How CEOs Are Leading Their Companies to Innovate and Plan for Reopening Amid COVID-19
It has been approximately three months since most businesses in the U.S. began sheltering in place with employees working remotely, offices and stores shut down, and millions out of work. While the effects of COVID-19 on companies began much earlier in the year for those with international operations or supply chains, the impact on the U.S. economy has been overwhelming and devastating to many small businesses. As companies slowly begin the process of reopening, or in some cases launching, we have witnessed incredible pivots in business models, as well as the opportunity to launch new products and reach new customers. Further, we have watched many leaders looking forward, continuing to find the upside while in crisis.
Sarah LaFleur, founder and CEO of M.M.LaFleur, a clothing brand for working women, has creatively changed how the company markets and talks about its clothes. “Even though our pieces are super comfortable and can be worn casually, at the end of the day, most of our customers still know us as the brand who makes clothes for the office. So, a lot of what we have been doing internally is figuring out how we market our clothing differently to make it appealing for the situation she is living in,” LaFleur says.
Looking at their different products and understanding their customer scenarios allowed the leadership team to innovate, in a sense, through rebranding, renaming and relaunching while not overthinking things. “We have these pants called the Colbys. Originally, we marketed them ‘Origami Suiting,’ geared toward travel, because you could pull them out of your suitcase, wrinkle free, and they are also machine washable. We decided to rename them the Colby Jogger,” LaFleur explains. “They have an elastic waistband and are easy to pull on. It was how a lot of us were wearing them at home anyway. After renaming them and marketing them as joggers, sales increased by eight times, and they became one of our bestselling products. We’ve realized that recontextualizing inventory can go a long way.”
For other established businesses, pivoting to a new business model or launching a new product or service might provide a cushion financially for when the business is viable again. It also provides a new way to stay connected to your customer base. Switching up your business model may be the last thing you want to do, but it may be necessary to help keep you in business.
Melissa Mitchner is the founder and CEO of The Bark Shoppe, an eight-year-old premiere pet care facility in Harlem, N.Y., offering dog grooming and wellness as well as education for pet owners. Owning a brick-and-mortar space, Mitchner realized that to maintain connection with her customers without her physical shop, she had to pivot, and quickly. “We have increased our visibility through various platforms, launched a subscription plan for at-home grooming, communicated regularly with our Bark Shoppe community via email and held live Q&A sessions with pet care professionals on social media,” she says. “Innovation has allowed us to streamline our services and prepare to launch our mobile grooming truck, allowing us to provide contactless and curbside pet grooming.” While technology enabled many businesses to function as normal during the pandemic, those like the Bark Shoppe had to adapt and create new opportunities to retain customers and maintain revenue.
I have spoken to several startup founders who, confronted with not knowing what business will look like once America reopens, are faced with making the painstaking decision to move forward with their company’s launch or postponing until post crisis. These decisions are easier said than done, particularly in sectors like retail. With retail continuing to struggle and more than 15,000 stores preparing to permanently close this year, according to Coresight Research, startup e-commerce app The Yes believes now is the time to take advantage of the situation and the market. “We had spent two years building this incredible product, and our original launch date was end of March right when the pandemic was starting. We paused for obvious reasons, but we kept moving forward…ultimately it was a leap of faith to proceed with the launch on May 20, still firmly in a pandemic. However, we believed that with the talk of states opening up, American consumers were starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel,” says Julie Bornstein, cofounder and CEO of The Yes, which is described as a next-generation shopping experience, leveraging computer vision and machine learning to encode fashion and create a new consumer experience tailor-made for each user.
Bornstein, an e-commerce veteran, and the former chief operating officer of Stitch Fix, is confident that there is a significant opportunity for growth if you have the right model, putting the customer experience at the center. When asked if there were naysayers about launching, she said, “The Yes was built with an inherent optimism about ‘what’s next’ in retail post-pandemic. We started to feel the momentum of brands, media and investors rooting for us and wanting us to play a role in saving brands, laying the foundation for the next generation of e-commerce, which puts the shopper at the center of the experience.”
Managing a business through crisis poses significant challenges, but reopening is not easy either. The uncertainty and level of decision-making cannot be underestimated. “There are just so many more decisions that need to be made. Someone once told me that decisions can be either good, fast or impactful, and it is rare you ever achieve all three. But try for two out of three. Right now, every day feels like a “new day” with a new challenge, and there are no rules anymore. On top of it, because the world around us is changing so rapidly, the decision we made a week ago may no longer be relevant this week,” LaFleur says.
While the current crisis has taught us the value of being prepared, financially and operationally, the ability to adapt and transition mentally will allow for innovation and creative problem solving. Mitchner cautions: “Do not make decisions out of desperation. Take a moment, feel every emotion and then go forward. In your stillness, solutions and/or opportunities will come to you. Lean in on your entrepreneurial network, look at each other’s businesses and see what is possible.” While we cannot underestimate the toll this crisis has taken on businesses, it seems that as companies begin to reimagine what reopening looks like, they also see new opportunity and fresh perspective.
As we continue to adapt and respond to the challenges of this crisis and those to come, it will require optimism, thoughtfulness and flexibility in our leaders. Bornstein adds, “By leading with optimism, we kept the momentum and focus, and our delayed launch provided us the opportunity to make our product event better. The whole team was focused and excited about the launch, even during a time in which we all feel the weight of the world as well.”