How to Launch A Pandemic-Proof Business

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Editor’s note: This article is part of a series about entrepreneurs who are trying something new.

Back when Trent Griffin-Braaf was the general manager of a hotel in Schenectady, N.Y., guests and colleagues often complained about the shoddy taxi service in the area. Betting he could do better, in 2016 Griffin-Braaf started a shuttle service for a handful of hotels. “I always had an entrepreneur’s spirit; even at a young age, I remember always wanting to be a businessman.”

As his venture, Tech Valley Shuttle, gained traction, he expanded his service, to schools, workplaces, and beyond. Griffin-Braaf made it a point to recruit ex-offenders like himself while educating employers about tax breaks they could get for using his minority-owned-certified business. His motivation stems from his own experience serving 3.5 years in prison for selling drugs as a teen. While there, he took Marist College courses and gained confidence in his abilities for the first time, he says.

To do right by the people he’s trying to help, Griffin-Braaf hires his drivers as employees, not as independent contractors. “It costs me more money, but I feel like I’m able to help more people,” the 36-year-old says. 

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Earlier this year, his business was very busy, on pace to double its annual sales. When the pandemic hit, bookings fell by 90% because people weren’t going to work or school or traveling. “It totally knocked us off our rocker,” says Griffin-Braaf. “We were devastated by what Covid did.”

To help struggling families and keep his 20 employees busy, Griffin-Braaf made deliveries for free for food banks and other nonprofits. Aware that demand for shuttle services was unlikely to bounce back in the near future, he started laying off employees, hoping for some return to normalcy in 2021.

At the same time, he sought a new way to earn income out of economic necessity. “I have three children, a wife, and a mother who lives in the house with us,” he says. In late June, Amazon emailed him unexpectedly. The online retail colossus had accepted an application Griffin-Braaf had sent to become a logistics provider. The deal meant he would have to launch a new business at warp speed.

He got to work, hiring quickly to launch G-B Logistics in July. It operates independently from Amazon but is supposed to follow Amazon’s rules, including that drivers wear Amazon uniforms and vehicles sport Amazon branding. “It’s basically like a franchise,” Griffin-Braaf says. G-B is responsible for all Amazon packages that weigh over 40 pounds within a 150-mile radius around Albany, N.Y., including parts of Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Vermont. 

Griffin-Braaf has hired more than 30 employees so far and plans to double that number by the end of October. That's when he expects he’ll be up to 25 vehicles (some leased, some rented) and 25 routes, ready for the coming holiday rush. His drivers already are lugging goods like exercise equipment, grills, and mattresses to Amazon shoppers.

Expanding into package deliveries allows Griffin-Braaf to further pursue his goal of building expertise to get people from point A to point B. And his mission to help people who face hiring barriers continues. He says the question other entrepreneurs like him must ask themselves is, “How do you grow so that whatever you’re doing can help your main objective.” 

Here’s advice from Griffin-Braaf for people looking to start a business today or retool an existing one:

Do your homework. Griffin-Braaf urges entrepreneurs to do research the new business deeply, know what you’re getting into. Spend time on your business plan and flesh out the details. Griffin-Braaf says he wasn't accepted by Amazon the first time he applied because he didn’t take the process as seriously as he should have. 

Be open to new ideas and change. “As I tell my own children, opportunities are around all of us all of the time,” says Griffin-Braaf. "This is a great time for a lot of businesses to pivot." He's also been using the pandemic to eliminate services in his shuttle business that don't make sense. "Maximize on the things that are profitable and minimize the things that aren't showing much of a return."

Network with intention. Aim to develop a network of smart people who possess expertise that you lack, says Griffin-Braaf. “Find people who are going to push you, educate you, and hold you accountable.” While you’re at it, don’t forget to build a relationship with a lender.

Find your mentors. One of Griffin-Braaf's is a retired businessman in his 80s who has made millions. “We talk on a weekly basis for hours.” This mentor encouraged Griffin-Braaf to approach Amazon: “If you’re working for the richest human ever, you should be able to make money,” Griffin-Braaf recalls him saying. 

Be fearless. If you start a business, commit to making it work even when times are tough, says Griffin-Braaf. "I'm a risk taker," he says. "I'm always willing to bet on myself. As a true entrepreneur, that has to be your mindset." Be confident and be smart about the risks, he adds. "If the rewards outweigh the risks, roll the dice and go for it."
 

Editor’s note: This article is part of a package about entrepreneurs who are trying something new.

For more stories, strategies, and advice for Main Street business owners, check out the Bloomberg Businessweek Small Business Survival Guide.

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