The coronavirus is devastating many small businesses, keeping people off the streets, customers out of shops, and cash out of registers. But some are completely transforming themselves to thrive amid the chaos.
Scrappy firms are now producing entirely new products, pivoting to support the medical industry, and even running themselves entirely online. Though most small businesses say they won’t survive beyond three months in the current conditions, for some, a way forward could be reinvention.
Flying Elephant Productions, a builder of event stages and props in Ireland, should be all but dead by now. In a span of 48 hours in mid-March, its customers canceled 60 jobs, and lockdowns left it with nothing to do for the foreseeable future. But instead of closing, the company looked for new opportunities, and its woodworking skills gave it an opening.
When an employee’s friend sought a desk to use while working from home, Flying Elephant’s team decided to build it. Looking around at the unused lumber, it only made sense. When they delivered the finished product, the friend liked it. So they decided to build more, anticipating a healthy demand with so many people confined to their houses and apartments. One month later, Flying Elephant has sold more than 2,000 desks, with a steady stream of orders still coming in.
“A lot of people in Ireland have given up on similar businesses,” Michael Keelan, Flying Elephant’s co-owner, told BuzzFeed News. With its flagship business on hold, its desk business is thriving, and the company is moving on to yet another: It’s building sanitizer stations it expects will be in demand as society opens up. The new business lines are saving the company. “We'll adapt and we'll come back stronger than ever," Keelan said.
Framebridge, a Washington, DC–based custom framing company, is adapting too. It had several store openings planned for this spring, but when COVID-19 hit, the company put that expansion on hold and began shutting down its operations.
Then one Framebridge employee saw an article about how people were using 3D printers to make face shields for doctors who needed personal protective equipment, but not producing them fast enough. The company’s leadership realized their acrylic and cutting tools could be repurposed to make face shields, and got to work on a prototype.
“Within a week of thinking of doing this, we were producing face shields,” Framebridge CEO Susan Tynan told BuzzFeed News. After initially selling the shields to individuals, the company took an order from the state of Kentucky for 30,000 units. Though it sells the equipment at cost — $4.50 per unit — Framebridge is keeping its workers employed through this transformation. “Number one, it’s the right thing to do,” Tynan said. “Number two, it gets our folks back to work.”
For Framebridge, now six years old, this crisis and the rapid adjustments have helped it rebuild the entrepreneurial muscle that typically atrophies as companies get older and bigger. “There's something about making sure you stay wired in an entrepreneurial way,” Tynan said. “We just all galvanized around our purpose here.”
On UberEats, another new trend is emerging: Local restaurants are now offering “essentials,” like toilet paper, in addition to food. These side businesses have attracted some buzz online, made possible by restaurants’ connections to wholesale suppliers.
“People were having trouble getting milk, toilet paper, and all that, and we have plenty of it,” Casey Regent, manager of Zalat Pizza in Denton, Texas, which is selling toilet paper through UberEats, told BuzzFeed News. “We can talk amongst ourselves and work out something to do quickly versus have 50 meetings before we can decide to do anything.”
Some businesses have completely transformed the way they reach customers, such as La Piccolina Baby Boutique in Lincoln, California, which has morphed from a local shop to a home shopping network for baby clothes run on Facebook Live.
After buying La Piccolina in September 2019, Miranda Pinto shut its doors last month following California’s stay-at-home order. Upon doing so, she feared for her business’s life. “I remember for a moment that day, as we're in the store, unplugging everything, really shutting everything down and thinking, ‘I'm gonna lose my business,” she told BuzzFeed News. “I had dumped everything into buying it so there was no backup plan, and it was just that moment of — ‘Oh my gosh, what did I do?’”
Pinto had seen other boutiques run sales on Facebook Live, but these were for full-size people and shop owners modeled the clothes. “I obviously can't put on baby clothes, right?” she said. Models or no, Pinto decided to give it a shot, and began going live through her company’s Facebook page. “It was like, let's just do it,” she said. “I needed to pay rent.”
La Piccolina tripled its daily average sales goal on the first broadcast and has done even better since. “We're noticing way more online orders following them as well,” she said.
For the time being, acting quickly and getting into new business lines appears critical for companies across the world. “For the vast majority of our members, their businesses are in forced transformation,” Beri Meric, CEO of professional networking and development company IVY, told BuzzFeed News. “Most if not all are going through some kind of transformation.” IVY itself has transformed from a largely in-person service to one that operates almost exclusively online.
While there is no formula to navigate the moment, the entrepreneurs BuzzFeed News spoke were adamant that getting creative and not holding on to what kept them going in pre-COVID-19 times were enough to save their businesses. “We've seen way more [support] than we would have ever expected,” Pinto said. “It's been tremendous.”