‘Riding the wave’: Despite pandemic, record number of new businesses launched in Iowa

A little more than three months ago, Abby Giblin opened her Dubuque beauty salon with high hopes and, admittedly, a bit of trepidation.

Those fears have proven to be unfounded.

Giblin, of Dubuque, said the number of appointments booked for herself, as well as the three people to whom she rents space in her storefront, have grown “exponentially” since opening.

“We are just riding the wave,” she said. “We are working 12-, 13-, sometimes 14-hour days. But it is so exciting to come into work every day.”

Such a rosy outlook was far from a sure thing.

Giblin said she was always confident in the services that her business provides, but she didn’t know if customers would return to the marketplace.

Blush Beauty Co., 5025 Wolff Road, is a permanent makeup studio that also provides massage and skin care services.

“The services we provide are a ‘want,’ not a ‘need,’” Giblin said. “So, that was a huge worry for me. Would people be comfortable coming in here?”

Giblin’s decision to roll the dice and open a new business has paid off. The opening is part of a broader trend in Iowa.

The Iowa Secretary of State’s Office this week released a report showing that 33,260 new businesses registered with the state in fiscal year 2021, which concluded on June 30. The figure marked a 35.8% increase from the previous fiscal year and established a record for new business filings in a year.

Secretary of State Paul Pate believes that the report indicates Iowa is headed in the right direction.

The state reported 24,481 new business filings in fiscal year 2020, slightly lower than the figure from fiscal year 2019. That marked the first time since 2014 that the state didn’t see that number rise, reflecting the dampening impact that the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic had on entrepreneurial activity.

“(The pandemic) provided a bit of a punch,” Pate told the Telegraph Herald on Tuesday. “It definitely slowed us down. But I think what we have shown is some serious resiliency, particularly when it comes to small businesses.”


Young residents also are embracing the entrepreneurial spirit.

Dubuque resident Bridger Hawkinson, 16, launched Hawkinson Aerial Photography in November. The business provides aerial images and videos for a variety of commercial clients.

Hawkinson, who will begin his junior year in high school this fall, said it seemed like the right time to pull the trigger. He said drone technology continues to blossom, and he believes it will pay dividends to carve out a niche in the industry sooner rather than later.

“I thought if I could get started now, I could get in before the big rush,” he said.

His decision also was tied to a broader sense of economic confidence. Hawkinson Aerial Photography primarily serves local Realtors who need images from above the properties they hope to sell.

Despite the pandemic, the real estate market has remained strong.

Others have been pushed toward entrepreneurship by a change in perspective.

Jay Wickham, director of Northeast Iowa Community College Small Business Development Center, believes that COVID-19 changed many residents’ frames of reference.

“I’ve heard from many people who have reconsidered their lives because of the pandemic — both their personal life and their business life,” Wickham said. “People are asking, what do they want to do with their life? And some of them are deciding they want to start up a business.”


Wickham, though, acknowledged that starting a company isn’t easy or risk-free.

Obtaining financing remains a significant hurdle for many budding entrepreneurs, who also must contend with competition from online retailers and large chains. Workforce challenges, meanwhile, continue to mount.

On top of those issues, the shadow of the pandemic continues to loom.

“People are aware that this is not 100% behind us,” Wickham said. “Every month or every day that we see lower infection rates, those concerns dissipate a bit. But if you’re asking yourself, ‘Are we really through this?’ and the answer is, ‘No,’ it takes a big dose of courage to start a business now.”

Iowa’s entrepreneurial growth is not unique among local states.

The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity reported that 169,500 new businesses filed in 2020, a surge of 45% compared to the previous year.

In southwest Wisconsin, economic development officials are observing a rebound after COVID-19 dampened new business openings throughout much of last year.

Ron Brisbois, executive director of Grant County (Wis.) Economic Development Corp., said entrepreneurial interest has been “very strong” in recent months.

“At the height of the pandemic, it was very quiet,” he said. “People were doing some exploring, but that was it. Now, they are actively talking to banks and seeking financing. Their ideas are much more specific and defined. Things are definitely picking up.”