“Making It Work” is a series about small-business owners striving to endure hard times.
At a time when most parking lots sat empty, the gravel lot in the outskirts of the Detroit suburbs was overflowing with cars — an unsettling sight in fall 2020. A stream of masked visitors looked around, wandering a wooded path toward lights deep within the woods, unsure of what to expect.
All the visitors knew was that the night promised an escape from their homes. They had come for Glenlore Trails and the promise of an unusual half-mile hike through an illuminated forest.
“We wanted it to be like walking through a movie,” said Scott Schoeneberger, who created Glenlore Trails with his wife, Chanel. “We had no baseline of what ‘good’ looked like. We just went out and put a bunch of lights in the woods.”
Visitors that night experienced more than a few lights: They were immersed in a world of interactive video walls, multihued waterfalls, video projections that lit up the forest canopy, and more. The project was a hit. Within a week, tickets were sold out for the monthlong run, and Mr. Schoeneberger was adding more dates. The couple soon realized this long-shot idea might help their family’s primary business, Bluewater Technologies, which builds live experiences for corporate and convention clients, get through the Covid-19 pandemic and keep some of their 225 employees off furlough.
They certainly didn’t expect that, three years later, Glenlore Trails would make up 6 percent of the company’s income, with expectations that it will account for 25 percent within five years. “It was a whirlwind, and, four years in, it still kind of feels that way,” said Ms. Schoeneberger, who manages operations for the events.
Bluewater, like many small businesses, struggled to survive during the pandemic. An August 2020 study by Visa found that 67 percent of small businesses said they were pivoting: restaurants began selling make-at-home meal kits or opened general stores; gyms offered virtual classes; some veterinarians tried drive-up consultations.
“I saw a lot of risk-taking during the pandemic,” said Laura Huang, the director of the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative at Northeastern University. “Huge risks are easy to do when you’re at zero.”
Many businesses are leaving those pandemic pivots by the wayside as customers demand a return to normalcy. But for some owners, like Mr. Schoeneberger, the pandemic proved to be fertile ground for experimentation that continues to pay off. They are making their pivots permanent.
For that to happen, Dr. Huang said, “a successful pivot needs to complement their business, not cannibalize it.”
When the pandemic hit, Mr. Schoeneberger realized that the company’s audiovisual equipment was sitting idle in storage and that Bluewater’s staff needed work. So he went to his mother, Suzanne Schoeneberger, the company’s owner, and the team with his idea. They all agreed, and in just a month Mr. Schoeneberger, 37, and his wife, 34, went from frantically searching for a plot of land to rent to welcoming the first guest to Glenlore Trails. To get the word out, they hired an influencer to promote the walk on TikTok.
“Because of the circumstances, everyone was willing to try,” Mr. Schoeneberger said.
Now they’ve branched out, working with conventions and corporate clients on similar experiences. They’ve also expanded the walk to a mile and released new themes each season. They’ve bought equipment specifically for the project, are looking to buy a permanent location and have hired five full-time staff members, and 20 part-time workers, dedicated to the company’s themed-entertainment division.
“It’s really become a research and development center for us,” Mr. Schoeneberger said.
Pivots that lean into expertise in a new way are most likely to be successful, Dr. Huang said. “Those small businesses that sustain are the ones that go back to those elements that are strong.”
For Kyle Beyer, that meant leaning into vaccines. Before the pandemic, his independent pharmacy in Shorewood, Wis., just north of Milwaukee, didn’t offer them; now the service accounts for 10 percent of revenue and is indirectly responsible for doubling the company’s prescription business in three years.
“What Covid did for us was cram five years of marketing into a year,” Mr. Beyer said. “It put people in our doors that wouldn’t have otherwise had a reason to choose to come in.”
Mr. Beyer, 37, had been a pharmacist for more than a decade when he decided to buy his own practice in 2019. After eight cold calls, a pharmacist in Shorewood agreed to meet. They closed the deal on what was then an 88-year-old business, North Shore Pharmacy, on March 1, 2020.
Less than two weeks later, everything changed. Mr. Beyer was no longer just a pharmacist going to work but a business owner navigating the unknown.
The pharmacy never closed because it was considered an essential business, but many of Mr. Beyer’s customers were at a high risk of severe illness and hesitant to leave their homes — so he began offering curbside pickup and expanded existing delivery services. With fewer customers inside, he began to renovate the space, which hadn’t been updated since the 1980s.
Finally, when Covid-19 vaccine doses became available, he signed up to receive them. Mr. Beyer didn’t think North Shore Pharmacy would be high on the list to get the early doses, but in early January 2021, the state health department called to tell him that 100 doses would be delivered the next day.
What followed was 24 hours of chaos. He immediately reinvented a renovated display section as a waiting area for the vaccine service. “It was happenstance that we had this large, beautiful area that could hold 10 people, talking and calmly sitting,” Mr. Beyer said.
As word spread, people from neighboring towns started driving in for their shots. Mr. Beyer hired a full-time nurse to accommodate the increased demand. The intensity has waned, but the nurse is still on staff part time, doling out childhood immunizations, back-to-school shots and travel services.
“We realized that our opportunity is being someone locally who can solve problems,” Mr. Beyer said.
In March 2022, he bought a second location in a neighboring community where he was able to add compounding — creating specialty medications — to his services.
Sometimes, the pivot is not about what you do but whom you do it for. For LaQuanta Williams, that meant ending residential cleaning service to focus on commercial customers. It’s a change that she is making permanent.
“Covid sent my business in a direction I didn’t anticipate,” Ms. Williams said. “I lost all of my residential customers in one day. Literally, the same day.”
Ms. Williams started her company, White Glove Cleaning Solutions, as a student at the University of Akron in Ohio. She was taking an entrepreneurship course, and her professor asked the students to create their own businesses. A friend noted that she was always cleaning, and an idea was born.
Her project impressed her professor, who suggested that she apply for a cleaning position with the university to gain experience before going into business. She got the job but decided to put starting her own firm on hold.
But in 2018, Ms. Williams, now 45, was laid off from her job. She decided to take her severance pay and start the company. She rented an office and started passing out postcards. Her schedule began filling up almost immediately with residential clients.
They all disappeared in March 2020. It was scary at first, Ms. Williams said. But she had been researching electrostatic sprayers that would let her quickly disinfect surfaces. She bought two and began calling stores and offices offering her services.
Again, her schedule quickly filled up. A program to help minority suppliers connected her with several contractors, who hired her to do post-construction cleanup. She has had to hire five people to help her meet the demand, and she doesn’t imagine returning to residential cleaning.
“When I do, I can be picky about clients,” she said.