Business/Economy

The pandemic pushed these Alaskans to quit their 9-to-5 jobs and start their own businesses — and they aren’t looking back

Alaskans who launched businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic say they’ve been rewarded with personal satisfaction they never got from their 9-to-5 jobs. Many say they’re not going back.

One Anchorage woman started a microgreens business in a garage after her job didn’t give her the flexibility she wanted. Another launched a clothing boutique after she saw friends starting their own companies.

One Anchorage man pursued three business ideas. Only one stuck, but he’s doubled his income from his corporate job.

Even as many other businesses struggle, those Alaska entrepreneurs say their businesses are doing well, despite launching during a pandemic.

Nationwide, the U.S. is experiencing an entrepreneurial surge not seen since the tech boom of the 1990s, said Kenan Fikri, research director for the Economic Innovation Group in Washington, D.C.

It’s being fueled by rising household wealth and shifting life priorities, after millions of Americans were tossed from their jobs during the pandemic, experts say.

[‘In survival mode’: Faced with labor shortages and high COVID-19 cases, many Anchorage businesses still fear for their survival]

There are signs of strong business creation in Alaska, too, where the economic recovery is lagging behind most other states. But economists with the state say more study is needed to determine if that’s truly happening.

Companies and organizations that help small businesses start up say they’ve seen increased interest from entrepreneurs.

Attorney Andrew Mitton provides legal services to small businesses. He’s said he has seen more people starting new ones during the pandemic. Some of that was driven by the state’s decision to waive business license fees, he said.

“And then I think it’s the pandemic is just forcing people to look at their lives and say, ‘We are going to make some changes here,’ ” he said. “And maybe the business they always wanted to start they decide they will do it, whether it’s a side hustle or a full-time business.”

New business licenses soar

At the start of the pandemic, the state of Alaska eliminated business licensing fees in a move intended to help stabilize the economy. Business license creation has flourished. More than 26,000 were created over the fiscal year that ended in June, thousands more than in previous years, state records show.

But not all business licenses lead to active businesses. Economic observers say they’re watching that and other data to get a feel for what’s happening in the economy.

Seth Stetson of Anchorage created three business licenses after he was furloughed from his job in March 2020.

[Federal Reserve to begin slowing economic aid as inflation worries rise]

The former marketing director for Kaladi Brothers Coffee and related companies said he had to make ends meet, with three daughters and looming college costs.

A chemical cleaning company Stetson tried to start never really got off the ground. A grocery delivery business lasted a short while.

So Stetson went back to what he knew. He launched Orange Slice Marketing last summer. It now has three employees, including a business partner.

“I effectively doubled my salary from what I was making, without a ceiling on revenue,” he said. “And I have the ability to hire people, give back to the community and help other businesses.”

He plans to work for himself as long as possible.

“I always thought security lied in a good, salaried position with benefits, and then I realized someone has my livelihood in their hands and I don’t want that anymore,” he said. “I realized the security we have is what we make for ourselves.”

A rise in employer numbers

The number of employers registered with the state to pay employee payroll taxes is also up. State economists say they’re trying to better understand those numbers.

More than 21,000 employer units registered in Alaska in the first half of this year, according to Neal Fried, an economist with the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development

The numbers show pretty strong growth compared to previous years, Fried said.

“It’s hard to tell why that happened,” Fried said. “Is it a burst of entrepreneurial activity?”

One possibility is that some employers with different physical locations or operations simply may have changed the way they report their information, as they sometimes do, he said.

It’s counterintuitive to think more businesses are being created than before the pandemic, since so many people remain out of work, said Rob Kreiger, an Alaska Labor economist.

“There are lots of questions,” Kreiger said.

But he said people creating their own businesses, and not going back to work, could help explain some of the labor shortage.

[‘Burnout city’: The labor shortage has dragged on, and Alaska workers and business owners are exhausted]

Looking for a change

New business owners interviewed for this article often said they wanted something different in life.

Hannah Schruf opened the Weather Boutique, a downtown Anchorage women’s contemporary clothing store, early this year.

She had just left her job as a bookkeeper at a law firm.

She’d been working from home during the pandemic. Removed from the office hustle, she had time to think about her future, she said. She’d seen some of her friends take the entrepreneurial plunge, and decided it was her turn.

“My job wasn’t bad, I just knew I wanted more,” she said. “There are so many people, maybe because of the pandemic, who have started to focus on fulfillment from jobs.”

[America’s unemployed are sending a message: They’ll go back to work when they feel safe - and well compensated]012

Amber Rochon launched her own microgreens business over the winter, in the garage of a business partner she has since bought out. Petit Bloom grows baby sprouts of broccoli, peas and other vegetables to add to salads, burgers and other meals.

She was pregnant with her third child last year, when she left her job at a home remodeling company in Anchorage. They couldn’t give her the flexibility she wanted, she said. It was the early days of the pandemic, and she was concerned about being pregnant and getting sick.

“It’s been very awesome ever since,” she said.

Sales at farmers markets were so good this year, she’s looking for commercial space to expand, she said.

‘Exponential growth’

Former U.S. Army soldier Gabriel King said he left a secure job in May as a federal firefighter at Fort Wainwright near Fairbanks to pursue his passion full-time. He now runs Gabriel King Photography.

“I took a leap of faith,” he said.

But he quickly got work shooting pandemic-delayed weddings, and school portraits in villages.

He’s working harder than he did as a firefighter. But he gets more from every minute of it, he said.

“No one told me when that when you start a small business you’ll invest so much time and effort into it, but things can grow exponentially,” he said. “When I left my job at Fort Wainwright, I was like, ‘OK, maybe I’ll get one or two weddings this month and bills will be tight.’ But it immediately took off. It was exponential growth, and at scale.”

Economists say a robust stock market, growing home values and increased family savings have helped some people take risks and start a business.

[Many Alaska businesses weren’t expected to survive the pandemic. Aid is helping most pull through, but impacts linger.]

Unable to take big family vacations during the pandemic, Doug Franklin said he built up enough savings that in October he left his longtime job as a GCI information technology manager.

“I had a great career at GCI,” Franklin said “I loved folks there, it was just time for me to do something else.”

He said he wants to make a positive difference in the world. He and his 28-year-old son, Max, have launched an air quality detection company in Anchorage, Airhounds.

They want to become the Yelp of indoor air quality reviews, with an online platform where citizen scientists can post data about air quality in businesses, using small carbon dioxide detectors.

“We’re also keen on businesses posting their own data, to promote the safety of their business,” Franklin said.

Franklin said the money he saved gave him the confidence to launch the business.

“When that’s gone, if I can’t make money any other way, I’ll be rejoining the workforce,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of the business Petit Bloom.

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