For Andi Barness-Rubin, the COVID-19 pandemic led to invention. The Scottsdale woman created a recyclable shopping cart liner to protect people from the germs and grime that cling to carts.
Barness-Rubin, who started Cart Safe in April 2020, points to an often-quoted study from University of Arizona microbiologist Charles Gerba – also known as Dr. Germ – that found E. coli and other bacteria on a random check of shopping carts.
“Once it was learned that the quantity of bacteria found on shopping cart surfaces was higher than those found in public restrooms,” Barness-Rubin said, “we knew we needed to create a cover that would add that much-needed extra layer of protection between shoppers and shopping carts.”
This mother of three – sons 15, 20 and 23 – said keeping families healthy inspired the invention that she created and designed. She has applied for a patent. Barness didn’t give a specific number of cart liners she has sold.
About 42% of businesses are female-owned, according to a 2019 American Express report, but female entrepreneurs often are paid less than men and have less access to venture capital to finance their startups.
Barness-Rubin and Arizona State University business professors Hitendra Chaturved, of the W.P. Carey School of Business, and Dennis Hoffman, director of the Seidman Research Institute at W.P. Carey, spoke in separate interviews about the pros and cons of starting a business during COVID-19, female-owned businesses, and what makes a business have staying power. Hoffman spoke via email.
How your own life can lead to a business
Barness-Rubin: I was trying to find a way to keep my family safe and myself safe when going to the grocery store. I searched for something to protect from germs and bacteria with the shopping cart and there wasn’t anything available, so I created one.
I looked up “how dirty is a shopping cart,” because I was kind of curious.The only place I was going to during the pandemic was to the grocery store. I wanted to know what my exposure was to germs and bacteria. I was really shocked at the amount of bacteria that is more than a public toilet. I think that’s because the shopping carts weren’t really cleaned. Maybe once every couple months they were cleaned before the pandemic.
Businesses need to have staying power once the COVID-19 pandemic is over
Dennis Hoffman: Pandemic memory seems to be rapidly fading, based on my assessment of recent restaurant activity in Scottsdale, but a product like this may last provided that it gets rave reviews from customers that can be posted on the site, and it fits all forms of carts and they come in all shapes and sizes.
Hitendra Chaturvedi: I think that Cart Safe is a great business idea. Hat’s off to creativity and ingenuity.
Here are two things to watch out for. What happens when the pandemic is gone? Will people still buy it? Will someone with deep pockets copy the idea? How will she compete?
Barness-Rubin: Even though COVID may be going away, people will still be concerned about germs and dirt, so I will continue to promote my product on Amazon and Facebook.
Getting the word out is a challenge for small businesses owners
Barness-Rubin: Many people don’t know how to find our website, so it is important for this company to get our name out there and to spread the word any way possible.
For one thing it’s not like people can go on and search and Google it, because they have never heard of it. Getting the word out can cost you more than what you want to spend, so it is just a couple of hurdles trying to get everyone to know what the product is. Another challenge is that many customers wanted the item but couldn’t afford the price, so I give discounts when I can.
Chaturvedi: It is important when one thinks of business that one thinks of the execution in regards to marketing oneself. This is to show what your business can provide to the public and to show how one’s product will be different from others.
Being your own boss is heady business
Barness-Rubin: I think it is challenging but great in that I don’t have to have a boss and I can set up my own work schedule. I don’t think that I can ever work for someone else again.
It’s very exciting to create something that requires a lot of hard work, especially when you’re creating a product that is new to the market and trying to get people to understand what it is.
Even when times are tough businesses can still be successful
Chaturvedi: Right now, starting a business will probably provide lots of new opportunities for those who can figure out how consumers will respond going forward.
Hoffman: It is very important to know your market and recognize how consumer behavior likely changed. (There’s still) uncertainty around changes in consumer behavior. We know the current changes but how many will be permanent?
Female entrepreneurs face obstacles, opportunities
Hoffman: Women and minorities face challenges due to discrimination, but they also have access to targeted government programs in an effort to mitigate the impact of discrimination.
Chaturvedi: There certainly are challenges for women and minorities when it comes to being an entrepreneur. I myself am a minority, as I’m an immigrant from India. I think that it is important to not go in preparing for the worst and thinking that I’m a woman or I’m a minority, so I’m not going to have any chance and instead just come in with confidence and show people what your skills are.
Barness-Rubin: There are challenges, but I don’t feel like I’m really different from other business owners. I think we’re all trying the best we can, and I don’t know what it’s like being a male business owner. I think a lot of women are afraid to take a chance, so it was very important to me to step out of my comfort zone and start Cart Safe.
These interviews have been lightly edited and condensed.