Trying times that present challenges to the entrepreneurial community allow business owners to seize the opportunity and pivot with their businesses. Fashion houses are focusing on production for sewing face masks and gowns. Perfume and brewing distilleries have started making hand sanitizer. Companies that specialize in live events and classes are taking their programs virtual.
Small businesses are working to pivot their business models in the midst of COVID-19— and discovering that customers love these new offerings.
1. Pivot from hospitality to telehealth.
“When my business partner (Brian Landry) and I realized we would have to close our eight food and beverage outlets in Nashville and New Orleans, we recognized that to-go dining wasn’t a plausible model to keep our valued employees working and paid.
In a fortuitous twist of fate, I learned from my brother, Ralph Whalen, that the company he works for would be hiring 250 people in the next week to help convert upcoming in-person doctor visits to telehealth appointments. Ralph was charged with creating a virtual call center for hospitals. It assists in enrolling their patients into their telehealth systems to help lessen the burden on the hospitals.
On Wednesday, March 18, 2020, Brian and I started a new company: QED Resources. We were able to hire 107 of our QED Hospitality employees in new jobs as TeleHealth customer service agents. Within five days, roughly half of QED’s full-time employees were trained and on-the-job and on payroll in their new positions.
Currently, QED Resources is servicing hundreds of patients per day working from home. Almost all of our hospitality employees are earning wages at least equal to their previous positions; all while helping multiple healthcare organizations safely manage their patient populations.” — Emery Whalen, Co-Owner, QED Hospitality + QED Resources
2. Launching a network for those affected by layoffs.
“I’m the founder and CEO of a company called Drafted in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We are a small startup that helps large companies hire through their company network. When the downturn hit, it became clear that a lot of our customers needed the opposite help — to find a good home for their departing colleagues. In two weeks, we changed our direction to build the Layoff Network just for this. We built this in 10 days and have over 2,000 users on the app. Fortune 500 companies have also started using the app to recruit top talent that is just hitting the market.
Like everyone else, our business has taken a hard hit, but this is the beginning of something bigger, and something better. For the time being, we’ve made the Layoff Network free for everyone to use during the crisis. It’s challenging to focus our entire company on non-revenue generating projects, but we believe it’s the right thing to do in the short term. We hope that people will remember what we do now when the market takes a turn for the better.” — Vinayak Ranade, Founder, Drafted + Layoff Network
3. Tutoring company pivots to free “virtual school day.”
“Online education is being thrust into the limelight at the moment. Parents are being asked to take over the syllabus and teach or keep their kids occupied for eight hours a day. In less than five days, Varsity Tutors decided to launch a new initiative called Virtual School Day. It’s the only place where students can access live instruction from experts during the day – completely free.
The Virtual School Day provides each student with over 30 hours a week of free, high quality, live, online instruction. An expert tutor leads each class with experience in the course topic, as well as familiarity with virtual instruction. Classes refresh weekly, with age-appropriate options for all K-12 grades.
To equip parents with topics that are both educational and enjoyable for their learner, we have curated a diverse course catalogue in Virtual School Day for students of all ages. There are also adaptive assessment tools to help parents build grade appropriate school day plan for their students and practice questions and problems with step-by-step solutions. This content is designed to aid parents during this unprecedented time.” — Brian Galvin, Chief Academic Officer, Varsity Tutors + Virtual School Day
4. Creating an online writing service.
“I own a full-service editorial business. When I realized what COVID-19 would mean, I immediately added a new service, online critique writing sessions and wrote a blog post to promote it titled Writing in the Time of Coronavirus. I had a similar offering, but it didn’t have an online component.
People have time to write, but don’t know how or can’t keep going, so online sessions have been a great addition.” — Lori Stone Handelman, PhD, Clear Voice Editors
5. Pivot from a relational sales approach to a transactional sales approach.
“I am the CEO of Verb, a B2B SaaS startup based in Austin, Texas. We offer a blended leadership development solution. For about six months leading up to March, we were building out a robust product offering of in-person workshops as a premium offering. This included an overhaul of the company strategy and a brand and messaging refresh. We had current clients already rolling it out, and were using it to sell to prospects that were very interested.
As you can imagine, once COVID-19 became a serious reality all of those plans were completely scrapped. We knew we had to come up with something that people needed now, and to do it quick. So, we developed our COVID-19 Leadership Response Pack. We created 20 hours of content over two weeks that applies specifically to challenges leaders are facing right now.
We have pivoted from a high-touch, highly relational sales approach to a transactional sales approach. This includes a fast-launch rollout to new clients (one week turnaround) and a highly discounted price.
This required a great rallying from all teams — content, engineering, marketing, and sales. We did it all within our first two weeks of working remotely. Already, this pivot is receiving great interest from prospects who are struggling to manage and lead during this difficult time.” — Suz Sosa, CEO, Verb
6. Transitioning our Bali factory from shirt production to make non-medical masks.
“I’m the founder and owner of Kenny Flowers, a clothing and lifestyle eCommerce brand. We are known best for our Hawaiian-inspired shirts, matching couples swimwear, and attitude that embraces the feeling of vacation, every day (regardless of circumstances).
I’m excited to share that we’ve transitioned our Bali factory away from shirt production to make non-medical lifestyle masks with the yet-to-be-used fabric from our spring/summer production. We announced the #KFMaskMission and sold out the limited first run right away (buy one, donate one, rest of proceeds get donated to medical equipment for the frontline).
We’re hard at work making thousands more for a bigger run. This has potential to appeal to a way greater audience than our own. All Americans are looking for something to brighten their day and protect themselves. We have the chance to donate thousands of masks and raise tens of thousands of dollars for nonprofit organization Direct Relief which provides medical supplies to the frontline.” — Kenny Haisfield, Founder and Owner, Kenny Flowers
7. Pivot into content marketing.
“Our business undertook a large shift in strategy at the outset of this global pandemic. We halted paid ad spend in favor of content marketing. We decided that aggressively selling high-end products during COVID-19 was a bit tone-deaf and disrespectful. Instead, we’re focusing on driving traffic to our site organically through blog posts and social media marketing. If we can provide consumers with objective, research-based information on a variety of health topics during this time, we’ll be well positioned as a trusted brand to shop with when COVID-19 is over.” — Calloway Cook, President, Illuminate Labs
8. Shifted in-person art classes to YouTube.
“Art Classes for Kids is a leading educational center providing lessons for children on fine art. Due to COVID-19, we’ve shifted our in-person business to moving our art classes to be available on YouTube. We’ve been successful in reaching a wider audience, helping bring more kids a much needed creative outlet during this time!
We’ve had an interesting transition moving the business from 100% in-person group classes and private lessons to 100% virtual classes and FaceTime private lessons. However, it’s been very successful and worthwhile for a few reasons.
1) Time of day. Because we are posting our lessons on our YouTube channel, kids can do our projects at any time of the day. This has expanded our reach significantly. It also helps parents sneak in a free hour to get some work done!
2) Reach. Before, being based in Las Vegas and only doing in person classes, we could only fit about 30 kids in a class. Now we can, and do, reach hundreds of children around the world to bring them top-quality art classes.
3) Feedback. We get so much feedback from more kids doing our classes. This is making our offering stronger and more fun for them.
We miss being in a physical classroom setting, but kids in our target market love consuming content digitally on their own time. Because of that, we’ve found this transition to be very successful. We’re excited to be bringing more cool art lessons to more children who need a creative outlet during this time. Once we’re allowed to do in-person classes again, we’re also thrilled to add this virtual setting to our offerings!” — Kim Crisostomo Bavington, Founder, Art Classes for Kids
9. Pivot from an alcoholic distillery into hand sanitizer formulation.
“I am the president of an alcoholic beverage company called Buzzballz which is the only woman-owned distillery and winery in the United States. I was encouraged to pivot by my membership in the Women Presidents’ Organization, which has joined with the medical community to help with the coronavirus pandemic.
The WHO and the CDC came out with hand sanitizer formulation and waived the necessity to have a permit to manufacture it. I knew that my company had a lot of the necessary raw materials and was vertically integrated with the correct equipment. I started a search for 100% glycerin to add to our mix. Before I knew it, I had a major amount of hand sanitizer: a 100-gallon batch.
We donated the first batch to three of the 14 hospitals in the area that were in critical need. I also sent eight cases to pathology labs including Quest. Other requests followed: the city of Carrolton, Texas, firefighters and police, airlines (Spirit, American), Texas Women’s University, supermarkets, the Air Force, and the Army. All generated via word of mouth!
Not only was I able to help front-line disease-fighting personnel, but I saved the business because the government isn’t allowed to take freebies. Our employees are happy they still have jobs and are working for a company that is greatly helping COVID-19 first responders.” — Merrilee Kick, President, Buzzballz
10. Summer camp consulting pivots into video consultations.
“I run a small consulting company for summer camps. We help them grow through marketing and retaining previous campers.
Usually, we worked with them face to face. In order to adjust to the current pandemic, we are only doing consultations through video conferencing. This has actually worked out really well for us. We can work with more camps since we aren’t wasting a lot of time traveling and it saves us money on travel costs. We plan on making this a permanent thing, even after the pandemic is over.” — Mark Evans, Founder, Summer Camp Hub
11. Pivot from on-site mapping to virtual scribing.
“As a graphic recorder, I map meetings with words and images. I do this on a large scale; using magic markers, live in real time and in person. However, all my meetings and other events have been cancelled or postponed.
I’ve been able to pivot from being on-site to offering virtual, digital scribing
for online, remote versions of these same events, meetings, and conferences.
Remote digital visual note-taking helps people tune in, not check out. I can join a Zoom webinar or meeting. Working on my iPad from my home office, I draw along with the conversation while my screen is projected into the Zoom call. Participants see what they say as the drawing takes shape, live in real time, right on the screen! Digital graphic recording makes remote communication more fun. It keeps people engaged and paying attention.” — Julia Reich, CEO (Chief Easel Officer), Stone Soup Creative
12. Pivoting from hosiery to manufacturing masks.
“I’m the founder of a direct-to-consumer tights and hosiery startup. We launched Threads Helps in an effort to address the mask shortage and ease the pressure on supply for healthcare workers. Our team is now using our factory to manufacture reusable citizen-grade masks for non-medical frontline workers and the general public. We were able to iron out logistics and begin production last week, with our first batch shipping out this weekend. The response has been extremely positive so far. There’s been a ton of demand for reusable masks so I think we’re filling a big need in the market.” — Xenia Chen, Founder, Threads
13. Designing face masks instead of festival clothing.
“We sell fashion items to attendees of music festivals and are pivoting in a couple of ways. First, we are shifting our marketing from mostly festival clothing to focus on other uses of our clothing such as lingerie or loungewear. Second, we’ve started designing face masks. For each mask that is purchased, we will be donating one non-printed face mask to non-profits supporting those on the front lines. We are receiving thousands of orders and are excited to help anyone we can!” — Brian Lim, CEO and Founder, iHeartRaves
14. Shifting from in-person career fairs to providing virtual fairs.
“We are a tech company that works with universities for in-person career fairs to create more valuable, efficient connections between employers and students (for both internships and full-time job opportunities). As a startup, we began to feel the real impact of coronavirus affecting us when universities began closing. A main part of our services is providing a platform for employers to pre-select students to meet with at in-person career fairs, so the concept of no open universities to host career fairs took away part of the foundation of our company’s revenue.
As a team, we decided to shift our focus to providing virtual fairs. We already have the platform to create the employer-students connections. All we needed was to build a component where we could then host these virtual meetings once recruiters selected the students they wanted to meet. We’re now working with universities to help them host virtual fairs or plan limited-attendee-size fairs with pre-set meetings for the fall, depending on the university preference. Even when coronavirus begins to decline, there will most likely be a cap on large gatherings. Universities can use InternX to match employers with the qualified candidates they know they want to interview, with pre-scheduled one-on-one meeting slots.” — Billie Patterson, Marketing Director, The InternX
15. Inventing headphones to help thousands sleep better.
“I am the founder and CEO of AcousticSheep. After taking patient calls in the middle of the night, I needed a way to get back to sleep. My husband suggested listening to soothing music to fall back asleep. However, headphones are bulky. Earbuds are uncomfortable. Since there are no headphones specifically designed for sleeping on the market, we invented our own: SleepPhones®.
From hand sewing and soldering the first 500 sets at their kitchen table, to winning multiple regional and national awards and selling over 1 million units, we have been committed to ensuring people all over the world live and sleep better. SleepPhones® have helped thousands of people all over the world sleep and live better. They feature a soft headband that contains thin removable speakers. These speakers play podcasts, music, audiobooks, meditation, white noise, or talk radio.
As a business, we have not really changed our strategy too much. We believe our products are perfect for a number of uses so we are trying to highlight those that are the most impactful for the current situation. Not many people are traveling now, but many are going to sleep with a lot of anxiety and stress on their mind. As many people are now working from home, our products are a nice way to find some distraction from noisy neighbors or children.” — Wei-Shin Lai, CEO, AcousticSheep
16. A mobility app pivots to launch a Shelter in Place feature.
“I am the co-founder of mobility incentive app Hytch Rewards. Until now, the Hytch app has primarily been used to reward commuter behavior that reduces traffic congestion and emissions, or that encourages carpooling in areas with limited public transit. During COVID-19, commuters need to become housebound.
Our app has pivoted by launching a new feature called Shelter in Place. This enables employers, governments, and brands to monitor and incentivize safely staying at home. As a contribution to coronavirus response efforts, Hytch has been waiving all service fees for corporate and government partners that join the Shelter in Place program.
What America needs right now is to flatten the curve. National smartphone data tells us some regions are doing better than others at social distancing. At Hytch, we believe rewards can be a highly effective tool for influencing human behavior. Our partners decide what those cash rewards will be, and even if they’re minimal, they still have a positive impact.” — Mark A. Cleveland, Co-Founder and CEO, Hytch Rewards
17. Pivot from live magic shows to virtual magic shows.
“We are a husband and wife run New York City based performing arts/magic business called The Amazing Max. With all live shows cancelled indefinitely, the idea of doing virtual magic lessons for kids was born. We blasted it out to fans and social media and in the first six hours 25 lessons had been booked. In only 3 weeks (March 15th-April 5th) we had successfully completed 179 lessons. And it doesn’t look like we’ll be stopping anytime soon!
We are helping parents have some time while the kids are enjoying learning magic directly from Max. After the lesson, the kids practice their tricks and perform shows for their family live at home or via FaceTime to family members. We have also found ways to support families dealing with pediatric cancer and help families of essential workers during this tough time with lessons donated by generous patrons.” — Christine Cox (Producer) and Max Darwin (Magician/Creator), The Amazing Max
18. Offering immunity-boosting products.
“In response to COVID-19, we’ve pivoted to offering immunity-boosting products such as Vitamin D3 instead of our typical sports nutrition supplements. We began production on additional immunity boosting products like Zinc, Quercetin, and Vitamin C. With quarantines widely in effect, demand for home fitness equipment has gone through the roof. We’ve always wanted to bring in fitness equipment like Kettlebells so we are taking this opportunity to do so.” — Stuart Kam, Founder, ATH Organics
19. Pivoting from a cafe concept to a grocery store.
“We are the owners and operators of an organic sourdough bakery in a ski resort. Before COVID-19 hit Canada, we had a team of eight and were open five days a week.
We were selling out of baked goods every day, but once the Whistler Blackcomb ski resort shut down, we knew we could not operate any more. It was too much risk for public health, but we would also lose all our tourist traffic and local workers going for morning coffee were being laid off. We laid off all our staff and most of them headed back to their homelands.
Now we have had to close our bakery, we have set up an ecommerce store through our Squarespace website. We create and sell gift cards through this platform. We are now selling bread through our website in the shop with pick-up in-store by appointment only. Once someone has ordered, they book a five-minute window for bread collection, to ensure social distancing. Our customers respect the five-minute window, to ensure they do not come into contact with other people. They take their bread from a collection point located by the door.
This is keeping our regular customers supplied with good healthy bread and organic sourdough pizza dough for now and increasing their loyalty to us. We have moved from a cafe concept to grocery store. It’s still in line with our main mission: providing the public with healthy and delicious organic sourdough. This is something we are building on, selling flour and recipe books so that people can bake food at home. We are adding more grocery items in the coming weeks including house-marinated olives and locally made hot sauce.” — Natasha and Ed Tatton, Bakery Managers and Master Bakers, SEA TO SKY SOURDOUGH BRED INC.
20. Working on solutions to provide nutrition-focused recipes to the healthcare industry.
“My company is pivoting right now. We are a niche marketing agency that serves the restaurant, hotel, and entertainment chains across the United States. In just one week, our clients were all shuttered.
We had to pivot our business model to stay afloat while we wait to come to other side of the crisis. Now, we offer weekly educational webinars to support our industry as one of our pivots. We are also working on solutions to provide nutrition-focused recipes and menus to the healthcare industry across the country. Additionally, we are offering celebrity-chef curated food and beverage packages and menus that are customizable to the needs of each facility or dietician. Those menus are currently being created. We are optimistic!” — Christie Lawler, Founder and Owner, CJL Consults
21. Creating a new self-care program.
“I’m the founder of Wishroute, a text message-based accountability service that is taking a radically different approach to helping people make and sustain healthy habits. As a team of real people on the other side of the phone, we understand the value that incremental changes can have on someone’s health. We want to encourage our users to embrace these changes in a sustainable way.
Now more than ever, people need a positive voice to help hold them accountable. We launched Staying Mindful, Moving & Motivated at Home. This is a new program specially designed to help people navigate the challenges of social distancing and maintaining self-care and fitness at home. Since its launch, we’ve seen a significant increase in monthly sign-ups and have helped people adapt.” — Jess Lynch, CEO and Founder, Wishroute
22. Pivoting to make disinfectant.
“My business, DetraPel, makes cleaning products for clothing and furniture. We have made the pivot to make EPA-approved, hospital-grade disinfectant. In light of the widespread shortages in disinfecting and sanitizing products, we have shifted some of our focus to offer an EPA- approved, hospital-grade disinfectant. This product sanitizes surfaces and kills 99.9% of bacteria and viruses including coronavirus. We will get through this together. Please take care of yourselves and loved ones during this time.” — David Zamarin, CEO and Founder, DetraPel
23. Pivoting from fashion tech startup to manufacture face masks.
“Our on-demand manufacturing platform N.A.bld, a venture-backed SaaS company, is manufacturing fabric face masks for frontline workers amidst a national shortage of PPE in the Covid19 pandemic. The initiative started when my husband, a doctor on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic, was informed by the CDC to be prepared to bring a bandana to work as national supply of N95 and sterile surgical masks diminish. Within two days of receiving that information, an N.A.bld prototype and pattern based off of the Deaconess Hospital Mask was created and launched on N.A.bld with the digitized pattern.
N.A.bld has mobilized our network of partner small-batch manufacturers around the United States to begin production of cotton face masks. Through the N.A.bld platform manufacturers and sewing hobbyists can access a full tech pack for a fabric facemask, step-by-step instructions, a printable pattern, and support resources free of charge so masks can be made in the safety of one’s home.
Just as the American fashion industry came together in WWII to sew uniforms for soldiers, we are mobilizing the apparel industry to come together to protect our frontline in this war against COVID-19. The difference is that we’re able to use our technology to achieve the same goal at scale while keeping everyone isolated and safe. N.A.bld was built for just-in-time decentralized, on-demand manufacturing. I’m glad that we’re able to provide a solution that can mobilize our nation’s workforce of sewers and manufacturers.” — Amanda Curtis, CEO and Co-Founder, N.A.bld and Nineteenth Amendment
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