It sometimes feels like there are record levels of uncertainty in the world right now.

A pandemic has disrupted nearly every facet of daily life. There is civil unrest in the streets. And a controversial election looms on the horizon.

But for thousands of people, it is also a time of opportunity.

The number of startups being formed in North Carolina, as well as across the country, is growing, at least by one measure the government keeps track of.

The number of “commercially prone” apps in the United States – one term the Census Bureau uses to track the companies most likely to become employers – recently reached its highest level recorded in a quarter.

North Carolina also had a record 13,938 high propensity business applications in the third quarter of 2020.

The number, perhaps, shouldn’t be so surprising, said David T. Robinson, professor of finance at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.

While the pandemic has brought a host of problems for businesses, many people are finding potential opportunities amidst the difficulties. Perhaps some felt they could take the risk of a new venture through a stimulus check or increased unemployment benefits.

“Entrepreneurs are the economic agents in our economy who take risks to try new solutions to existing problems,” Robinson said in an interview. “We have a whole host of new issues facing us. This (increase in applications) reflects a natural entrepreneurial reaction. »

That’s not to say entrepreneurs are about to save the economy, Robinson said. Many obstacles remain, but it shows that there are signs of resilience.

“I don’t want to ring pollyannaish,” he said. “We’re coming down the pike of a second wave (of coronavirus cases) and this next wave could be much worse.”

To jump

It was August when former Raleigh mayoral candidate and activist Zainab Baloch decided to quit her job to focus full-time on a startup she had been thinking about for years.

She and a team of two others are creating an app called American youth protest which organizes young people and teaches them to engage in politics.

Baloch has been a constant presence at numerous protests in Raleigh this year in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police. The app, in many ways, is a direct response to the need young people across the country feel to engage in politics.

This need led her to quit her dream job working at a fintech startup.

“My purpose in life is to serve others to create a better world and create a better community. And right now, the way I’m serving is this app,” Baloch said on Zoom. “And I think right now couldn’t be this good…because at this point everyone is kind of crushed. And it takes entrepreneurs and people who are ready for a new world to step up and invest more time.

Jeff Fisher, CEO of Unique Places LLCsays people look at him like he’s crazy when he tells them he just opened a new restaurant.

In September, he officially opened the doors of the Honeysuckle at Lakewood in Durham. The restaurant and bar is an extension of a cafe and tea room he owns in Chapel Hill, although the one in Durham involves different partners and is more food-focused.

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Former Raleigh mayoral candidate and activist Zainab Baloch recently quit her job to work full-time on a new app.

“People were looking for ways not to say you’re stupid or crazy,” Fisher said in a phone interview. “They would say, ‘That’s bold.’ It was never, ‘That’s a brilliant strategy.’

But so far it has worked for the new restaurant.

That’s partly because the space Fisher bought for the restaurant, the former County Fare bar in the Lakewood area of ​​Durham, has plenty of outdoor space, a feature worth a fortune in these days of distancing. social.

And because it’s a brand new restaurant, Fisher said, they were able to spend most of the summer designing it with safety protocols in mind. If it hadn’t been an outward-facing venue, he added, starting the restaurant might have been too daunting.

“People are so hungry to be outside,” he said. But Who knows what will happen next month? »

A word of warning

Ted Zoller, professor of entrepreneurship at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler School of Business, cautioned against overreading the growing numbers of business apps.

A number of factors could be at play.

He said government data could pick up noise from people registering businesses to take on loans under the Paycheck Protection Program, which has provided hundreds of thousands of loans to small businesses across the country. .

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With plenty of outdoor space to offer, the owners of the Honeysuckle at Lakewood felt comfortable opening a restaurant during a pandemic. Kevin Seifert Kevin Seifert/RTP.Studio

Other legal persons could be formed to take over the assets of a increasing number of bankruptcies.

And more so, with so many companies laying off employees, he said, there could be a significant increase in the number of people turning to outsourcing. Especially those who have been forced into early retirements, Zoller added.

“People who have cash and are still young enough to work, they form entities to continue a stream of income,” he said. “I personally know about eight people who have just been acquired and who were long-time employees of large companies. They are still in their fifties. They still have miles on their odometer.

Not going back to the way things were

But, yes, there are those creating startups to take advantage of the opportunities created by COVID-19, Zoller said.

“The person who has the guts to jump in now, that’s when they come out of the woodwork,” he said. “They are looking to solve the problem and take control of the situation on their own and create economic certainty.”

E-commerce is a particularly booming area, Zoller added.

Shaerie Mead knows that if her new fashion venture has any chance of succeeding, she’ll need to establish a strong e-commerce presence.

Mead, a single mother, moved from Los Angeles to Hillsborough in February to be closer to her family and a support system.

But when the lockdown hit and no jobs were available, she decided to start her own fashion business, Iona Clothing.

Without the pandemic, she doesn’t think she could have found the time to start the business. She was even able to register for US Subway Landing Point program, an incubator for people making career pivots during the recession.

“With a child busy at school and trying to work to support myself, there would be no way there was time for that,” she said. “Like sitting and thinking (about a business) – that doesn’t usually happen.”

Between March and July, Mead was able to build up a fleet of models. She now sends these designs to be turned into physical products.

She knows that she is not guaranteed to succeed. There’s still a lot to discover, as it’s all about getting your clothes in front of potential buyers in a COVID-19 world.

“Retail is not going to go back to how it was very quickly,” she said. “…The whole way we organize business is going to have to be reconsidered.”

This story was produced with the financial support of a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh through an independent journalism grant program. The N&O retains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnovate

This story was originally published October 30, 2020 9:00 a.m.

Zachery Eanes is Innovate Raleigh’s reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. It covers technology, startups and high street companies, biotech, and education issues related to these fields.