Jun 01, 2020

Are Masks the Next Small Business Boom?

The COVID-19 pandemic will create new small business opportunities, even as it decimates much larger business sectors. Some of you crafty readers may have a unique or long-forgotten skill that proves unexpectedly lucrative as coronavirus changes the retail landscape

That skill is the ability to sew or create coronavirus masks and facial coverings. Many who’ve lost employment in the recent furloughs and layoffs are finding new ways to start a stay-at-home business, and there’s a rare opportunity available right now for people with a sewing machine or the crafty skills to hand sew masks.

High-fashion brands like Prada and Ralph Lauren are getting into the mask game, according to Women’s Wear Daily. CNN reports that even Kim Kardashian is introducing a mask line. You can capitalize on the sudden need for masks, too. Let’s take a look at what you’ll need to start a mask-making business and how to give your masks a fashionable flair so that you can not only keep up with the Kardashians but maybe score even more style points.

Demand for Masks Will Increase as America Reopens 

The reopening of America will lead to more demand for masks, not less. Newly reopened businesses will require customers to wear masks in many states. All the major US airlines and the rideshare service Uber have made masks mandatory for passengers. There’s no sign that mask requirements will go away anytime soon, and some people will want to accumulate several masks to accessorize with certain apparel.

Handmade masks are not the same as the scarce N95 masks that hospitals and healthcare workers need, and you will not be cutting into that necessary supply. And by creating masks, you’re helping to keep people safe and beat this virus as we tiptoe back to normal life.

“The main reason why you’re wearing a mask, if you must venture out, is to protect others more than to protect you the wearer,” Wake Forest chairman of anesthesiology Dr. Scott Segal said in an interview with KCRW. Consider your masks an act of kindness that can keep society safe and provide a safety cushion of revenue during tough financial times.

Which Materials Make a Good Mask

Mask makers are experimenting with materials like bandanas, pillowcases, and vacuum bags to create the most effective facial covering. While many have strong feelings about which materials are or are not effective, most materials will meet the basic safety requirements for face coverings.

“Anything is probably better than nothing, including a bandana or a scarf,” Dr. Segal said.

A recent New York Times study found that the most effective filtration materials are HEPA furnace filters, vacuum cleaner bags, and flannel. But the materials that score the highest are also the most restrictive and difficult to breathe through.

Those that scored lowest on the filtration scale were the simple cotton masks. But those are the easiest to breathe through, making the wearer less likely to pull the mask down in high-risk situations, a behavior that renders any mask useless.

“No mask is any good if you can’t breathe through it,” according to Dr. Segal. “If you’re going to venture out to a grocery store, you need to make sure that you can wear it for the 30 minutes or an hour it’s going to take to run that errand.”

You can also double or triple the effectiveness of your cotton mask with this Esther’s Fabrics three-layer mask pattern. Joann Fabrics also has several free specialty mask patterns for special needs or unique materials to get you started. It may vary whether your state is currently allowing craft and fabric stores to remain open as essential businesses, but many are offering curbside pickup for online purchases of fabrics and supplies. 

Make a Website to Sell Masks

Once you’re making masks, you’ll also want to start an online store to sell them. You can build a small business website for your mask-making business or use a platform that already exists. 

Consider Etsy, an online marketplace where the CEO said in a recent blog post that individual makers are selling “hundreds of thousands of face masks per day.” You can also use a simple Instagram or Facebook account as the platform for your business and advertise it on that site. The Wall Street Journal notes that the price of Facebook and Instagram ads is decreasing during the pandemic and becoming more affordable for fledgling small businesses.

And you might already have an online payment system set up. PayPal, Venmo, Google Pay, and other popular apps can allow your buyers to simply pay for masks on their smartphone to keep your transactions cash-free and contactless. 

Distributing Masks to Your Customers

A new small business might not want to use a delivery service like Postmates to deliver a modestly priced item like masks as their delivery fees will cut into your profit margins. The US Mail or FedEx are simple options for shipping, and you can follow shipping and delivery tips to use them as affordably and effectively as possible. Some of your buyers might be willing to pay you extra for a “drive and drop” delivery option, which you can make as contactless as possible by dropping a wrapped or enveloped mask in a mailbox or on a porch.

You could also offer a free curbside pickup option for buyers to swing by your home, where you leave them a box or just toss the mask from a window. But understand that involves people coming by your place, which is something which you may want to clear with your neighbors and develop some safety protocols.

Bookkeeping for Your New Business

There’s more to your mask business than sewing and delivering—there’s also the boring but necessary work of invoices, financial reports, tracking your business expenses, and paying taxes. But there are online bookkeeping sites and apps that can do much of this work for you. Some even offer a free version that lets you immediately start taking credit card orders, bank account transfers, and creating custom invoices.

The Politics of Masks

Of course, we live in a polarized society, and masks have become part of the culture war. By making and selling masks, you’re automatically taking a side, and you may experience blowback from people who are opposed to wearing masks. It’s best to be as empathetic as possible in your response, and explain that you’re trying to help people comply with mandatory face covering rules.

And the confusion is understandable, as the nation’s top experts have given conflicting advice. In late February, the Surgeon General tweeted, “Seriously people—STOP BUYING MASKS!” arguing it could deprive healthcare workers of supplies. But the Surgeon General has since changed course, and the latest Centers for Disease Control guidance says that “Everyone should wear a cloth face cover when they have to go out in public.” 

We’ve seen some states declare masks mandatory, and then reverse or clarify that decision. 

So the landscape of mask requirements may change in some areas. But as long as employees are required to wear masks on the job, and more are returning to work, the demand for masks will remain strong.

Starting a new business requires work and comes with costs, so you may want to apply for a loan or a line of credit to keep your mask business covered. Face covering requirements will be around for a while as we slowly reopen the American economy, and your mask-making business could be the face of a new retail trend.

About the author

Joe Kukura
Joe Kukura
Joe Kukura is a San Francisco freelance writer whose work also appears in SF Weekly and SFist. He’s written financial advice for NerdWallet, tech industry analysis for the Daily Dot, sports content for NBC Bay Area, and good, old-fashioned clickbait for Thrillist.

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