Hey, y'all. Lauren (Beacham) here, the sole owner of Yugen Tribe. I'm about to drop some real talk on you. Talk I never expected to have to drop, but here we are: facing a global pandemic that's producing not only panic and illness but patterns of failing socioeconomic infrastructure. And there is a chance we may see the final days of our company's existence because of it.
Today, I'm hoping to fill you in from the perspective of a small business owner, watching this all unfold and struggling to do right by her employee and her business. I'll start with a little backstory, but feel free to skip ahead if you already know this (or dgaf.)
Yugen Tribe: A Brief History
When we first started almost 13 years ago, it was under the name "jerseymaids." (Why? Don't ask me - it was some stupid lyric that was my AIM handle and anything else that required a username.) It was the summer of 2007. I had just graduated with my bachelor's degree in fine art into a difficult reality: the recession. I was lucky enough to have a job, but was commuting 60 minutes each way for hourly work that didn't pay the bills, had a partner who had just been laid off and was struggling to find work, and the two of us were living in the back of a friend's house who was generous enough to cut us some significant slack on rent and utilities. Jerseymaids was a leap of faith born out of desperation. I had a bunch of old prints and originals from my darkroom days and needed cash. So I put a desk in the corner of this back room, opened up an Etsy shop with a hope and a prayer, and was able to pull in a little extra money for groceries selling off my portfolio. Eventually, I started adding jewelry with my original Polaroid photography, and things progressed slowly but surely over many years.
[Sidebar: People give millennials a lot of shit. They call us snowflakes and whiners, think we feel entitled to things we didn't earn, believe we don't know how to work hard, and so on. I obviously find this unfair for numerous reasons, but mostly because it's not a reflection of the millennials I know (including myself). Millennials like me who hit the job market during an impossible time, straddled with more student debt and fewer prospects than any other generation who came before, without easy access to healthcare, with an economy and housing market that was SO ready to take advantage of us, and still found a way to make it happen for ourselves. We did this through creative problem solving, grit, hard work, and hope. Not by looking for a handout. Many, if not most of us, are still struggling. And you bet your ass we are still paying off student loan debt if we had the privilege to go to college in the first place.]
Through exhaustion, crankiness, struggle, late nights, luck, support, and privilege, I was able to scratch and scrape my way to where we are now. We have our own 1100sf studio space (nothing fancy but it works), the equipment and supplies we need to handle orders large and small, and a teeny tiny staff to make the magic happen (me, Brittany, and, on rare occasions my husband Tyler who helps with shows and works on business development.) People look at us from the outside and see success or something to strive for. I feel very lucky for that, but it's not always what it seems.
So much of small business is being in the trenches. It's a lot more to balance than most people think. Without getting into the details and semantics of everything, just know this - it's a struggle. A financial, emotional, mental, whole-ass struggle. Preparing for disaster is far harder than people expect, and it's much easier said than done to "put aside enough savings to cover 6 months of business operations just in case." Or to take out loans, lines of credit, use credit cards and go further into debt.
Guys, in the past year I have restructured the finances of our business, pulled us out of much of the debt that comes from growth, and have been scraping and struggling to save anything I can after expenses, taxes, loan payments, and payroll are all taken care of. In all of that time, we don't even have enough savings to cover 1 week of business operations if things go south. That doesn't make me a bad business owner, it means it's fucking hard. When I try to talk to other business owners who may have a different setup than we do, they have been telling me that they hit this magical 6 month savings threshold. Bravo, friends, bravo. But saying that, or "you should have done this" is not helpful. How exactly am I supposed to pull 6 months worth of business savings (approximately $60,000) out of thin air? Who on Earth thinks it's easy to set aside $60k when you have a business to run, employees to pay, and bills to cover that keep a roof over your head and food on the table? Oh, and also, for the record, Brittany has had a higher income than I have for the past 18 months because I care about her and because workers deserve a livable wage. So if you want to come at me with any of that nonsense, or that all business owners are greedy/rich/criminals, please bite me.
So that brings us to...
Yugen Tribe: Today
The news has been filled this morning with major companies FINALLY offering their employees paid sick leave - Olive Garden, WalMart, Noodles & Co, etc. This is fantastic news and something that should have been done a long time ago. But guess what? My business, and many like mine, have been offering unlimited paid sick leave and unlimited paid vacation since the beginning. We just don't brag about it to make headlines and profit off doing what is right. And we don't make even close to the profit margins that these major companies make who can absorb a financial blow. We do it because it's the humane thing to do.
Brittany started working for us at Yugen Tribe almost 5 years ago and has had these benefits since coming on as a full time SALARIED (not hourly) employee. She's fully invested in the success of our company, does not abuse these privileges, and is invaluable to the operations in our teeny studio. If you've purchased anything from us since 2015, blow her a kiss because there is a 90% chance that she made it, packaged it, and sent it to you with love and care.
However, there is a caveat to paid sick leave in our case; it depends on business continuing to operate normally while she recovers from whatever is ailing her. But what if business halts for reasons outside of our control? What if this continuing plummet of the markets causes panic and people decide that luxury items like jewelry are no longer possible to purchase because they need to stock up on 900 rolls of toilet paper and their 401k has disappeared? What if, like some hot spots of the pandemic in Italy, the postal service stops running and we can't ship orders? What if our supply chains dry up because of imposed blocks on imports and exports with our global partners? What if museums and science centers we stock, or mom and pop boutiques who carry our work, have to close to the public and don't reorder anything for 6 months...or ever again? This is all on my mind. This is what Brittany and I are talking about and trying to problem solve together. To be honest, the only thing that I think will save us from what I'm afraid of - from doing what other countries have (rightfully) done, such as full quarantine of citizens, shutting down all commercial operations, shutting down shipping/imports/exports entirely - is our ignorance and inability as a society to prepare for just how damn serious this is.
The government, both state and federal, are talking about protecting worker jobs and ensuring they have paid sick leave in case of quarantine. Y'all, this is 100% fantastic and what should be happening. BUT. No one is being clear about who is picking up that bill. Is it the federal government? Is it through tax deferment or subsidies? Is it through a bailout or a system similar to welfare? Is it going to businesses to then pay their employees or is it going to employees directly? Is it through an unemployment system? Or... are they holding businesses accountable, large and small, to pick up the bill whether or not there is business income still coming in? I've checked with my business insurance. They don't cover this sort of thing. And no one can give me this answer.
So let's look at this as a whole with actual numbers. Not taking into account any bills such as internet, electricity, rent, accounting, shipping, or necessary operating subscriptions (which probably totals on average between $2,000-$3,000 a month), or supplies (which can widely range anywhere from $2,000 to $50,000 in a month depending on what's needed) let's just talk about just paying Brittany. To cover payroll and taxes for this one employee, we need $1,200-$1,500 per week in the bank. Know how much savings I have right now in our business emergency fund? $1,400. And let's remember - I have been working on that savings for the past year. That means if we have $0 in revenue for one week only, we are heading towards totally screwed. So then I have to start tapping into our savings accounts for estimated income taxes and business loan repayments. That will buy us enough to get through a month, maybe two, but then also means we'll get hit with late penalties on loan repayments and income taxes when those come due, and puts us in an even more vulnerable situation. All of this is assuming that I am taking a $0 paycheck, which I obviously can't afford (I have to eat, too, right?). So, at best, we are looking at a few weeks, maybe a month, of being able to operate in a worst case scenario.
So now what?
If we can't get clarification soon on what these federal and/or state regulations mean, who is paying for it, what is happening to further prepare for the large scope of this (including infrastructure, access, resources, and mobility), and what exactly is being done to create a social safety net for all, I will continue to panic. But in the meantime, Brittany and I are working on taking preparatory and precautionary measures. She even offered to take a reduced paycheck if things take a turn for the worst. I don't want it to come to that, but how amazing is that kind of employee loyalty? She should not have to worry about that, and neither should I, with a poorly planned for pandemic on our hands.
So here is where things stand right now.
- We are currently working hard to make sure all "ready to ship" designs are stocked up, and are prepared to put made-to-order items on backorder if necessary. We have also put a halt on ordering any new supplies to save money.
- If one of us begins to feel even slightly ill, we are self quarantining and seeking medical attention. No ifs, ands, or buts. Respecting the fact that others are not as healthy and young as we are, we do not want to risk the well-being of other people through indignant behavior or selective ignorance of the severity of this situation. We also do not want to infect each other.
- If both of us need to self-quarantine, or there are widespread limitations on the movements of people, we will limit ourselves and only to come to the studio once or twice a week. This is assuming postal services are still running and orders are coming in. During these limited studio visits, we would produce and ship as many open orders as possible (and severely limit our interactions with any other human beings in the process through USPS pickups, avoiding other people in our studio building, etc.). If this happens, we plan to stay in close communication with our clients about the truth of the situation and that there may be delays. And then hope they don't cancel their order.
- If we are coming into the studio, we'll be disinfecting all surfaces multiple times a day, wear masks while packing orders, and also disinfect each piece of jewelry while we are packing it up for shipment... just to be safe.
- If we move to a place where movement of folks is prohibited, we will be working on projects at home such as blogs, metadata, photography, and more. And also praying that all of the people who are stuck at home might be in the mood to go online shopping and keep us in business.
People have shrugged me off, ignored my concerns, brushed away my questions. But guys, this is very very real. It's real for me, for my employee, for my family, and for millions of others like me. Small businesses are struggling right now because we don't have clarity. We are worried about our physical health, our business health, and, most of all, our employees and what their futures look like.
We need answers, guidance, and leadership. It seems to be coming from nowhere. We are scared and getting desperate to know what protections are coming and who is responsible. It's hard enough to stay afloat in the dog-eat-dog capitalist hellscape we live in and ensure that we do best by our employees. Now, it feels impossible with no end in sight.
So please, dear friends, find SMALL businesses that treat their employees well who need your support and, if you can, give them your business or ask them other ways that you can be supportive. Find service workers who will be hit VERY hard by this pandemic and give them enormous tips so they can start building a financial cushion. Support healthcare workers who are about to face some of the hardest days in their career and will be forced to make moral triage decisions that, in this moment, seem impossible.
We truly have some of the best customers in the whole world and are so grateful for them every day. And I hope this isn't the end of our story.
Thanks for coming to my Ted talk.
Hold each other close. And wash your damn hands.