Small Business Under Quarantine

Start-Up in a Shutdown

Their home in New Braunfels is quintessential Texas suburb – a new construction with a nice yard on a street with a cutesy alliterative name, all within a 5-minute drive of every convenience a good Texan family could want. What’s off about this otherwise picturesque setting and the nuclear family inside is the world outside. Barely a soul stirs on the street, and nearly every car is parked dutifully in a driveway or at the curb. This is the Texas suburbs under quarantine.

Across the state, the nation, the world, similar scenes unfold. Life has not come to a halt, but it stutters. In Texas, at least, the tyrannical summer sun is already out in April, but none of the familiar accoutrement are to be found. There are no children’s voices at play, no school bus full of antsy students sensing vacation, no neighborhood hubbub and no end in sight.

At the Ryan home, though, things are pretty much business as usual. If you are crazy enough to call it that. They are an entrepreneurial power couple. He, a one-man pool maintenance business turned app developer, and she a respected wedding and corporate brand photographer. All this and two kids under four years old, to boot. Their ambitious goal spawned from his past work, but they are taking it on as a team.

“What I’m trying to make is like the Uber of pool cleaning,” said Tim Ryan, a Navy veteran pouring most of his waking hours into evolving the pool maintenance business. “It was really hard to make money just building a pool cleaning company. The escape for me was selling to this other guy, and that bought me enough freedom to kind of build another business model.”

As simple as Tim’s comparative description of his idea may have sounded, within that framework is a hefty undertaking. His plan begins with bringing on inexperienced laborers and putting them through a sort of pool maintenance boot camp.

“Pool cleaning is actually pretty in-depth, how good you can be at it,” he noted. “You’re mixing chemistry, biology, hydraulics, electricity. You’re basically maintaining a body of water that’s outside – it’s a little ecosystem.”

Building that training system is happening concurrently to the rough development of his mobile application. From their phones, consumers would hypothetically be able to schedule maintenance, be advised of a cleaner’s arrival, see photos or videos of maintenance taking place and leave reviews of individual cleaners. The similarity to many ride-hailing services is apparent, but the scope and scale is ambitious none-the-less.

“For three years when I was building the company, I just drove around and listened to books on Audible while I cleaned,” Tim said of his unorthodox business training. “You’re talking 8- to 10-hour days just listening to podcasts and books.”

If things go as planned, one day Tim will be hiring a team of coders to turn his app design into reality. In the meantime, he has a partner right at home to help him start forming his dream into reality. It’s the woman who is his wife and the mother of their two children. As a photographer who specialized in working large gatherings, the pandemic has made work for her unusually scarce. As chance would have it, she already cut back on events due to the recent birth of their youngest, but the downturn in gatherings make the future less certain even after the child is ready for daycare.

“Weddings were one of the first things to get nixed,” said Mikenzie Ryan, Tim’s wife and soon-to-be chief operating officer of their company. “I’ve been with the kids in here for going on five weeks.”

For the safety of her children, and the wellbeing of the world in general, the Ryans have followed stay-at-home guidelines to the best of their abilities. Tim still visits residential pools four days per week, an essential service as any pool owner would understand, but other than that they are mostly closed off from the world. This allows the family to get by even with Mikenzie’s work drying up, while they look toward the next step of their business goals.

 “Where his business is kind of having to slow down is being able to beta test a lot of things,” Mikenzie said. “Like door-to-door sales, we can’t do that right now.”

Meeting with people face-to-face to convince them to get onboard with the new app is a crucial part of realizing success for the Ryans, but it is also not their only hold-up in their objective. With world markets in a downward spiral, seeking investors has become a nigh impossible task.

“Before all this went down, it was pretty clear what you need to do for investors,” Tim said. “Now all the investors have kind of shrunken up.”

For now, they have certainty in the routine that comes with raising children and Tim’s continuing work maintaining the pools that are part of building the app base. It keeps them eating healthy and waking up on time. In the next weeks, though? The next months?

“We don’t know when that’s going to start back up again,” said Mikenzie. “We don’t know when that’s going to gain the traction that it used to have.”

A predicament that might be all-too-familiar across the globe.

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