When Melanie Rezac was let go as a compliance officer at a Lincoln bank because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she didn’t miss a beat. She created some clothing designs and got to work on a new venture.
She went from monitoring business development at the bank to creating her own — an online boutique that she ran from home.
“I needed something to do,” she said. “I needed to be out and a people person. Being quarantined and stuck in my house for that long, I needed something to do.”
Designing and selling clothing to those who were waiting for life to get back to normal and having those interactions with others from behind a screen made Rezac get to work — and the creativity began to literally spill out of her basement.
“So I was like, ‘I’m gonna start an online boutique out of my basement and just see how it goes,” she said. “What do I have to lose.’”
Many Nebraskans felt the impact of lost jobs and businesses closing during the COVID-19 global shutdowns, but for some, like Rezac, it was an opportunity to create their own way.
Home-run e-commerce businesses were one of the top growing markets, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. Between 2019 and 2020, online business transactions grew an average of 77%.
Even before the pandemic, e-commerce businesses had begun to rise in popularity. They allowed consumers the same freedom to shop as they would do in person, from their homes.
But the pandemic grew this trend into something bigger, said Kiley Phelps, director of the Nebraska Business Development Center.
“Many people would open e-commerce-based businesses on the side of their full-time employment as a hobby, but post-shutdown, many business owners were attracted by the flexibility of e-commerce businesses,” she said.
But it wasn’t just small businesses; larger corporations began adopting these same ideas as a means to keep money coming in.
“Business owners needed to find a way to maintain their revenue when they couldn’t rely on their traditional operations,” Phelps said.
In Nebraska, home businesses involved in e-commerce experienced the same boon according to data provided by the census. Clothing and jewelry-styled businesses led with record numbers in the southeast part of the state.
Rezac’s was one of those. By spring 2021, her home was filled to the brim with clothing packed in every available space. From that packed house came 555 Boutique & Spa, which now has two physical locations in Lincoln.
“There was another business down south (Lincoln) that was looking to get out because they were affected negatively by COVID,” she said. “The space worked for me for the boutique.”
Having a storefront wasn’t the secret to a successful business, Rezac said. Even after restrictions were lifted in Lincoln, orders continued to come in from the website. She said having customers on both fronts convinced her to start running the business in a hybrid format.
“I would have never been able to start this business without social media,” she said
Rezac said she was inspired by stories of other successful business owners like Jillian Thompson, owner of Berries by Jillian, who went from being homeless in Lincoln to a successful business owner. Thompson now sells chocolate-covered fruits and solely uses social media to promote her online business
This showed Reazc that continuing to work with an online business format can work post-lockdown. She had briefly returned to her job as a compliance officer after the pandemic shutdowns but left to pursue running 555 Boutique full-time in 2021.
It also was through social media that Rezac met fellow business owner Natasha Hoyer. The two worked together at vendor shows before starting Creative Collabs, a collaborative that works with local business owners to put on vendor shows.
Small vendor markets began growing in popularity in 2010 — and eight years later, these shows made their way to Omaha, where the pair was inspired to create their own show and began inviting others to join.
Stacy Tamerius would be one of many vendors to accept the offer to join the collaboration, something she said she never thought she would see herself doing.
She said it was scary starting out during COVID, but the fear didn’t go away because the next obstacle in her journey as a small business owner would be deciding how to cater to a physical audience.
“It was tough,” Tamerius said. “You never know what to expect, especially if you don’t have any history of doing these kinds of shows in the past.”
Like other entrepreneurs during COVID, work availability at her full-time job had slowed down and she needed something to do, but unlike Rezac, her calling came in the form of small sugar cookies.
“I focused on just sugar cookies, and it wasn’t ‘I want to start a business; what should I start out with,’ I just made really good sugar cookies,” Tamerius said.
But business began to grow and instead of staying inside waiting for the pandemic to be over, she got to work. Wearing a mask and following Center of Diseases Control guidelines, Tamerius went door to door, dropping off sugar cookie decorating kits for customers.
“I didn’t do any big kind of advertising,” she said. “It was all just word of mouth; it was just something to help fill the days,”
Tamerius said shortly after that, Sunflower House Sugar Cookies took off. A woman’s group she dubbed “her cheerleaders” changed her perspective on how successful the cookie business could be.
That support pushed her to go to vendor shows, and eventually, she quit her job of 12 years to pursue cookie baking full-time, she said.
Their suggestion, she said: “You can get out there. You can do this.”