10 Small-Business Owners on How They Are Shaping Their Businesses for the Better
Sometimes the only option is to adjust.
For the last several weeks, small businesses have been put to the test. March proved to be a rather trying month due to initial closures and the inevitable pause on production. Business normalcy was upended, leaving many business owners grappling with the question: What is the core of my brand? Perhaps the silver lining of the pause is that brands have been given the latitude to take a step back in order to reassess, reaffirm, and reconsider best practices. Ultimately, this led many to hold themselves to a higher standard. As business strategies quickly pivoted, human responsibilities simultaneously shifted, eventually coexisting as one.
The bottom line is that most small businesses didn’t have a choice but to adjust. Although small businesses may lack certain large-corporation benefits, they possess the agility to adapt at a rapid rate because of their intimate connection to their consumers. The beauty of a small business lies within these interpersonal relationships. We’ve asked a few inspiring small-business owners how they have managed to shape their brands for the better amidst a global crisis, revealing that resonating with consumers on a deeper level, fostering real connections, and offering temporary escapism are at the forefront of these owners’ business plans.
From uncovering their own rituals and establishing meaningful partnerships to launching new products to provide relief and benefits to their communities, these small companies are managing to make a big impact. In times like these, no matter how big the contribution, everything counts—here’s how these small-business owners are navigating uncharted times and forging a new, stronger path forward.
“Initially, people weren’t really thinking about shopping. Especially our customer base that we’ve cultivated—buying luxury products was last on their mind during a global pandemic. I think they were more worried about their emotional state, and preserving their family’s emotional state and safety as well, which is something we were also encouraging. The downside of that is it’s going to affect your sales. Having to close the store in March, I resigned to the fact that our sales were going to be pretty low, and I wanted to focus on creating positive rituals and finding comfort for myself and those who work with me. I started sharing my own ritual on Instagram, as I am a bit of a sharer, and one of them is my morning coffee that I make in a mug created by one of our artisans in Mexico. I replaced my ritual of going to the café every morning with creating my own, which was just watching the color progression that happened when I put cream into the coffee. It was a part of my ritual, and people fell in love with the mug,” explained James. Thus, Something Special, a subscription program that delivers a sustainably and ethically made item to your home monthly, was conceived. “I’ve always made little products over the years, outside of shoes and bags, which inspired me to start Something Special. Since we’ve launched the program, it has created a way to sustain our business as well as the artisans we work with—which is particularly amazing that I could potentially sustain an artisan group for a whole year. For me, the process, craft work, sustainability, and sourcing has always been what defines luxury, and when you are sourcing a certain way and hiring certain people, there is a level of scarcity to a default, and that is true luxury. Something Special is a great way to showcase that. As a small-business owner, you have to know your customer base, and I’m intimately familiar with our customers. We look out for each other. It’s all about deepening the community bond and uncovering the little things that can bring joy—and connect us.”
“Since we’re such a small and young brand—we launched in November 2019—we’re fortunate to not be severely impacted by the pandemic. We sell mostly online and are still able to fulfill orders, though we do have some brick-and-mortar retailers that are closed now, so we’re losing a bit of revenue and visibility there. Since everyone is staying home and taking a little extra time for themselves, we’ve been focusing on the self-care aspects of our Moisture Mask. We’ve also introduced some new experiences to our website, including guided meditations, live workout classes, and weekend DJ sets. They’re all free, and since so many people are in a difficult place financially—or simply don’t want to spend money if they don’t have to—we’re hoping this invites anyone to participate in Soft without actually buying anything. In March we also launched our initiative #Masks4Masks and are diverting 100 percent of profits from our Moisture Mask to purchase N95 masks for doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers in New York. Our friends and family in the medical community told us very early on that their hospitals were not prepared for the pandemic, and even now they’re still experiencing supply shortages. We also started a GoFundMe so people could donate directly to the cause; through our profits and the fundraiser, we’ve been able to buy more than 10,000 masks so far. We didn’t really anticipate how this would boost our sales, but people were really excited to support the initiative by shopping on our site. Every sale buys a few N95 masks, and we’re happy that more people will get to try out Soft in the process.We gathered hundreds of masks through donations alone, but as the situation became more dire, we realized we needed to do more. We decided to divert our profits and raise money so we could order thousands more directly from the factories. We also joined forces with a group of other “indie fundraisers,” including Christina Tung of SVNR and Gelareh Mizrahi; we’ve been pooling funds and placing orders together to expedite the process and avoid driving up prices. From the beginning it was important to us that Soft wasn’t just a brand focused on product and profit; we wanted it to have a message that resonated with people on a deeper level. Soft is about self-care, confidence, and compassion, and it wouldn’t have felt right to sit back or push sales with everything going on. In times of crisis, a brand has a responsibility to use its platform to help in any way it can.”
“To put it bluntly, the pandemic has turned our business on its head and has really hammered home why we do what we do. We’ve grown a lot over the past couple years, and heading into March, we were having our biggest weeks as a company to date. Since we provide corporate catering, the moment people were ordered to work from home, that all stopped. Our first concern was making sure our people were safe and could take home a paycheck. In terms of the business, we started to meet our customers at home, since that’s where they’d be for the foreseeable future. We built ‘Work From Home’ Bundles that mirrored the way that we like to eat when we’re working from home, and started delivering them door-to-door. The thought was that we could double down on our mission of local farms and nutritious food, while keeping our business afloat and more people out of the grocery stores. There are pros and cons to being a small business—less runway with cash, which can be stressful, but we’re also able to make quick decisions. As the news developed, we understood that food-insecure families were going to get squeezed the most, so we launched an initiative called Farm to Tables in Need with our friends at Something Special Studios to feed people at shelters and food banks. We’ve raised around $50k thus far and are getting meals to people all over NYC every day. We’re now also working with partners like World Central Kitchen, founded by Chef José Andrés, and Frontline Foods to reach even more people. We’re currently making close to 7,000 meals a week for frontline workers and people in need alongside those home-delivery bundles, trying to make the biggest impact we can for our city. We started Green Top Farms to impact neighborhoods that don’t have access to real food, and this crisis has forced us to speed those efforts up. As our Chef Anup Joshi has put it, ‘Take care of your people, and feed as many as you can.’ It’s never been more important to bring nutritious foods to the people that need it most. In the coming weeks, we’re going to launch an online grocery store to deliver (contactlessly) kitchen staples and freshly prepared foods to people in NYC. Sourcing will be focused around our network of family farms and prepared by our team with the highest regard for food safety, sanitation, and love.”
“It’s been a time to really focus on what we value most, by being creative in terms of where we are right now and where we need to be, and to focus on the core authenticity of our brand. The mask project came from a desire to use our resources to contribute to the nationwide fight against the pandemic, and, specifically, to support the doctors and nurses who so desperately needed PPE. We started this initiative as a simple way to contribute from our homes using leftover ribbon and hand-dyed fabrics. The hope that our masks could bring a smile to someone’s face at this difficult time is so inspiring and has encouraged us to keep creating and donating as many masks as we can. For each mask sold, a second mask is donated to a hospital worker who is treating COVID-19 patients. I had not realized until we posted our first image of the masks being [sewn] that so many of our LoveShackFancy girls are doctors and nurses, who shared with me that when they are not in their scrubs, they are in our dresses. It is so important that we continue to support our community throughout the pandemic—we truly hope to spread happiness in any way we can. We are going to focus on our DTC presence even more, and something new and different we have been doing each week is ‘Mini Launches’ for our spring collection. So many people haven’t been able to see spring in person, and now they finally can! We’ve had issues without some of our factories being closed, and important launches such as bridal have been postponed, so we will be going into more buy-now, wear-now. We have so much newness and so many fun things happening, and we know our customers need the dose of happiness Love Shack brings.”
Julia Chalmers, Founder of Brand Marketing and PR Agency Lucky Chalm
“Like 90 percent of all businesses, the last few weeks have been tough on our small agency. We work predominantly with Australian labels, so in addition to the global uncertainty, production setbacks, and fear, we’ve also had to contend with an increasingly low Australian dollar, making our US-based services almost double the cost to our clients. Initially, 60 percent of our clients paused contracts while they battened down the hatches for the impending COVID-19 storm. However, four weeks later and after experiencing just how quickly humans have adapted to this new way of life, we’ve regained over 80 percent of our client base. Almost all of our direct-to-consumer clients have experienced their strongest e-commerce month in years, which has really amplified how valuable our services are right now. Taking an unexpected break from a full roster of clients has provided us the mental space to think proactively about our own content strategy and how we can rely on our own channels to create new opportunities for our clients. Rather than focusing heavily on business and founder features, we’ve been able to lean heavily on the incredible community of tastemakers we have relationships with, and the result of #HomeContent, #WFHFits, and the engagement with our ‘At home with’ series has been overwhelming. Additionally, the pause has enabled us to really think proactively about our internal environmental initiatives and what we’re doing as an agency to contribute to the combat of local and global climate change. While the world has been consumed by COVID-19, it’s important to remember our Earth still needs our support. Each of the clients we represent upholds strict ethical and/or sustainable production [ethea] to walk a little lighter, and as an agency we realized there’s more we can be doing at a grassroots level. Our vehicle to help incite change is the launch of the Chalming Cultural Club, which we’re using to support local and global climate change and equality initiatives. Every two months the Chalming Cultural Club will help support and amplify the work of local environmental and equality initiatives. We are launching this week supporting the Sierra Club and their work protecting wild places and endangered species, confronting global environmental challenges, and keeping the pressure on politicians and corporations. We’ve all seen the beautiful stories of how COVID has allowed the Earth to clear its lungs momentarily; the Venice canals are the clearest they’ve been in years, the Indian city of Delhi has seen a 60 percent reduction in air pollution, and L.A.’s air pollution has reduced by 31 percent. Amidst the COVID pandemic, we’re hoping the Chalming Cultural Club will serve as a reminder for all the incredible work we, collectively as a global community, did to raise awareness of climate change in 2019. We’ll definitely continue using this time to lean into and further explore our internal creative and client strategy.”
“Our mission since day one has been to offer an honest and transparent brand that consumers can trust to purchase high-quality CBD products at accessible prices. With a lot of stores closed, many consumers are migrating online to purchase CBD products. Since the start of quarantine, our monthly sales on our online store have more than doubled, and in March we were able to donate $15,000 to Food Bank for New York City, resulting in over 65,000 meals. Our customers are looking for all-natural ways to de-stress through quarantine and are on a mission to find products that will benefit them. As a result, we decided to shift our production schedule and launch two new products as a direct response to COVID-19: CBD Hand Sanitizer and CBD Immunity Gummies. Fortunately, we have an amazing supplier, and we were able to turn around both products in just under three weeks, from ideation and launching on the website to shipping to customers. We view our relationship with our customers as a true partnership, and if we can make products that ultimately help them maintain a high quality of life, then we are living true to our mission. We indefinitely lowered prices on our website 15 percent to help our customers through this time, and we donated thousands of hand sanitizers to hospitals in need. It’s something that the founding team believes in strongly, and we feel as if it’s our responsibility to give back to our community with products that can help them stay healthy during this time. Highline Wellness was founded to improve quality of life, both mentally and physically. We translated that same approach to the current times and formulated the two new products (soon to be three) that we believed consumers needed and could benefit from. If we’re in a position to be able to give back and have a positive impact in our community, there’s no question about it—we’re going to do it.”
“As a small business, every day matters. Half of our business is made up of wholesale orders from both small business[es] and large retailers. Orders are put on hold, delayed, or canceled—all of which affect our ability to run day-to-day operations. As a business we have always been equally focused on enabling and empowering the small businesses around us, as well as creating an online community and strong social presence. With the shutdowns of non-essential businesses, it has been an enormous pivot to try to still support and enable our customers to shop local, while also trying to encourage more online sales on our own website so that we can continue to do business, stay afloat, keep our staff busy and safe, and still see growth. We have always supported our local homeless initiatives and felt it was more important than ever to continue doing so—especially in this world where everyone is now encouraged to stay home. People without homes are often overseen and ill-equipped, not to mention the selfless workers volunteering and taking care of those that have nowhere to go. We have continued to donate soaps for bathing programs to the Bowery Mission in NYC as well as products to help raise funds for Housingworks. We have also continued in our partnership with Your Mom Cares to support mental wellness and illness. The unknown is the biggest fear monger nowadays. However, what we do know is that our product is beautiful, and our mission is to create a warm, approachable, and inviting home. We adore our customers, and we truly believe if we continue to be a community and help each other, we will all get through this.”
“The last few weeks have been very different, but not a disaster for a fledgling, digitally native business like ours. Above all, it’s been a complete reshuffling and reimagining of customer behavior and how we reach people and how they interact with us. After a few years of doing this, we were finally beginning to understand our customers—who they are, how they find us, and what resonates with them. A big piece of our outreach was popups and parties and a physical connection, even if we sell predominantly online. Maybe our shirt is your most comfortable work-from-home loungewear and that one item you keep wearing every day, and maybe [you’re] not washing quite as often as you should because there’s no one around to judge you for that. Or maybe our shirt lets you show some personality in a Zoom meeting, where you might be dressed up in a Tombolo from the waist up—with nothing on at all from the waist down. And we’ve also found that there’s a kind of [subtler] emotional-use case at play for our shirts. Talking to customers, it seems like a lot of people find that they’re buying a shirt out of that budget they’ve set aside for trips and restaurants and special indulgences that transport them—that ‘me’ budget—and just putting on one of our shirts seems to scratch that itch and give people a small dose of escapism. To that end, a lot of the rules and norms are in flux, and the main thing is just being responsive to that, but not overreacting to the point where you lose your authenticity or veer into bald opportunism. People see through that. Instead, we want to keep making our clothing better and keep showing it to customers in a way that amuses them. That’s why we’ve been rolling out our summer 2020 items slowly, so that each of our crazy creations gets its moment in the spotlight. We decided to respond to coronavirus in the form of a collaboration shirt with Save the Children, one of our favorite charitable organizations. For the month of May, 100 percent of sales from our collaboration shirt will go to Save the Children’s COVID relief fund. And then from June onward, 15 percent will continue to go to that cause. We’re hoping this model can maximize the total dollar figure we can donate: If the shirt can sustainably live on in our core collection, we can hopefully continue to raise money for a great cause for the rest of the year and maybe beyond. And as we think beyond the next few months, unfortunately, we think coronavirus and a bleaker economic outlook will push a lot of environmental initiatives and charitable activity to the back burner as increasingly limited dollars and attention go toward urgent coronavirus relief efforts. So against this backdrop, we’re trying to maintain and even heighten our focus on environmental initiatives, whether it’s constantly improving the eco-profile of our fabrics, or ensuring there’s as little waste as possible. We’ve just joined 1% for the Planet, which will make us put our money where our mouth is, committing us to donating 1 percent of revenue to environmental initiatives on top of and beyond anything we do for COVID relief. We’re very cognizant of the inescapable fact that the most sustainable thing any clothing brand can do is probably just not exist in the first place. So we try to come at these sustainability efforts from a place of humility, figuring out how we can reduce our negative impact even if we’ll never achieve perfection.”
“From the middle of March until the middle of April, it was kind of dismal. When we shut down, we were all in a state of fear. No one was shopping—I think six weeks into it, it’s starting to shift a little bit. People are wanting to give gifts, wanting to feel that connection and give love toward others. For me, as a human, it’s a responsibility to stay in the now and the present, and everything has been changing so quickly. We’re very lucky in that we can turn on a dime because we are a small company and don’t require huge lead times—and I am very grateful for that. We launched Remind Yourself Bracelets, where a portion of the proceeds will be donated to Direct Relief. As a brand, we can address what is happening when it is happening. Our bracelets are going to those on the direct lines and those valiantly helping our city and country. While we are doing everything by the skin of our teeth, we were able to pivot quickly, and by releasing the Tie One On bracelets with phrases like ‘this too shall pass’ or ‘faith not fear’ in a timely manner. Our creativity came out in different ways, not always in product. As a team, we are constantly spending this time collaborating and posing the questions: What do we want to be? What is our posture? What will make people smile? We create jewelry that makes people smile, and if we can distract them even for a moment, we are happy. I actually started this business as my last business was tanking and I didn’t know what to do, so there’s always a silver lining. There is some good that will come out.”
“It has been an incredibly uncertain and stressful time. Our livelihood as a company has been primarily wholesale driven, and our biggest source of income, being our retail partners, have closed distribution centers, leaving us with massive amounts of inventory in our warehouse—goods that we have already laid money down for. We have had time to reassess all future orders on hand, decide whether or not to produce them, and re-strategize cash flow through the end of 2020. I am someone who always sees the glass half-full, and while mourning the undeniably devastating and catastrophic effects that COVID has had on all of us, I am also able to see some good that can come out of it. First and foremost, the notion that we have to change—there is no other option. We as a society, as an industry, and as a business, have to change how we do things, and I am grateful for this incredibly opening experience which has given me not only time to reflect on how we must change, but has also given me time to strategize on how we will change. We must become more environmentally friendly—the days of shipping on plastic hangers must end. There are other options available, and we are working diligently to get our retail partners onboard so that we are shipping only on recycled cardboard hangers going forward. We need to take time to give back. Last week we launched the Persephone Project, a multi-pronged wellness initiative focusing on mental health, wellness, and philanthropy. We are donating 15 percent net proceeds from carolineconstas.com to City Harvest, helping to feed hungry New Yorkers. The goal of the Persephone Project is to bring these resources closer to people who otherwise wouldn’t have access. These are the practices I have decided must become our immediate focus. I have wanted to get involved in something deeper for some time now, something that can really make a difference in a field that needs it. I would like to grow, not only as a brand, but also as a platform that inspires and engages our customer and audience to think outside the box, to talk and share and be real about the difficulties we all face, instead of showing our lives only through rose-colored lenses. I would like to come out of this as a brand that inspires our customers to give back to our community and support the notion that we must take care of our minds and souls first and foremost in order to be our best and most productive selves.”
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