In the vast ocean of modern online commerce, Candis Jones, who designs and makes women’s jewelry, is a minnow.

No venture capitalist will ever come knocking on her door in Westerville, Ohio. But with skill and hard work, digitally amplified by her website, online store and Instagram account, Ms. Jones has transformed a basement craft project into a healthy little business.

All that is in doubt now as the economic fallout from the coronavirus outbreak worsens. Her business has not fallen off a cliff yet, down about 20 percent so far but slowing further in the last couple of weeks.

Every sale, Ms. Jones said, is cause for “celebration” and “a vote for us to make it through this.”

There are millions of small, digitally enabled ventures like hers across America. New research, based on data from 20 million websites, found that these small-scale entrepreneurs generate significant spillover benefits to their communities.

The data set from GoDaddy includes information on its customers combined with third-party data and surveys, all stripped of personally identifying information. It includes estimates of website activity like traffic and links, location by county and ZIP code, and the purpose — a commercial site, a nonprofit or for personal or family use.

Each active website, in GoDaddy’s labeling, is a “venture.” An estimated three-quarters are business related.

Its intent, GoDaddy said, is that researchers and lawmakers will use the data to inform public policy to nurture small web-enabled entrepreneurs. The company said the initiative was mainly an “educational research project,” though GoDaddy stands to gain if the ranks of web entrepreneurs grow.

The company shared the data set initially with Ms. Mossberger and Caroline Tolbert, a professor at the University of Iowa, who are scholars of “digital participation” in economic, political and civic activity.

GoDaddy did provide modest grants to the universities for support costs like compensating graduate students working on the study. The company, the academics said, had no say in their research. The study is now a working paper, written with a third co-author, Scott LaCombe, a doctoral graduate student at Iowa. They plan to publish their research in scholarly journals and present it at conferences.

Their analysis sought to tease out the effect on communities of web ventures. For example, they found that each highly active venture — like Ms. Jones’s site — per 100 people added $331 to the growth in the median household income in a county over a two-year period. The effect, the researchers said, holds up even after stripping out factors like household income, education level, ethnicity, geography and the local mix of industries.

Digital participation research, Ms. Tolbert said, has often focused on access to broadband technology and its impact on communities. The new data, she said, affords a deeper look.

“It’s a measure of community human capital,” Ms. Tolbert said. “Having the technology is one thing, but can they use it? This gives us a powerful new window into local economies.”

For economic development, the data may offer a fresh perspective on where technology fits in. Trying to lure a big tech company with tax breaks to make an investment may be misguided, Ms. Mossberger said.

A better option for most communities, she said, could well be programs geared to helping tiny ventures and skills development.

In recent years, academic, government and corporate researchers have experimented with anonymized data from bank and credit card accounts, credit-rating agencies and other sources to try to get a more detailed picture of the small-scale entrepreneurial activity.

Some of that recent research suggests a sharp increase in female and minority entrepreneurs in a trend that cannot be captured by standard government surveys alone. “Traditional sources are not accurately reflecting who the new entrepreneurs are,” said Claire Kramer Mills, director of community development analysis at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, Ms. Howard and Ms. Wright were looking for a permanent space to combine baking, freezing and packing, with room for a retail shop as well.

But those plans are on hold now. Sales have fallen 50 percent. They have taken inventory out of their freezers and donated cheesecakes to a home for older people and to a local police station.

The sisters have looked at government loan programs for businesses affected by the pandemic. But theirs is a new company without full-time employees. They don’t yet own buildings or equipment — assets to serve as collateral for loans.

“We don’t seem to quite qualify yet,” Ms. Howard said.

Most small online ventures, according to the GoDaddy data, remain side hustles. About one-fifth of the entrepreneurs surveyed said their web businesses were their main source of income. But more than half said their web ventures generated some household income.

For Ms. Jones in Ohio, her necklaces have found a market with women like her, mothers who wanted something attractive yet sturdy enough to withstand a toddler’s tug. Her business is a pillar of income, along with her husband’s salary as a high school art teacher, to support their household with two young children. Total sales last year were more than $100,000. She supports a full-time contractor to help make the jewelry.

Her offerings, mostly priced from $17 to $35, could be pitched as inexpensive pick-me-up purchases in bad times. But she has cut back her online promotions as the pandemic has spread, not wanting to strike an insensitive note.

“The health and success of my business is so important to my family and our livelihood, but this virus is taking people’s lives,” Ms. Jones said

source: nytimes.com

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