Guest Blog Post: Fever sale? How COVID-19 is affecting this particular arts-based small business.

I’m coping by trying to focus on practical, actionable, data-driven preventative measures we can take to assist the most at-risk people in our families and communities.

The following is a post I wrote last Thursday, March 12, on the Facebook page for my business, Etna Print Circus. I chose to share it with a couple hopes in mind:

Anyone in a more traditional occupation might not realize how tumultuous life in small business and artistic professions might be. This is our particular experience, and it’s only one specific scenario! We are fortunate and privileged in many, many ways, and it took a mere two weeks for us to feel the impacts—others in our community are facing entirely different challenges.

For those who are feeling their ship rocking hard right now, but might feel afraid, insignificant, or selfish speaking up about their worries or needs: know that people are listening. We will ALL be affected in some way, and we’re gonna have to figure it out together. We urge you to seek out diverse voices, find out what others in your community are experiencing, and think about both how you can ask for support and be supportive. Most importantly, be gentle with yourself. This situation is a whole lot of A LOT, and it is more than ok, it is imperative, that you allow yourself to do whatever it is that self-care means for you.

Thanks for reading, and wash your fucking hands.

—Allison Butka

The original post:

Fever sale? How COVID-19 is affecting this particular arts-based small business.

I thought a lot today before writing this, and I still have mixed feelings—not necessarily about the vulnerability of sharing it, but more about showing weakness? Feeling guilty about having the luxury to take the risks I did to start the business? Having it beaten into my head by our work-obsessed culture that asking for help is selfish? A lot of factors might be at play. But I’m putting this out there for anyone who’s interested in an example scenario of how one metaphorical coronavirus sinkhole might open up and swallow us like a PAT bus. (No, our literal bus is not the bus in this metaphor. We, and the business, are the bus in the sinkhole. Are you reading this from outside Pittsburgh? Just google “sinkhole bus.”)

If you don’t already know, my partner Joyce and I started a screen print shop out of our garage in early 2017. It started as a side hustle, but I quit my day job to go full time near the end of 2018. We print and sell our own designs online and in person at events, and we do custom printing. Joyce is also a professional face painter. (Joyce actually has many hats, but these are the two big ones.) And this past week has been a DOOZY.

I hesitate to call Coronavirus a “panic” and risk minimizing its affects on vulnerable members of our population. It’s a very real threat, and our government’s response has been shamefully slow and unscientific. I’m not gonna go down that rabbit hole here, I’m honestly out of emotional bandwidth for a rational discussion. I’m coping by trying to focus on practical, actionable, data-driven preventative measures we can take to assist the most at-risk people in our families and communities.

But I also want to share with you the very real impact that two weeks of fear has had on our little operation:

-Today, a facepaint customer cancelled their weekend event booking, costing us $450.

-Typically, this time of year I’m booking our spring and summer t-shirt vending season, accumulating thousands of dollars on a business credit card in pre-paid event fees, with varying types of cancellation policies. (Even events with clear policies don’t always follow them, I‘ve had to get downright obnoxious on rare occasions in the past to track down refunds that an organizer promised then disappeared on.) I’m massively scaling back, we simply can’t absorb the risk. With a few months’ notice, it makes more sense for us to focus on new avenues to make up that income, or attempt to be available for more small events with shorter/closer application periods. Either strategy is a huge gamble.

-Custom printing is a foundation of our income. A significant portion of our custom printing work is for events—with so many gatherings being cancelled, this will have serious consequences for us.

-Demographics: the practical fact of the matter is that our peers, a significant portion of our target demographic, our millennial LGBTQ community, is largely overburdened by student loan debt and underemployed. We’re all more dangerously close to financial ruin than we realize or like to admit on any given day. (We can’t tell you how humbled we are that you folks still choose to spend your limited dollars with us on smart-ass t-shirts!) We’re all going to be hit hard by service-industry slowdowns, gig economy fluctuations, skyrocketing prices, and the ripple effects of the opportunism and profiteering already taking place. (The gloves I use to clean screens in the shop? That I usually buy for under $5 a box? Currently $17.) Discretionary spending potential isn’t looking good.

-Our other HUGE project in the works? Our decommissioned-school-bus-in-the-process-of-being-turned-into-mobile-printshop? That we pay to park and insure every single month? That we will be unable to put to use until people are comfortable being in large crowds? Another massive financial variable right now.

I’ve joked this week about how literally almost ALL of our money-making skills require being in large crowds or touching people’s faces, so we’re pretty much screwed. But it’s not a joke, it’s a fact—I’m not writing this to complain, I’m writing it to share some of the daily uncertainties of being an arts-based small business, and how quickly a bump in the road can throw things off track.

For anyone asking “yeah but don’t you have a plan for unexpected circumstances?” I’ll tell you that yes, of course we do! We know January and February are slow, we build a cushion in. We schedule accordingly. But also, let me tell you about the one single week last month where we had $850 in unexpected expenses between the dog swallowing something she shouldn’t have, and a less than five year old car developing two catastrophic brake line leaks and the battery completely frying. Life happens. Shit happens. You do the best you can and plan as much as you can, but everything has risk. The point is, this month is when we make it over the winter hump and our season kicks off, but everything is up in the air, on pause. The timing couldn’t be worse, and we’re out of wiggle room.

I know we’re not alone in this, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am that at least a big chunk of my work can be done from home. (After a decade in retail, I’m ACUTELY appreciative of this. I can also speak separately, if anyone is interested, to the immense mental health benefits of having control over the situations where I’m in a public-facing role as a visibly trans person.)

So, if you’re reading this far, you’re probably wondering what our plan is, or why I’m laying all this out. And I don’t have all the answers yet, but I can tell you where we’re starting.

Phase one: Massive sale. 50% (or more!) off pretty much everything. We have to create some immediate cash flow for basic necessities over the next six weeks. It’s live on the website now, so go to town. Thank you in advance.

Phase two: We’re going to crowdfund the rest of the mobile printshop bus buildout. If we put it on hold, when things get back to normal it won’t be ready and we’ll miss out on an entire season of income. Rewards will include stickers, posters, t-shirts, and pre-purchased live printing events that can be scheduled when we know more about what the summer holds.

For those who are feeling their ship rocking hard right now, but might feel afraid, insignificant, or selfish speaking up about their worries or needs: know that people are listening.

Phase three: We’re reaching out to you, our network, for ideas. Do you have odd jobs that you think we might be a good fit for? Short-term temp work that I can fit around any business work that does roll in? General commiseration? Let us know. And for everyone else facing similar uncertainties, we hear you, loud and clear. You’re not alone, we’re gonna figure this out somehow, it’s gonna get worse before it gets better, we probably won’t come through it unscathed, but we’re gonna figure something out. We’re in this for the long haul.

Thank you, Allison and Joyce.

You can follow Etna Print Circus




And don’t forget to check out their online store and website.



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