Finding Opportunity in Disaster – How 12 Brands Managed to Survive and Thrive in the Face of the COVID-19 Crisis

Finding business opportunities through COVID

"Crisis moments create opportunity. Problems and crises ignite our greatest creativity and thought leadership as it forces us to focus on things outside the norm.” - Sam Cawthorn

That the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has had a widespread impact on the global economy is nothing short of an understatement.

From the smallest of startups to the most successful of international enterprises, businesses at all levels and across just about every imaginable industry have been forced to change and adapt to a crisis that few -if any- ever saw coming.

According to Statista, the Global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was estimated to plummet by some $3.5 trillion U.S. dollars throughout 2020, while in the United States alone, the virus has been blamed for soaring unemployment rates, with hospitality and leisure (25%), mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction (15.6%) and transportation and utilities (13.8%) being hit the hardest.

Sure, such figures are undoubtedly pretty bleak, but they only tell half of the story. The truth is, that for every doom-laden tale of a business being brought to its knees by the coronavirus, there's another inspiring story of innovative entrepreneurs figuring out new ways to manage change, adapt to the so-called "new normal" and continue to thrive in the face of crisis.

It's those stories that we're about to share with you today.

Over the past few weeks, we've been speaking to the forward-thinking founders of several businesses across a wide variety of industries from health, wellness, and beauty to marketing, clothing manufacturing, and more.

At first glance, there may not seem to be much that unites these vastly divergent brands, but as you read through their stories, it soon becomes apparent that they have a few things in common:

A talent for business change management, an ability to adapt, and above all, a customer-first mindset.

Oliver Logan Denim - Fashionably Flexible Supply Chains

Since March, barely a day has gone by when we've been able to turn on the news without hearing stories of the devastating blow that COVID-19 has dealt to the retail industry.

Few felt this blow more than Oliver Timsit and his brand, Oliver Logan Denim.

"From March through June most of our retail clients were closed and the ones that remained open had little to no need for denim!" he told My Brand Journey. "Then in April, there was a significant amount of traffic to our site and we saw high double digit growth which was incredible, but then we ran out of stock in our best-selling items. I was in a position with depleted inventory, a broken supply chain, and faltering demand for denim. It was a scary place to be."

Fortunately for Oliver , it wasn't so scary that he couldn't navigate his way out of it. Over the past few months, he and his team have learned important lessons about managing change in a crisis with a long-term outlook ahead.

"Decentralizing all of our processes has been instrumental in allowing us to continue to move forward during a pandemic. We have also been moving towards a more flexible and localized supply chain that should help us cut back in times of low demand and scale up when the opportunities present themselves."

Oliver's Top Tip for Surviving a Crisis:

Nurture Relationships and Finances

"Although we are still navigating the crisis, my advice to others would be to first to nurture your relationships (banking, supply chain, customers, etc.), and second would be to control your debt, and manage your cash positions...there is that old adage of “save for a rainy day”, I think it’s time that changed to “save for a pandemic.”

Peaches Pilates - Streaming to Success

Few bricks-and-mortar businesses were hit quite so suddenly as those in the health and wellness industry. While some retail outlets could keep their doors open providing they stocked certain essentials and even those in the food game could switch to take out and delivery, gyms, and fitness studios were forced into a full-scale shutdown as soon as lockdown measures were put in place.

Still, as founder Tori Clapham and Bec Chidiac went on to prove, an empty studio didn't necessarily mean the end of the line.

Tori and Bec run Peaches Pilates in New South Wales, Australia, with three studios based in Bondi, Cronulla, and Maroubra. Although the duo had a basic online program in place pre-lockdown, it was these three studios that were the lifeforce of their industry.

In fact, studios were such a big part of the Peaches Pilates' business plan that Tori and Bec had recently put down a deposit on a new flagship studio, with plans to open an additional two in the future.

Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 put paid to those plans and forced the duo to rethink their strategy. This led to them focussing their efforts on their online pilates program, a move that very quickly paid off.

"In the first 3 weeks of the lockdown we made more revenue from our pre-recorded online program than the previous 10 MONTHS," they told us recently. "In addition to this we were suddenly live streaming 6 classes a day - something we had never done before - and this allowed us to keep around 70% of our studio members on board and also attracted a whole new range of clients from Tasmania, WA and all over the world."

The success of their streaming pilates classes wasn't the only opportunity that Peaches pilates managed to find among the chaos of the coronavirus crisis. When lockdown measures began to ease in New South Wales, the pair found that their focus on all things digital had actually paid dividends for their brick-and-mortar venues.

"We managed to capitalize on the immediate opportunity of increased demand for online workouts, but honestly the biggest opportunity for us has been an increased audience. Our Instagram followers increased by around 30% over the course of the pandemic and moving our focus to the live classes meant we could connect with women all over the world who were stuck at home, often lonely, looking for ways to stay fit, healthy and connected.”

"As things are opening up this has left us with a much bigger audience to tap into for our new and existing products. When the studio doors opened we weren't sure what demand would be like but July was the biggest month we have ever had in our Bondi and Cronulla studios and the 3rd biggest in Maroubra's history. Plus our online platform is growing rapidly.

There are obvious opportunities in the digital world through this pandemic; eCommerce is suddenly the golden child again and the digital fitness market has exploded. This does mean there's a lot more competition though so we're having to work really hard to stay relevant and to get noticed."

Tori & Bec's Top Tips for Surviving a Crisis:

  1. Be Prepared

"It's always a great idea to have some sort of crisis management plan documented," said Bec and Tori. "We had this for plannable things like injuries in the studios but nobody could have predicted this pandemic. The best possible way to be prepared for an unknown crisis is to ensure you're building something sustainable and long term with a great team around you. Because we have such a great team of dedicated people we were able to jump on new opportunities and get our instructors live streaming from their living rooms within 24 hours of our studio closures."

  1. Make Your Customers Your Priority

"On top of this customer service prevails above all - if you treat your customers right whether there's a pandemic or not they will look after you in return.

"Peaches is based on community more than anything and that has kept us alive through this whole thing. We literally had clients rejoin our studios so they could support us during the pandemic - even though they were closed. They wanted to make sure we were still there when the world opened up again."

  1. Manage Your Money and Save for Emergencies

"Having some emergency cash in the bank is probably a good idea too, small businesses are often in debt up to their eyeballs and fighting cash flow every day."

Sheets & Giggles - Doing What Matters Most

For Colin McIntosh, when faced with a crisis, his sustainable bedding brand Sheets and Giggles proved once again that helping others is a sure-fire way to help your own brand stay firm throughout a pandemic.

Despite a two-month production stoppage and significant time spent revamping their supply chains, the company remained committed to putting the needs of others at the forefront of their operation.

"Amazon recognized Sheets & Giggles as 1 of 6 small businesses helping during the COVID-19 pandemic, and we've donated over $40,000 to emergency relief locally here in Colorado," says Colin. "We think this has been both uniting for the team as it's given us something to focus on besides the business, and has been extremely well-received by our community."

Colin's Top Tip for Surviving a Crisis

Save For a Rainy Day

"Always save for a rainy day, have extra inventory on hand, and have multiple lines of financing readily available."

Different Drop - Delivering a Whole New Way of Meeting Customer Demands

As an online wine delivery service, Different Drop were one of the few brands to see an immediate positive impact from COVID-19, with more and more customers turning to them to help them enjoy a quiet night in rather than heading out to a restaurant.

Yet as welcomed as the increase in sales might have been, for owners Brett Ketelby and Tom Hollings, it wasn't without its own fair share of headaches.

"Our normal delivery partner Australia Post, unfortunately, was not at all ready to handle the big delivery surge that first hit in March this year. Deliveries became very slow, parcels went missing, customers were getting angry and it was an incredibly frustrating experience all round. We felt like we were going to miss the opportunity of a lifetime because we couldn't get wine delivered to customers just around the corner to us!"

From this frustration grew an opportunity for Different Drop to bring their delivery operation in-house, a move that, pre-lockdown, they admit would have "freaked them out."

"We decided very quickly to launch our own delivery fleet so at the very least we could provide a great service to our Sydney customers during the lockdown period," said Brett and Tom.

"It took about a week of hard grind to get the technology and the drivers ready but we launched our own delivery service and the response has been better than we could have imagined. Customers are stoked and loving the quality of the new service and added benefit has been creating jobs for people out of work or underemployed in the hospitality industry right now.

"In terms of impact and opportunities from COVID, we would say that the main one has been vertically integrating into doing our own deliveries. I never thought we would do that because the idea of running our own delivery operation at scale just freaked me out. COVID has made us completely re-evaluate that because the initial problems we experienced with Australia Post made us reflect on how ridiculously over-reliant on them we are and how fragile that business model is.

It also made us realize that no matter how hard we work to make the Different Drop experience incredible, it's never going to be a real purple cow product unless we can control the final customer experience and make that incredible as well. Now we're looking at turning delivery into a competitive advantage and it's super exciting."

Brett & Tom’s Top Tip for Surviving a Crisis:

Get through it together

"Call your friends with businesses and talk to them. It's a super stressful and isolating period and it's good to share war stories and stay in touch. "

Banter Group - Growth Through Communication

COVID-19 really has left no industry unscathed, with a recent Marketing Week Survey indicating that some 66% of agencies saw a significant reduction in revenues since revenues began.

Yet for Valentina Borbone, seeing the crisis as an opportunity to help other businesses actually helped her Agency Banter Group become one of the 16% who actually increased their revenues over the same time period.

As other businesses scrambled to adapt, one of their biggest priorities was to communicate with customers. That meant websites needed changing, social media needed updated, and a business' online presence became even more important than usual.

“I didn’t see this as an opportunity but a responsibility to help businesses work out what to do next and do it quickly,” she tells us, highlighting a theme that has been prevalent among all the businesses we spoke to for this piece:

The key to success is in helping others.

In fact, it was a strategy that proved so successful for Valentina that her agency began helping scores of new clients, enough to warrant bringing on two new members of staff and growing her business at a time when many others were downsizing theirs.

Valentina's Top Tip for Surviving a Crisis:

Devote Time to Digital

"Don't pull back from your presence in a crisis or pandemic, double down on it. Spend your time doing all the things you never have time to - review your content, come up with new ideas, update your website and if you sell products, get your online commerce sorted out ASAP. The grants exist to help this type of action happen.”

DetrePel - A Solution for Success

DetraPel originally specialized in non-toxic fabric protectors, but the global pandemic presented them with an unmissable opportunity to focus their attention elsewhere.

"As a chemical manufacturer, the pivot to producing disinfectants and sanitizers made the most sense," says founder David Zamarin. "We recognized the widespread shortages early on and realized we had the ability to bring forth these critical products. We focused on securing a reliable supply chain early on.

"Being able to source raw material components at a time where so many supply chain disruptions were occurring proved to be a challenge. Once all of the components were in place, keeping up with demand was the next hurdle. This required a substantial investment in new machinery to ramp up production. Fortunately, as our company produces non-toxic Fabric Protectors, we were able to use existing packaging and equipment solutions, but also needed to expand in record time by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on new equipment to match demand."

David's Top Tip for Surviving a Crisis:

Make a Pivot

"A pivot of any kind can build much stronger customer relationships. In the long run, it can bring back customers to your existing products or services, as they will remember your support during these unprecedented times. A pivot doesn’t have to be major at all, it just has to be meaningful. Small businesses have a big advantage over larger companies to make a fast pivot thanks to their lack of bureaucracy."

uPaged - Dedicated to Diversifying

Zara Lord's online nursing platform, uPaged, helps match registered nurses looking for extra work with the hospitals that need them. So, in the wake of a global health crisis, you'd expect Zara and her team to be busier than ever, wouldn't you?

They were, but according to Zara, not in the way you might imagine.

"Contrary to public belief, hospitals were quieter than ever in preparation for the influx of COVID patients. The influx [in demand from hospitals] never came and neither did the shift vacancies."

Undeterred, uPaged focused on broadening their scope to get nurses where they were needed the most.

"Instead, we diversified uPaged's technology to connect nurses to immunisation clinics, GP respiratory clinics, COVID outbreak response teams and telehealth roles on Medibank's COVID hotline, for which we placed 284 vetted nurses in just 4 days."

"All in all, despite the financial cost that this diversification came at, it was the most fantastic learning, it propelled our diversification and was really good relationship building. Coronavirus really got us on the map."

Zara's Top Tip for Surviving a Crisis:

Remain Vigilant

"You've got to have your eyes open for what's next and be on the forefront of the response to that."

LUXit - Working ‘On’ The Business Instead of ‘In’ It

The nationwide shutdown of health and beauty services could have been devastating for Fabiola Gomez and her LUXit platform which connects customers with mobile beauty and wellness professionals. Instead, Fabiola saw it as a welcome opportunity to do the one thing that so many businesses owners simply never have time to do:

Working on business growth.

She tells us:

"Like so many businesses, COVID-19 has challenged us to get creative in the way we deliver our services, and importantly it’s given us the opportunity to reflect on and refine our processes - as a business owner, you need to find the silver lining.

"For us, this represented a chance to divert our attention and resources to other areas of the business and truly work 'on' the business rather than 'in' the business - when you’re not focused on the day-to-day operations, the bigger picture for your business comes back into focus."

Fabiola's Top Tip for Surviving a Crisis:

Be Agile

"There is a Confucius quote I love that says, 'As the water shapes itself to the vessel that contains it, so a wise man adapts himself to circumstances.' You must be agile, and you must be willing to make the needs of your client a top priority - this lies at the heart of LUXit’s values, to create a personal, professional and premium experience every time."

Peaceful Fruits - Sowing the Seeds for a Sustainable Startup

Peaceful Fruits are a sustainable fruit snack company founded by Evan Delahanty in Ohio. Like many food-based brands, the pandemic Evan and his team with a mixed bag of challenges and opportunities.

Originally, Evan used his startup to provide employment opportunities to people with disabilities, but due to their increased vulnerabilities, this program had to be paused and whole new staffing measures had to be put in place. Meanwhile, declining in-store sales and a reluctance from other stores to take on new products hit this young business hard.

Still, all was not lost, and Peaceful Fruits found a way to tap into a growing market during COVID-19.

"We did launch a new flavor during this time, both to keep ourselves sharp and try to lean into increased interest in health supplements. Our elderberry fruit snacks give you more elderberry (shown to decrease the duration of flu-like symptoms) and in a more natural way than almost any other product on the market."

Evan's Top Tip For Surviving a Crisis:

Create a Winning Combination

"To get through this kind of disruption, you need some combination of two things on your side: cash and a loyal, dedicated team. If you have enough of one, you can scrape by with less of the other, but with both, you can both survive this and - possibly - flourish on the far side."

Eat My Dust Scooters - A New Alternative

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), global road activity was down 50% by the end of March 2020 when compared to figures from the same time period in 2019. With the Australian Road Research Board (ARRB) reporting that the country's lockdown measures reduced congestion in some high-traffic areas by as much as 88% and 95%, this wide-scale drop-off in traffic numbers is no doubt great news for the planet.

However, it might not have been such great news for Sydney native James Coombes and his electric scooter firm, Eat My Dust Scooters.

The majority of the country's workforce ditching their regular commute due to the lockdown could have spelled the end for lesser companies, but fortunately for James, all it took was a little ingenuity and hard work to stay afloat.

According to a recent whitepaper from WSP, public transport in Australia would be forced to operate at between 30% and 50% total capacity while people's attitudes in general towards public transport will have been altered dramatically by COVID-19, with many commuters fearing that busses and trains would be a prime place to contract the virus.

It was this concern that presented James with his opportunity to present themselves as a viable alternative to public transport.

"We have run a campaign around avoiding public transport to capitalise on the fear of contracting the virus on busses and trains," he told us.

This, combined with a back-to-basics approach in which James single-handedly took on all of the work that he previously paid contractors to do, helped Eat My Dust Scooters to keep on rolling at a time when many others in the transport industry were hitting the breaks.

James’ Top Tip for Surviving a Crisis

Seize Opportunities

"The global economic contraction has presented an incredible buying opportunity, funds have never been cheaper and private equity firms are looking for who will come out of this in the strongest position. What an amazing time to be a business owner!"

Swoveralls - Making Change Management Look Good

For Kyle Bergman, creator of apparel brand Swoveralls, the coronavirus proved that the old saying about not putting all your eggs in one basket can seriously pay off.

"Having both domestic and international manufacturers has helped us mitigate risk," says Kyle. "When [our manufacturers in] China was shut down, our LA partners were still making Swoveralls. As COVID spread across the globe and our domestic partners were impacted, China was just starting back up again. It was crazy to watch, and we're very lucky we had two amazing partners in place already."

Kyle's Top Tip for Surviving a Crisis:

People Make the Difference 

"Two main factors that I think have helped us through this crisis are having a very small team, and having a strong customer and founder community. We were able to keep the Swoveralls lights on because we don't have a huge staff with salaries, benefits, etc. and we've seen some of our bigger brand friends have to make very difficult decisions"

The Good Gift Company - Thriving in a Virtual Marketplace

Finally, we met another online retailer in The Good Gift Company, who like many others was hit by delays and complications in domestic and international shipping, though that wasn't enough to keep founder Holly Goodman out for very long.

"The biggest impact to the business has been on overseas shipping. The process has been severely delayed and I’m still waiting on stock so that has been really hard," she says. "We had a virtual Mother's Day Market which was a big success, but there was a lot of shipping complications because these companies didn’t have the staff and they were swamped with the demand for couriers and delivery."

Undeterred, Holly has continued to focus on her brand by using the time to connect with customers and meeting the demand for the products those customers really want the most during lockdown.

Holly's Top Tip for Surviving a Crisis:

Get Online

"All in all my biggest pieces of advice for managing change and crisis is 1st you must have an ECommerce store! I think it’s really important to have a website and online store. In case you do need to shut down, people can still purchase online."

Managing Change in Times of Crisis - 3 Key Take-Aways

key takeaways for managing covid

The business owners we’ve spoken to may have come from a wide variety of different industries. They may have faced widely divergent challenges and come up with widely divergent solutions to those challenges, but the more we dive into their stories, the more three clear themes emerge about what it takes to successfully manage change in times of crisis.

These include:

Focus on Helping Others

Whether it’s empowering other businesses to communicate essential COVID-related messages to their clients, or connecting B2C customers get the products and services they need, asking “who needs our help and how can we help them?” seems to have been a game-changer for many of the brands that have turned the coronavirus crisis into an opportunity for success.

Save Cash

Bec and Tori of Peaches Pilates found that one of the best decisions they made was to ensure their brand owed no debt and only ever spent what they earned, allowing them to be in a much better financial position when the crisis hit. Meanwhile, the likes of Peaceful Fruits' Evan Delahanty, Oliver Logan Denim's Oliver Timit and others have all recommended saving for a rainy day as their top tip for weathering future storms.

Put People First

Along with cash flow, so many of the founders we spoke to told us that their teams were vital to their success in navigating the uncharted waters of COVID-19. These uncertain times may have left many people isolated, but as Evan Delahanty would tell you, working together with a loyal, dedicated team can make all the difference in ensuring your brand not only survives, but quite possibly thrives on the other side of it all.

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