The one thing you can count on in business is change. Markets shift, demand falls, and then a global pandemic arrives, forcing businesses of every kind into unchartered territory. For nimble founders, the difference-maker during uncertain times is the ability to continuously adapt—something every founder can start laying the groundwork for long before they need it.
Change as an opportunity for growth
In 2008, clean beauty brand 100% Pure was selling 90 percent of its products on QVC and another large retailer. Then the Great Recession hit. “They both dropped us at the same time,” says founder Susie Wang. But like any agile entrepreneur, Wang took the changing market and turned it into an opportunity; in this case, to decrease reliance on third-party retailers. “We made the decision to go direct-to-consumer, because then, even if you lose a small percentage of individual customers, it’s not going to be enough to bankrupt your whole company in a downturn.” Today, 90 percent of 100% Pure sales are direct-to-consumer, something that has helped the brand continue to weather the effects of COVID, as well.
We disconnected from feeling in business. And we are seeing the repercussions of that now.
Finding stability within your team
Rather than panic, Mara Hoffman is using the pandemic as an opportunity to connect on a human level with her employees. “In this unknown, now is the time to use feeling as a leadership skill as opposed to just muscling, you know? … You have to represent some state of calm; I can’t be losing my mind to a team of people who are still showing up and having their own personal fears about their livelihoods.”
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Though she recognizes the importance of putting on a brave face for her employees, Hoffman knows that honesty is critical, and transparency, at the end of the day, is good for business; it opens lines of communication and ultimately enables a struggling team to be more able to pivot. “Every person on my team has been affected by this, we have had to furlough employees, cut salaries. This is a really emotional and heartbreaking time—there’s no pretending that it isn’t,” she explains. “People are so used to keeping business in one bucket and the emotionality of things in another bucket. But that is part of the problem: we disconnected from feeling in business. And we are seeing the repercussions of that now.”
Adapting to changing consumer demand
How do you win over a customer base that’s cutting down on expenses? 100% Pure’s Susie Wang argues that you won’t have to if you are already providing an essential product. “I think of our products as essential as food,” she admits. “I don’t know a single person who wouldn’t still wash their face or condition their hair in a recession. We survived because we made high-quality products that people need day-to-day at a fair price.”
And while you can’t control a recession or a global health crisis, there are often crafty ways to adapt. After the arrival of COVID last year, Haus co-founder Helena Price Hambrecht quickly began offering same-day delivery of her low-alcohol aperitif in some cities, along with offering virtual events for the brand’s community, and supporting small businesses through partnerships.
We survived because we made high-quality products that people need day-to-day at a fair price.
Tia, a women’s healthcare platform, also had to shut down in-person operations last year. Just five days after closing their doors, Tia had built a 100 percent virtual care model, which included usual services like one-on-one acupuncture, as well as COVID-19 screenings. “While I continue to believe that women’s health is omnichannel—obviously not everything can be done on the Internet—how women are building relationships with Tia’s providers and between other women in the Tia community virtually has wowed me,” Witte says.
Taking it day by day
Lauren Singer, founder of Package Free, knows what it’s like to face a mountain of problems one solution at a time. To accommodate COVID-19 challenges, Singer’s team had to close both of Package Free’s retail locations, which created difficult conversations about the future of her company. “As a CEO, it’s really hard and scary to think about the future sometimes; we have a team of 50 and I’m responsible for the livelihoods of that team,” she says. “We have luckily not had to lay anyone off, so I’m just making sure that I’m doing everything I can to keep the business running strong, continuing to grow, and making sure that we are prioritizing our team.”
Throughout 2020, Singer focused on growing her e-commerce store and was able to continue employing warehouse workers while shifting some store employees over to customer experience. The rest of the team is working from home, something Singer describes as a “new and challenging experience.” But overall, Singer says that navigating 2020 was rewarding. “It’s a really interesting thing to have to lead a team with certainty at a time that is so uncertain.”