The Ghost Towns of Ill-Fated COVID-19 Entrepreneurial Projects

It’s been almost a year and a half since COVID-19 brought the global economy to its knees, crippled small businesses across the world and justified the indoors habits of gaming enthusiasts everywhere. Hey, I’m allowed to tease myself.

In this part of the United States things are comparatively normal, something I’ve only been able to appreciate since getting vaccinated. Virtually all of my clients with storefronts no longer require masks and simply request the unvaccinated to wear them. I’ve been getting invited into clients’ homes and apartments again for meetings despite the increased presence of Zoom in my day to day life. Even events with catering have started back up.

Throughout the relentless chaos of the past year one thing struck me once I finished dutifully updating everybody’s websites with COVID-19 guidelines and messages (and sadly, in a few cases, closures). It was that unlike many, I was not lacking for things to do. A significant number of my clients pitched me bold new directions for their websites as part of their transition into the “post-COVID” world, believing that things were changed forever.

One longtime retailer wanted to make the shift to E-commerce and had me tap Shopify to make that happen. Others began E-commerce programs on smaller scales, selling online fitness guides, E-books, and video programs. Subscription services were a very popular idea pitched to me by clients. One client even entertained the idea of monthly product box subscription services, a thing that seems to have fallen out of the popular lexicon since its zenith in the mid-2010s.

It’s all completely understandable and justified. When your livelihood is upended without warning by a global pandemic that we were being assured was under control, you urgently need to pivot your business model. Other clients were obviously bored despite things being relatively stable or having savings to fall back on and were able to branch out and explore new ideas. Plenty of other clients and even past clients approached me seeing this as the perfect time to start a new venture, business or online store.

People were either in survival mode or creativity mode during COVID-19 when it came to their businesses. With an event of this scale, it isn’t a matter of “preparing” for it; your business model dictates how well you’ll do. So I imagine providers of entrepreneurial platforms – especially online ones – did very well. I certainly saw platforms like Shopify and Squarespace aggressively advertising in response to COVID-19 with the emphasis of new business ventures and the promises of making money.

Except as significant of an impact as COVID-19 had, it hasn’t permanently changed the world. We aren’t living in an After COVID Timeline. The CDC said back in May that vaccinated people can go back to normal. Those events I mentioned are starting back up. Clients are filling up their calendars with events that were cancelled. One industry conference client is scheduling a hybrid in-person/digital event rather than the purely digital event from last year.

When it comes to businesses, tried and tested methods of making money are going to beat experimental new ventures every time, especially when money is tight during a global pandemic. So I think you know where this is going.

My clients have returned to the old ways. That retailer’s business has picked up, and the owner is having me wind down the Shopify store. Another client who amicably let me go to save money had an online store that experienced a brief burst of activity with patterned face masks but has since flatlined. That client’s returned to retail as well. The subscription box client went as far as creating an account and generating some business templates before deciding it wasn’t worth it. All of those clients who pursued video tutorials, YouTube channels, expanded social media presences, E-books? Those projects are all shelved, almost certainly permanently.

Looking at the half-finished business templates and unattended online stores today is an odd feeling. It’s almost like looking at ancient ruins. 2020 was half a year ago but it still feels like we’re in a hangover, vaguely processing complete chaos through some sort of lens. Almost like a distant memory that we recall unusually well. The ill-fated attempts to pivot businesses towards a New Era that never really arrived – the E-commerce stores, the video subscription platforms, the websites for short-lived business ventures – stand as monuments to it.

All told we aren’t really in that new era that was promised in the cool spring of 2020. COVID-19 has, if anything, fast forwarded us societally by about 10 years. Videoconferencing and working from home are much more accepted and widespread. Retail’s pruning has been accelerated, culminating in the bankruptcy and shuttering of a lot of already-struggling entities. Businesses¬†have shifted online to a significant degree even if they haven’t necessarily become E-commerce mavens. They just haven’t necessarily pivoted their entire

A lot of these short-lived projects, platforms and accounts will likely never be given any attention again. Most business owners – in my experience – won’t even go through the effort to shut down the accounts. Yet they’re odd souvenirs of a year that changed everybody’s lives in some fashion.

It does make me consider what each client or business owner sees when looking at them now. Maybe as a business owner you see a painful memory, a desperate thrashing as you struggled to stay afloat, aided only by some small business loans due to the slow response of the government to protect smaller companies. Or maybe you’re laughing, wondering what you were thinking to imagine¬†that could have ever worked. Everyone has a different take; everyone has certainly handled COVID-19 differently.

In my case, I feel like myself and a lot of other web developers were acting as some sort of vanguard, shepherding people with varying degrees of success into the New World (TM). We moved businesses online, expanded online presences, set up the technical infrastructure of ideas and entrepreneurial endeavors. Yet not all of it mattered.

It’s bittersweet for me, because looking back I see the remnants of a year where a lot of clients were panicking, unsure if they were going to be able to pay rent on their storefronts. That sort of environment can produce some crazy ideas. Most (but not all) of my clients have made it through COVID-19, and I’m very proud of all of them. I’ve given several people hugs (vaccination, remember?) and apologized for them having to bear the brunt of this. Yet the vast ghost towns of short-lived ideas brought on by creativity, desperation, boredom, or a combination of all of the above will likely forever remain online.