The pandemic has devastated thousands of small businesses across the country over the past two years, and Li’s Spa has been no exception. Luckily, her efforts over the years were recognized by the Small Business Administration and offered her a stipend to continue her business operations.
Runli Li, who started her business in 2013, said the path of her spa business has been pretty smooth all along. Before starting her own spa shop, Li was a supervisor at Bellevue Massage School, teaching others how to massage. Over time, she realized that there were a large number of potential clients in the community seeking professional and regular massage services. So she decided to start her own company.
“I wanted to go my own way,” she says. “For three years I was here in the shop every day, not even a day off.”
With the unending support of her husband, who is also her business partner for this business, she was able to stabilize her business after five years of operation as more and more health insurance plans included massage services.
She mentioned that Meta, Amazon, and Microsoft have all started adding massage to their health plans in recent years, and around 80% of their clients come from these tech-based companies.
“We live in a tech city and a lot of the tech workers are young and healthy, apart from the fact that they have to sit in front of the computer all day and don’t have time to train. In such cases, many developed tension headaches,” Li said. “Our massage helps them relax their minds and muscles. They come here almost every two weeks because once they feel the effects of the massage, they can feel the difference.”
Li said that’s why her shop was always fully booked until COVID-19 hit.
During the pandemic, Li had to close her shop for three and a half months due to safety restrictions. But after restrictions ended, few employees were willing to return to work, as they were extremely concerned that close physical contact with customers could expose them to COVID-19.
She had to come up with several safety measures to prioritize hygiene in her store for employees and customers. She spent thousands to purchase UV light air purifiers for each and every massage room, and she made sure the ventilation systems in the store were on at all times. She also offered N95 masks for her massage therapists.
“I’m on the same page with my co-workers,” she said. “I have a responsibility to make sure both my clients and my therapists are safe.”
Due to their hygiene awareness, even if a customer tested positive after visiting their store, neither the employees nor other customers tested positive for COVID-19.
Still, there has been a significant drop in customer numbers during the pandemic. And although the shop was closed for a long time, she owed her landlord three months’ rent until September 2021. Her landlord allowed her to defer her rent, but she still struggled financially.
“I’m the kind of person who rarely drinks alcohol,” she said. “But at the time I was so stressed that I had to drink at night.”
One day she received a call claiming that the Small Business Administration was offering her a grant for her small business. Li was checking out from another customer at that moment, thinking it was a scam.
Born and raised in China, Li said the Chinese government rarely initiates to offer support to small business owners. She completed the year of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989; She said it affected her career options at the time. A few years after graduating, she started her own skin care business in China without government help.
That’s why she had always believed “there is no such thing as a free lunch”. Especially during this period, Li said, there were many scams. So she told the person on the phone to give the grant to someone else in need. The more they explained, the harder she believed it was a scam.
It was not until Ellie He, one of the SBA counselors who can speak Mandarin, called Li again and asked if she had applied for the small business grant program. That’s when Li realized that she had applied about two months ago, but she had completely forgotten about it due to ongoing financial problems.
“I was so happy. I tried to apply for the Paycheck Protection Program, but there were problems with it. And I still owed my landlord three to four months’ rent,” she said. “That saved me.”
Before she got the call, she had been drawing her retirement pension to help run the store, as she said she “doesn’t want to give up the dedication I’ve put in over those years.”
The SBA approved the grant in one week, and Li received the money in the second week.
The scholarship was a portal for Li to learn more about the SBA. He’s recommendation has allowed Li to attend more SBA-oriented events and courses.
“They teach us about online marketing and develop our business into a more diverse community,” she said. “It also allowed me to develop my connections with other small business owners and share entrepreneurial experiences.”
During her discussion, she discovered that many immigrant small business owners struggled with language barriers that prevented them from “stepping out of their comfort zones” to expand their clients’ connections with other ethnic communities.
“I remembered talking to the owner of a Korean interior decoration company, and he mainly only had Korean-American customers,” Li said. “You may have the best skills and products, and people also need your service. But some small businesses just don’t have the access to connect with more potential customers and let others know of their existence.”
Being an immigrant herself, Li realizes that immigrants have a tougher business path than others. Still, she managed to fight her way through the pandemic, and she said she signed a 10-year deal with her landlord last year to keep the store running going forward.
She was especially grateful for her loyal customers who sent her text messages of support during the three-month shutdown.
“It’s just so heartwarming to have customers who treat you like a real friend, like a part of your life,” Li said.