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How local start-ups perfected pivoting during the pandemic

As Denver celebrates its annual Start-Up Week, we were curious how the pandemic changed the way these new businesses work.

DENVER — According to a report from the Downtown Denver Partnership, 169 tech start-ups were founded in the city in 2020. The report said there are about 1,000 tech start-ups in Denver’s city center employing more than 7,000 people.

As Denver Startup Week is underway, we talked to two people who started up businesses right before COVID about how they did it and how the pandemic challenged them.

Angel Johnson, CEO, Iconi Activewear

“I started it because I wanted activewear that was more motivational, and I also wanted to give back to the local Denver community,” Angel Johnson said.

Johnson started planning the company in 2019, when she left her job in the Air Force, stationed at Buckley Air Force Base. Iconi is a motivational activewear line for men and women. Ten percent of the company’s profits go to non-profits including Girls on the Run of the Rockies.

Johnson’s first product launched in January 2020.

“Right in the heart of the pandemic,” she said. “So, I had to throw my whole plan in 2019, going into 2020, out the window.”

Johnson couldn’t feature her products in gyms as she had planned.

Instead, she worked on beefing up her social media presence, which was relatively difficult for an introvert.

“As an owner, even though I’m supposed to be the face of the brand, I am an introvert, so sometimes it can be hard for me to put myself out there,” she said.

“In the Air Force, we used to say flexibility is the key to air power and that’s the same thing with business,” she said. “You have to roll with the punches. It’s definitely scary and frightening when I had to throw out my whole plan, and I realized that I launched a business in the middle of a pandemic. But you have to roll with the punches and keep going.”

Rolling with the punches helped Johnson’s brand explode. Her social media presence led Oprah to find her leggings and add them to her “Favorite Things” list in November.

“You have to make sure your brand can stay resilient, that you can stay resilient, because it’s definitely hard for all of us living during a pandemic,” she said.

“I feel like if I can launch a business during a pandemic I can pretty much do anything now.”

Ray Finegan, Paired.co

Paired is a community platform for senior start-up leaders to be able to connect with each other in an authentic way,” Ray Finnegan said.

Finegan, who has long worked with the start-up community, decided to build a platform to connect leaders of local new businesses with hires.

But he quickly had to change that idea. Days after he launched the platform, the city and state locked down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“All the relationships we had put into place early on just froze on the spot,” he said.

People weren’t hiring.

“It’s obviously really frustrating initially because you’ve put a lot of work into getting to that launch. You’ve thought it through, you’ve talked to a lot of people, and then the entire basis for what you have founded your ideas changed overnight.”

After a few conversations with friends, Finegan decided to change course. He realized he had a huge network of local start-up leaders on his platform. All of those leaders needed somewhere to share ideas and resources.

So, he completely changed the focus of the site. Now the website has several hundred members and his revenue is beginning to grow.

“Most people who are in the start-up world are ready to evolve quickly,” Finegan said. “If you’re not ready to evolve quickly you’re probably not going to make it anyways.”

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