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One Startup’s Disaster Recovery Story


It’s hasn’t been easy, but Houston startups are recovering after Hurricane Harvey.

At first, Jake Boshernitzan thought the storm wouldn’t be so bad. Before Hurricane Harvey poured down gallons of water and dealt billions of dollars in damage, it was a just a light rain. Maybe the meteorologists were wrong, he thought. Maybe the furniture risers he bought would go to waste. His wife and two daughters even went outside to play in it. 

Jake Boshernitzan, Knocki CEO

That same night, as the rain came crashing down, water began to leak through the walls of his bathroom. Then the bedrooms and hallways. Outside, the street looked like a river. Boshernitzan woke up every hour, checking his house, finding new leaks and puddles as his house filled with more and more water. Over time, he was forced to move his family to safety, then took a kayak to help his parents get to higher ground.

As the flooding occurred, a million things rushed through his mind: first the safety of his family, then his house, his friends and co-workers, and his business. Boshernitzan’s startup, Knocki, created a remote-control-like hub for devices you can activate by simply knocking on any surface. The product has already seen a massive amount of support on Kickstarter, raising 300 percent of its initial funding goal before launch. But after already facing delays, he knew Harvey could make it much worse.

“I thought, ‘Okay, my family is safe, they are not going to get wet, we’re going to be okay,’ but then I started to think about the business and the pressure we are under to launch before the holidays, and how nature had thrown this curveball,” he said.

Since the hurricane, entrepreneurs and small business owners like Boshernitzan have fought to keep their companies and dreams floating. Now, a month later, what was once a business-savvy city with an up-and-coming tech community is working around the clock to make sure its families, communities and economy return to normal.

The Small Business Administration has set up business recovery centers to help those effected by Hurricane Harvey

As of Oct. 13, the Small Business Administration approved $90 million to 924 different businesses to assist in the recovery, said Darla Booker, public information officer for SBA’s Office of Disaster Assistance. Those dollar amounts are climbing daily. After FEMA, the SBA’s low-interest, long-term disaster loan program is the largest source of federal money available to help communities recover from disasters. For business of all sizes and nonprofits, the agency offers up to $2 million for physical damages at 3.3 percent interest for up to 30 years. It also offers small businesses up to $2 million to cover economic injuries caused by the disaster. This loan can cover secondhand impacts, such as lost revenues, and help companies pay their ongoing obligations.

“During declared disasters is the only time the SBA becomes a direct lender and we not only help small businesses, but we also help businesses of all sizes including nonprofit organizations, homeowners and renters,” said Booker. “About 80 percent of our disaster loans are made to homeowners and renters.”

SBA also manages five business recovery centers near Houston with staff that can help entrepreneurs with finances, accounting and marketing and other post-disaster challenges, as well as advice with applying for government contracts and procurements, she said.

“We can even help you recover your business records that got lost, destroyed or damaged in the storm,” Booker said.

For those looking for more information on business recovery centers or needing help with loan applications, Booker recommended: 

  • Visiting sba.gov to apply online and learn more information;

  • Calling 1-800-659-2955 to speak to SBA customer service representatives; or

  • Visiting one of the Business Recovery Centers or Disaster Recovery Centers in person. For a list of centers, visit sba.gov or FEMA.gov.
     

 Under Pressure
One of the most difficult issues is the constant pressure to keep Knocki running smooth while dealing with the personal issues from flooding. He had to find a new place to live, clean up and find his daughters a new school while still trying to make Knocki’s holiday deadline. One second he would be meeting with the manufacturing and packaging facility, the next he would be getting calls from insurance companies.
 

To help himself, he temporarily moved both his family and business to Austin. Each weekend, he would drive a 26-foot truck back to Houston to move things back and forth from the offices. Other employees also followed him to Austin.

“[Moving Knocki to Austin] was what we needed right now,” Boshernitzan said. “We can always come back to Houston and clean things up, but right now, we need to separate ourselves from all this chaos and on a personal level, it was more than I could handle.

“I have been so worn out that for the past weeks I have felt like walking zombie. It honestly has been a challenge to be present in the company for anything.”

While Boshernitzan found Knocki’s temp office independently, many places in Austin offered free space for displaced entrepreneurs to focus on their businesses while they rebuild in Houston. Victims have also created a Facebook page for people looking for and offering space.

“What a lot of early-stage companies need is some type of stability where they can continue to focus on their business,” Boshernitzan said. When neighboring cities can offer co-working space that is a tremendously valuable gesture.”

The Unlimited Integration team helped Houston locals clean up after the storm

The community around Houston gave Boshernitzan hope for the city’s recovery, he said. A few days after the storm, Boshernitzan’s wife made a Facebook page asking for help cleaning up their house. Just a few hours later, Unlimited Integrations, a smart home installation company, brought their entire staff to help Boshernitzan and his wife. Even though they had never met, the team helped his family clear the debris and pull out sheetrock.

After the storm left Unlimited Integration CEO Paul Ostrin’s house relatively unscathed, he knew he needed to help those in need. So the day after Harvey, he sent an email to his co-workers asking if they would join him and use the company’s truck and supplies to help around the neighborhood. Each of his employees came, and Unlimited Integration helped to rebuild 20 to 30 houses, he said.

With the repairs in process and the economy slowly recovering, Ostrin is partially optimistic. He said he is most worried about those who did not have insurance, but is hopeful that Houston’s community – its entrepreneurs and citizens – will bounce back.

“A lot of people are in a holding pattern waiting to see what happens – but at the same time, I am still getting calls about people looking to rebuild houses,” Ostrin said. “People are ready to get back and that’s amazing.”

Jeremy Snow

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