roller coaster…What are some of the things that you’ve found helpful in dealing with the day to day stress of having to run your own business now?

Jess: Well this isn’t my ‘first rodeo’…I owned a business in the 1990’s so I was prepared for the roller coaster!  However, starting a business in the midst of a pandemic is something I never imagined, and the stress has certainly been more intense…but here are some daily routines I’ve found helpful:

  • Daily self-soothing work, including: meditation and surrounding myself with beauty (fresh flowers and incense or scented candles in the office).
  • Limiting my intake of negative news and following/reading posts from leaders I find inspiring and positive.
  • Keeping a daily ‘habit tracker’ to remember to take vitamins, stretch, exercise and water my pandemic veggie garden.
  • Setting boundaries: With work only a few feet from where I live, it is also important to make strict work/life boundaries. I stop work at 6pm no matter what!

Justin: I always devote one day a week to spending time with family and relaxing. It’s important to have the balance between work and family, and it’s especially important to instill that habit when you first start your company.

That has helped me to be able to manage my day to day stress so I don’t feel overwhelmed.

Me: Before we finish, are there any final words of advice or things that you’d like to share that have helped you to remain focussed on moving your business forward over these last couple months

Jess: It is critically important for business leaders to remember we are humans first. When we take care of ourselves (body, mind and spirit), we are in a better space to care for the business which cares for the staff and customers.

Never lose sight of the goal of the work which should be to enhance or create the life you want to live. Work to live, don’t live to work!

Justin: I would say prepare yourself for highs and lows – know that your business won’t always be thriving 100% of the time. But remind yourself that having your own company is worth all the challenges and rewards that will come your way!