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Blu Homes makes prefabricated houses that unfold like a box and take just a day to erect on-site.

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Three years ago, as the construction industry cratered, Bill Haney and Maura McCarthy made the curious—maybe crazy— decision to launch a prefabricated home business. Their vision: architect designed, factory-built, single-family dwellings with green accents (including energy-efficient appliances and airtight construction) that appeal to higher-income, eco-conscious buyers. “Yes, the housing market has been decimated,” says Haney, 49. “But if you have the moxie to get going during a recession, you can build something sustainable and significant.” So-called modern prefab had become a staple of home-design magazines during the housing boom. But the economics of mass-producing green homes like Priuses didn’t work.

Blu Homes Construction – Founders Bill Haney & Maura McCarthy at their East Longmeadow, MA manufactory.

For one thing, building houses narrow enough to fit on a truck while still wide enough to live in is no mean engineering feat. Then there was all that custom work. “The options package just grew and grew, and economies of scale were never reached,” says Allison Arieff, former editor-in-chief of Dwell, who wrote the book on prefab in 2002 (Prefab, Gibbs Smith). “The homes ended up being all one-offs.” When overall housing demand tanked, some prefab firms shut their doors. With Blu Homes, headquartered in Waltham, Mass., Haney and Mc- Carthy are building a different model. Their solution: steel and software. Using recycled-steel frames with large hinges, Blu homes fold up to fit on a standard tractor-trailer that handle cargo up to 8.5 feet wide. Fancy software automates design, manufacturing and purchasing. The extra efficiency allows Blu to offer more options and still make a living; doing it all in-house also eliminates confusion among a slew of subcontractors. “You have to control the manufacturing, design, shipping and the finishing,” says McCarthy, 31. “The guys who pack up the thing in the factory have to be the same guys who set it up on-site.” That recipe sounded plausible enough to attract $25 million in funding from investors like Abby Disney, Walt’s grandniece. (Haney keeps a 40% stake.) Blu used some of the proceeds to buy mkDesigns, a high-profile prefab firm founded by San Francisco architect Michelle Kaufmann, giving the company green cachet and some award-winning designs.

Since 2008 Blu has built 28 homes, which sell for between $125,000 and $500,000 (land not included), and has orders for 42 more. McCarthy estimates that Blu’s East Coast operation will be in the black at an annual production of 50 homes, a goal she expects to hit in 2013. Blu is set to open a factory just north of San Francisco this year. And if the housing market nose-dives again? “The general notion that we want to be greener, we want to conserve, we want to be healthier— that’s a cultural trend that has not been thwarted by the economic downturn,” says Haney. Clad often in jeans, sports jacket and a baseball hat, Haney dabbles in documentary films when he’s not cranking out houses. (His latest flick, The Last Mountain, chronicles mountaintop coal mining and stars Robert F. Kennedy Jr.)

Blu Homes Construction – Founders Bill Haney & Maura McCarthy at their East Longmeadow, MA manufactory. Tom Skala, Carpenter, installs kitchen cabinet units on a house nearing completion.

Haney met McCarthy, a venture capitalist who invested in prefab builders, in 2005 at World Connect, a non-profit organization focused on solving health care issues in developing countries. At Blu’s 120,000-square-foot factory outside Springfield, Mass. A 1,650-square-foot model called the Glidehouse (ordered by a retired Boeing engineering executive in Seattle) is under construction. Build time is about six weeks. When finished, the floors and walls will fold up like a corrugated box, and the entire house—from the low-flow toilets to the kitchen sink— will fit on an 8.5-foot-wide trailer. (Unfolded, each of the structure’s two wings measures 18 feet wide by 48 feet long.) Joining the sections and bolting them to a foundation takes a day; spot-painting and other finishing work about a week. (For a diagram of the setup process, see page 52.) Blu architects draw the folding domiciles on a system called CATIA made by Dassault Systèmes. Boeing uses the same program to design and stress-test airliners. When changes are made the algorithms make engineering adjustments, calculate the cost and send a bill of materials to the factory floor.

Blu is rolling out a new interface that allows customers to view models in three dimensions and to preview thousands of options, from the location of the kitchen to the flanges in the Anderson windows. Replacing wood framing with recycled steel allows Blu to build foldable houses that can withstand high winds and heavy snow. Steel also adds flexibility: The absence of load-bearing walls means windows and doors can be placed just about anywhere. Says McCarthy: “It feels much more like building a car than building a stick-built house.”

Indeed the Blu factory resembles a gargantuan assembly line rather than a construction site. The structural steel rolls in from a loading bay, and machines fabricate it into parts that are welded together to form the frame. After the exterior walls are hung the house slides on rollers to another station where workers add interior walls, insulation and the roof. Next comes the drywall, cabinets and bathrooms. The entire house is constructed in the factory; the only work done at the owner’s address is minor painting and woodwork near the folding joints. For two-story models a crane drops the upper floor in place.

 

Blu’s customers are clustered on the coasts. To expand, Haney and McCarthy will need to reach more people like Sandra Beer, a fundraiser for a PBS station in Albany, N.Y. and a single mother. Beer bought a 1,008-square-foot Blu Element model last year. A big draw for Beer: never having to deal with an army of contractors. “They gave me a price, and that is something I can control,” she says. Haney and McCarthy have the luxury of patient investors. “The timing is horrible right now,” says Abby Disney, who has put in $3 million. “If you buy Bill’s thesis you might have to wait a while, but things will turn around.

 

 

 

Entrepreneurs

31% Of Small Businesses Have Stopped Operating Amid Coronavirus: Sheryl Sandberg Shares How Facebook’s Latest Product Aims To Help

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The coronavirus pandemic has continued to take a catastrophic toll on America’s small businesses. According to Facebook’s State of Small Business report, 31% of small businesses and 52% of personal businesses have stopped operating as a result of the crisis. 

“What we know today is pretty sobering,” says Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. “We’re in a really hard economic situation that is hitting all businesses, but particularly, small businesses really hard. We also know how critical small businesses are for jobs—long before coronavirus,” she says. “Two thirds of new jobs in this country happen because of small businesses and so that means what’s happening with small businesses has always been important, but it’s more important than ever.”

Especially concerning is that only 45% of business owners and managers plan to rehire the same number of workers when their businesses reopen. That number is just 32% for personal businesses. 

“If these businesses are letting people go, it’s not that they don’t want to rehire them,” Sandberg says. “It’s because they don’t think they’re going to be able to. That’s a pretty serious thing for us to be facing.”

Businesses that have been able to maintain operations still face significant hurdles, namely access to capital and customers. Some 28% of businesses surveyed say their biggest challenge over the next few months will be cash flow, while 20% say it will be lack of demand. 

The report, conducted in partnership with the Small Business Roundtable, was based on a survey of 86,000 owners, managers and workers at U.S. companies with fewer than 500 employees. It is also a part of the company’s broader data collection initiative with the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on the Future of Business.

“We were already in the process of developing this report before the coronavirus pandemic hit,” Sandberg says. “We expected it to be a pretty rosy tale back then of low unemployment, flourishing entrepreneurship, and jobs growing all over the world. Fast forward to today and we’re in a very different position.”

An example of Facebook’s new Shops feature, which creates digital “storefronts” for businesses.
 
FACEBOOK

Now, the company is launching Facebook Shops, an ecommerce product that allows businesses to set up online “storefronts” on Facebook and Instagram. Businesses can customize their digital shops, using cover images to showcase their brands and catalogs to highlight their products. And just as customers can ask for help when shopping in physical stores, they can message business owners directly via WhatsApp, Messenger or Instagram Direct to ask questions, track deliveries and more. “Our goal is to make shopping seamless and empower anyone from a small business owner to a global brand to use our apps to connect with customers,” wrote Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a post announcing the new product. As was the case with the survey, the rollout was planned prior to the pandemic, but was accelerated as businesses have turned to online tools to adapt in the face of the ongoing crisis. According to the survey, 51% of small business owners have  increased their online interactions with customers, and 36% of operational businesses are now conducting all sales online. 

“One of the things I find so amazing is how much of the activity has migrated online and that we’re doing things we never thought were possible,” says Sandberg. “If I had asked you or you had asked me, could I work entirely from home? Can my whole company go home? I would have said ‘No way.’ But we did it. Small businesses have even more entrepreneurial spirit.”

There are more than 30 million small businesses in the U.S., many of which are struggling to stay afloat amid forced closures and are still hoping to receive financial relief from the government. According to a recent survey by Goldman Sachs, 71% of Paycheck Protection Program applicants are still waiting for loans and 64% don’t have enough cash to survive the next three months. As of April 19, more than 175,000 businesses have shut down—temporarily or permanently—with closure rates rising 200% or more in hard-hit metropolitan cities like Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, according to Yelp’s Q1 Economic Average report.

Employees of these businesses are disproportionately affected, with 74% and 70% reporting not having access to paid sick leave and paid time off, according to Facebook’s survey. For hotel, cafe and restaurant employees, those figures are over 90%.

Facebook, which relies heavily on small businesses for advertising revenue, was among the first major tech companies to provide much-needed aid. On March 17, the company announced $100 million in grants for small businesses, the majority of which will be distributed in cash, with some ad credits for business services. Of those funds, $40 million will be distributed across 34 American cities, with 50% being reserved for women, minority and veteran-owned businesses. The other $60 million will be distributed to small business owners throughout the world. In addition to financial assistance, the company also rolled out various product offerings including digital gift cardsfundraisers and easier ways for businesses to communicate service changes to their customers. 

Small businesses are resilient, even during times of crisis. According to the report, 57% of businesses are optimistic or extremely optimistic about the future, with only 11% of operating businesses expecting to fail in the next three months, should current conditions persist. 

“The report raises awareness about the struggles small businesses face from the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Rhett Buttle, founder of Public Private Strategies and co-executive director of the Small Business Roundtable. “But small businesses have brought us out of previous economic downturns and they will do so again.”

Maneet Ahuja, Forbes Staff, Entrepreneurs

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Entrepreneurs

Birds Of A Feather: The Stepchickens Cult On TikTok Is The Next Evolution Of The Influencer Business

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Like any self-respecting cult, the Stepchickens follow a strict code of conduct as dictated by their absolute leader, Mother Hen, a comedian named Melissa who posts on TikTok as @chunkysdead. Mother Hen has widely preached a message of peace, telling her 1.7 million TikTok followers: “We do not rule by being cruel, we shine by being kind.” Further, she has asked all Stepchickens to make themselves easily identifiable and make her photo their TikTok profile picture.

Mother Hen has created TikTok’s first “cult.” (Her word.) Boiled down, she is a social media influencer, and the Stepchickens are her fans, just as more famous TikTok influencers—Charli D’Amelio, Addison Rae and the like—all have their fanbases. But Mother Hen’s presence and style is quite singular, particularly in the way she communicates with her followers, what she asks them to do and how the Stepchickens respond to her. After all, not every member of the Charli hive use her image as their profile pictures.

“These influencers are looking for a way to build community and figure out how to monetize their community. That’s the No. 1 most important thing for a creator or an influencer,” says Tiffany Zhong, cofounder of ZebraIQ, a community and trends platform. “It’s become a positive for Gen Z, where you’re proud to be part of this cult—part of this community. They are dying to be part of a community. So it’s easy to get sucked in.”

Mother Hen, who didn’t return a request to comment for this story, already had a popular comedy vlog-style TikTok account on May 6 when she asked her followers to send suggestions for what they could name their cult. From the ideas offered up, she chose Stepchickens, and in the 19 days since, her following has more than doubled. (It was around 700,000 back at the beginning of this month.) She has posted videos about taking ediblesher celebrity lookalikes and her relationship status (“all this cult power, still no boyfriend”). And perhaps in violation of her first-do-no-harm credo, Mother Hen has implored her followers to embark on “battles” and “raids,” where Stepchickens comment bomb other influencers’ videos, posting messages en masse. She has become the mother of millions: TikTok videos with #stepchickens have generated 102 million views on the app, and her own videos have received 54.6 million likes.

Mother Hen is now concentrating on feathering her nest. She has launched a large range of merch: smartphone cases ($24), hoodies ($44), t-shirts ($28) and beanies ($28). Corporate sponsorships seem within reach, too. TikTok accounts for the Houston Rockets, Tampa Bay Rays and one for the Chicago Bulls mascot, Benny, all changed their profile picture to the image distributed by Mother Hen. The Rays sent her a box of swag, addressing the package to “Mother Hen,” of course. She dressed up in the gear (two hats, a fanny pack, a tank top) and recorded herself wearing it in a TikTok, a common move by influencers to express gratitude and signal that they’re open to business sponsorship opportunities. Mother Hen has launched a YouTube channel, too, where she’ll earn ad revenue based on the views that her 43,000 subscribers generate by watching her content.

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Then there is the Stepchickens app available on Apple devices. This digital roost is a thriving message feed—it resembles a Slack channel or a Discord server—where Stepchickens congregate, chat and coordinate their raids. They can also use it to create videos, ones “to glorify mother hen,” the app’s instructions read.

The app launched last Monday and has already attracted more than 100,000 users, a benchmark that most apps do not ever see and the best reach within months of starting. Since its debut, it has ranked as high as the ninth most popular social media app in the world on the download charts and in the Top 75 most downloaded across all types of apps. The Stepchickens have traded 135,000 messages, and the app’s most devoted users are spending as long as 10 hours a day on it, says Sam Mueller, the cofounder and CEO of Blink Labs who built the Stepchickens app.

“There’s this emergence of a more active—a more dedicated—fan base and following. A lot of the influencers on TikTok are kind of dancing around, doing some very broadcast-y type content. Their followers might not mobilize nearly as much as” the Stepchickens, says Mueller. Mother Hen’s flock, by contrast, “feel like they’re part of something, feel like they’re connected. They can have fun and be together for something bigger than what they’re doing right now, which is kind of being at home bored and lonely. There’s untapped value here.”

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Op-Ed: How Nigerians Can Unlock Their Potential In The Digital Age

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By Uzoma Dozie, Chief Sparkler

Nigerians are some of the world’s most creative, energetic, and entrepreneurial people. We are rich with talent, enthusiasm, and passion.

Nigerians are a global force bursting with potential and an enviable track-record of success. But in a more complex and fast-paced world than ever before, many of us struggle to find the time or have the ability to fulfil their potential.

Ultimately, this comes down to the lack of effective solutions in the market to support the lifestyle and finances of Nigerians and our businesses. For too long, we have been underserved by the traditional physical retail environment, which is limited by bricks and mortar infrastructure and legacy technology – the weaknesses of which have been laid bare by the Covid-19 global pandemic.

Unlocking Nigeria’s digital economy

While Nigerians are being underserved by current circumstances, there is also an exciting opportunity to start filling a gap in the market.

Nigeria’s digital economy is thriving, but it remains informal. Nigeria has a population of 198 million people – 172 million have a mobile phone and 112 million have internet access.

Many of us access social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram through our phones and use them as valuable sales tools, especially female entrepreneurs. Data and digital applications have the potential to revolutionize the daily lives of millions of Nigerians.

Therefore, new digital-only solutions are required. These should not just focus on finances though – they have to be intrinsically linked with everyday lifestyles, rather than thinking about linear processes and transactional outcomes.

Let us take one example. Chatbots powered by artificial intelligence have long been used to provide financial advice. But these chatbots could do so much more and evolve to provide support for more sophisticated usage, such as a personal adviser or lifestyle concierge.

Furthermore, these solutions should not just support Nigerians at home, but the ever-growing diaspora across the world.

Introducing Sparkle

The opportunity to play an integral role in transforming Nigeria’s digital economy and lead the charge in growing the digital economy across Africa inspired the creation of Sparkle.

Sparkle was founded with five core values – freedom, trust, simplicity, inclusivity, and personalization. We are adopting these values and embedding them in everything we do.

We will be leveraging technology and data to create and apply new digital-only solutions which bring more Nigerians into the formal economy thereby benefitting Government, businesses, and individuals.

Starting with the launch of a current account, we will co-create with our customers and collaborate with our partners to improve our services and increase our user base. We embrace collaboration and we are

working with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Google, Microsoft, Visa, and PwC Nigeria, to achieve our vision.

In addition, we want to create a more inclusive economy and break down barriers by accelerating the role and influence of female entrepreneurs, many of whom already operate in the informal economy with the help of Instagram and other social media apps.

At present, we are facing a global crisis in the shape of the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 has shown us that we need a strong digital infrastructure to ensure the economy continues to function. It will likely completely change the way we operate and conduct business in the future.

COVID-19 has only reinforced our belief that new digital solutions like Sparkle are required now more than ever before to serve Nigerians, boost the formal economy, and unlock potential in the digital age.

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