Money-making magic: teen small businesses in the time of COVID

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Illustration by Benjamin Tran.

While COVID-19 has been responsible for spikes in unemployment and the permanent closure of many local mom and pop shops, a new generation of student entrepreneurs has begun to rise amid the economic uncertainty.

Yummy Cookies: Senior Pheobe Phomsavan started baking and selling cookies in April, including these ube crinkle cookies, through her business Made by Pheobe. Photo courtesy of Pheobe Phomsavan.

 

“I’d always thought about doing something like a business,” senior and small-business owner Pheobe Phomsavan said. “I was just scared.”

For Phomsavan, the mandated quarantine provided the perfect opportunity to come up with a business plan. She started Made by Pheobe, her business that sells baked goods like cookies and Filipino steamed cakes, in April—about a month after the mandated stay-at-home order. Her newfound free time inspired her to turn her baking hobby into something more lucrative.

“We weren’t doing anything,” Phomsavan said, “so I thought: ‘What if I did do something with it?’”

Other student entrepreneurs shared the same sentiment. Senior Matthew Gromia, owner of Plug Market Co., developed an interest in the shoe market while quarantined at home. He started his online resale shoe business with his friend Armando Peraza in April after noticing the success of other local shoe resellers on social media. Now, Gromia has sold over 30 pairs of shoes—mostly the popular Jordan 4’s and 1’s—and made over $1000 in profit.  

“My mom didn’t let me have a job [because of COVID-19],” Gromia said, “so I needed a way to make money to buy the things that I wanted to have.”

Shoe Sale: Senior Matthew Gromia lays out a pair of Jordans to sell through his business Plug Market Co. Photo courtesy of Matthew Gromia.

As the nation has transitioned to a more digitized economy in quarantine, small entrepreneurial businesses have only gotten more sought-after and successful. Senior Lia Bedford, founder of plant business Stockton Succulents, advertised her plant arrangements on social media by utilizing the Story and Tagging features to promote her business to a wider audience. She also gained community support from putting up posters around her neighborhood. She was surprised by how popular her business became in such a short period of time.

“I—like so many people—didn’t realize that customers prefer small businesses,” Bedford explained. “They’d rather go to you than a big store because it’s really nice to have that one-on-one experience.”

Connecting with the community is an important aspect of student small businesses. Gaining local support increases publicity and revenue, and it helps teen business owners expand their brands.

“The customers are so great,” senior and small business owner Audra Chea said, “and the support from family and friends was so encouraging.”

Chea started her own sustainable clothing business, Audra’s Thrift, when she was in middle school—using it as both a supplemental source of income and a way to encourage others to be environmentally conscious with their fashion choices. 

“I make sure everything in my packaging is recyclable.” Chea said. “When I decided to run the [online] shop full time, I wanted to keep an emphasis on … environmental preservation.”

Along with developing a target audience for their products, student entrepreneurs work hard to obtain inventories full of trendy items they know customers will love.

Thrifted Finds: Junior Colleen Nguyen models and sells second hand clothes through her business ColleensCloth3s. Graphic courtesy of Colleen Nguyen.

“I usually pick or look for items that I would wear or styles that are popular today either in thrift stores, my closet, or online,” junior Colleen Nguyen explained. “I keep an open mind to this process and think of different ways that I can style the clothing.”

Nguyen uses apps like Instagram and Depop to market and resell clothing items from her store ColleensCloth3s. Social media has been an integral and beneficial part of her business. The pandemic, however, has proved to be a double-edged sword for many student businesses.

“It’s hard to find buyers these days,” Gromia explained, “since a lot of people are saving their money due to them being unemployed.”

School and extracurricular activities have also affected students’ abilities to run their businesses. With the resurgence of other priorities, some teen entrepreneurs have found it difficult to keep running a business. Both Phomsavan and Bedford have placed theirs on long-term hiatuses.

“Having a small business requires a lot of time,” Phomsavan said. “I might open back up when I have more time, but right now I’m focused on other things.”

Phomsavan is glad that she took the leap to start her business, saying she’s learned incredibly useful leadership, communication and organizational skills that she plans to use for future career endeavors.

“Don’t doubt yourself,” Phomsavan said, “because if you’re doing what you love, you’re gonna do it 100 percent. And when you fully put in that work, you’re gonna get the support you deserve.”

Contributors: Vanessa Langland and Benjamin Tran.