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15 Entrepreneurs Who Have Thrived During COVID

2020 was hard, but these entrepreneurs proved that with some strategic thinking and quick pivots, thriving during these difficult times was indeed possible.

Photo by Jason Strull via Unsplash

The coronavirus pandemic took the entire world by surprise, hurting many businesses and significantly impacting a huge number of sectors. However, not all of 2020 was a missed opportunity, as these 15 entrepreneurs show.

10XBeta: A 30-Day Miracle, 10 Years in the Making

Marcel Botha, Birthing of Giants Fellowship Graduate (2019)

Marcel Botha, Birthing of Giants Fellowship Graduate (2019)

Early March 2020 was a frightening time for New York. The city was bracing for a potentially massive influx of critically ill COVID-19 patients into its hospitals, many requiring ventilators to survive—and there weren’t nearly enough. In collaboration with tech industry colleagues, Marcel Botha, CEO of product design and development firm 10XBeta, explored the possibility of producing a simplified “bridge” ventilator to help less critically ill patients breathe, freeing up the more sophisticated machines for patients who require them. By mid-April, the $3,300 Spiro Wave ventilator received emergency use authorization (EUA) from the FDA and was in production. Not long after, the consortium delivered the city’s order of 3,000 machines, as profiled in The New York Times

The effort was a stunning feat hailed in the press as miraculous, but Botha makes it clear that there was no miracle required. “It took 10 years to achieve this overnight success,” he says wryly. “You don’t build a company in 30 days. If we hadn’t already started 12 companies before, we wouldn’t have been able to navigate the logistics, the legal side or the financial. We had over 100 people actively contributing non-stop. We had a network of suppliers and experts that took years to build.”

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Botha describes 10XBeta, which he launched in 2010, as “an extension of myself. It was really a way for me to find a balance between entrepreneurship and being able to keep my finger on the pulse of product innovation.” The company started out with a purely service business model  (“we help them from napkin sketch to fully developed manufacturable product,” he explains), but it has since evolved into a venture studio, launching product-driven startups in which it holds an equity stake. 

“This year has been an eye-opener in terms of thinking through past, present and future,” Botha says. “I plan to make a renewed commitment toward work that is truly relevant and timely. This year, that means concentrating on medical screening, diagnostics and ventilation. In the future, we’ll focus on making medical technologies more accessible to the global population.”

“There was a lot of pain, but you don’t remember the bad stuff,” he says of the breakneck pace of his company’s COVID-19 response. “You remember the joy of working together, interacting with smart people and the excitement of collectively making it happen.”

ZLife: Breaking the Status Quo to Achieve Success

Weina Zhang, Birthing of Giants Fellowship Candidate (2021)

Weina Zhang, Birthing of Giants Fellowship Candidate (2021)

Since she started selling shoes on the side of the street in her native Inner Mongolia as a teenager, Weina Zhang hasn’t just overcome obstacles. She’s blasted clear through them: teaching herself English, learning entirely new industries with keen observation and insight, surviving a fire that burned 70 percent of her body and losing millions during the Great Recession. COVID-19 didn’t stand a chance.

“COVID put a giant yield sign in the middle of the road—but it’s not a stop sign,” says the founder and CEO of Zlife, a real estate development firm. “You just have to slow down and look ahead.” 

This ability to look forward while routinely innovating led Zhang to create what she calls a “construction-forward, recession-proof model” for multi-family and commercial real estate development. “We design to build rather than build to a design,” she explains. Her system utilizes strategic prefabrication of its steel and glass components to bring projects in at 40 percent the cost of traditional construction and far more quickly. “It’s like pre-fab, but one step away,” she explains. “The quality is higher.”

Zhan, who has contracted on projects, including the Freedom Tower in Manhattan and the Fontainebleau (now the Drew) hotel in Las Vegas, was even able to continue work on a new hotel project through the pandemic. “We extended our construction timeline, but we didn’t stop. We kept pushing forward.” With the pandemic putting downward pressure on real estate prices, she decided to sell pre-completion for considerably less than expected, but her low costs meant she still turned a profit. “We structured a property sale timeline that we could customize to any brand specifications at completion,” she explains. “It took some sacrifice, but I am proud to say we are able to finish construction and make a profitable sale in the middle of a pandemic. Not many developers can say that right now.”

While the COVID crisis has validated her construction model, it has also shifted her company’s focus from secondary tourism and hospitality to affordable multifamily housing in first- and second-tier markets. “Our product doesn’t change much, but how we fit into the market does,” she says. “This pandemic-induced shift is just a part of our evolution.”

ReSource Pro: We’re in This Together

Dan Epstein, Birthing of Giants Fellowship Graduate (2015)

Dan Epstein, Birthing of Giants Fellowship Graduate (2015)

With the COVID pandemic raging and a warning from his head of business continuity, Dan Epstein, CEO of insurance industry outsourcing firm ReSource Pro made a swift decision: Close the offices and have everyone work remotely. 

While this sounds like the experience of many U.S. companies, there’s an important difference. Epstein made this decision in February, when there were few reported cases in the U.S. That’s because nearly two-thirds of ReSource’s 5,000 employees were based in China. “We were all alone on that,” Epstein recalls. “No one was even considering remote work at that point.” 

Despite numerous obstacles—a lack of home computers among overseas employees, limited internet and building the infrastructure required to comply with strict data-governance regulations—ReSource Pro was able to make the transition within two weeks. Ultimately, not one of ReSource Pro’s employees fell ill.

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Epstein joined ReSource Pro two years after its founding in 2003 and has overseen rapid growth ever since. The company provides insurance industry players from the largest carriers to local agents with efficient and cost-effective operational services, and Epstein attributes its success to its drive toward operational excellence and its cadre of skilled, educated and dedicated workers. 

“We train our offshore teams to be client-facing, which is unusual in the industry,” Epstein explains. “Our folks can handle scores of tasks, basically managing their clients’ business as if they were in their office. They’re not just automatons. They ask intelligent questions. They win awards.” 

This close relationship with clients has paid dividends in loyalty and good will during the pandemic. When conditions improved overseas, ReSource Pro’s team in China sent $600,000 worth of personal protective equipment (PPE) to the U.S. despite pandemic-induced trade restrictions. 

A pandemic creates strange opportunities: When an India-based competitor tried to poach clients by suggesting ReSource’s China operations would experience huge delays, customers rebuffed their offer. “This competitor tried to capitalize on our misfortune, but what they didn’t understand was that we were already back to speed. Later, when the pandemic hit India, they were unprepared.” He shrugs, adding, “that’s karma, I guess.”

L2BNB: Turning the COVID Travel Collapse Into Opportunity

Kristopher Lopez, Birthing of Giants Fellowship Candidate (2021)

Kristopher Lopez, Birthing of Giants Fellowship Candidate (2021)

Kris Lopez vividly recalls the moment he knew COVID was going to hit his business hard. It was March 6, and the mayor of Austin, Texas announced the cancellation of SXSW, the city’s flagship tech and entertainment expo, just a week before it was supposed to open. “At that moment, I saw $100,000 fly out the window,” he recalls. 

Lopez’s business, L2BnB, offers fully staffed luxury homes outfitted as five-star private resorts in Texas and Miami, and the $100,000 represented bookings during the two-week festival. “On top of that, we were looking at a $30,000 monthly burn,” he adds. “I was depressed for two or three days, then I realized I had to come to terms with the situation and get strategic.” Lopez reached out to his customer base, which includes sports stars, musicians and Hollywood actors, and asked them what they were looking for during the crisis. The overwhelming response: a comfortable place to ride out quarantine for two or three months, rather than the typical weeklong stay. 

As a result, Lopez shifted his strategy from daily stays to long-term and rebuilt the business thanks to loyal clients who not only booked homes for themselves, but also referred friends and colleagues. In return, Lopez offered customers a bonus: They could move to any available location for the same rental term without additional fees. “It was a way of avoiding cabin fever,” he explains. Within 30 days, revenues were back to pre-COVID levels—and growing. “A lot of people told me I should liquidate, and many of my competitors did just that,” Lopez recalls. “I was fielding calls from competitors asking if I wanted to buy their furniture. I told them, ‘I’ll take it all.’” He has even continued to grow the company’s property portfolio through the crisis. 

For Lopez, the keys to success boil down to loyalty, integrity and doing more with less—lessons he learned from seven combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, serving in conventional and special operation units including the 75th Ranger Regiment, Special Mission Units and 7th Special Forces Group. Just one example: refunding everyone’s deposit from SXSW. “We have an airtight cancellation policy, so technically we could have kept the $100,000,” he explains. “But integrity is important to us as a company.” That, of course, and what he calls getting the organization into battle rhythm: “Operating toward your mission and goals every day and crushing it.” 

Brill Media: Yes, You Should Be Advertising in a Downturn

Robert Brill, Birthing of Giants Fellowship Candidate (2021)

Robert Brill, Birthing of Giants Fellowship Candidate (2021)

When the COVID crisis hit, Robert Brill, CEO of Inc. 5000 advertising agency Brill Media, faced an existential dilemma. “My first thought was, ‘As a marketing and advertising firm, should we be advising our clients to advertise right now?’ I didn’t want to make decisions that might be good for us in the short term but bad for our clients in the long run.” 

Brill turned that question into a monthlong research project that resulted in a 70-page guide to marketing during a recession, which he’s made available for free on the company’s website. “Looking back to major downturns like the Great Depression, the dot-com bubble and the Great Recession of 2008, we found that companies that increased their marketing spend saw profits ranging from 4 to 340 percent above those of competitors who maintained or decreased marketing spend.” 

While Brill could confidently advise his clients to continue advertising, some, including professional sports leagues, live-event producers and health care providers, stopped anyway. “We took a hit for sure,” he recalls. “I knew this wasn’t going to be more than a two-week interruption. Unfortunately, we had to lay off some staff. We took pay cuts, and we hunkered down.”

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At the same time, however, Brill decided he should take his own advice, so he increased the agency’s marketing budget. “We accelerated our marketing journey internally and dramatically increased our internal marketing infrastructure,” he explains. The strategy has paid off so well that Brill recently hired someone to field a backlog of over 200 inquiries, and rehired staff.

There were other lessons learned as well. “We took this moment to essentially revamp our organization,” he says. “We had legacy systems and procedures in place that worked fine but weren’t as efficient as they could be, so we took the opportunity to lean down. We’ve put on weight since then, but it’s muscle weight.”

Despite a rocky spring, Brill feels like 2020 might be a banner year after all—not strictly in terms of revenue, but in terms of positioning itself for future growth. The company is re-hiring staff and diversifying its customer base. And his enthusiasm hasn’t wavered. “I believe that thanks to the changes we’ve implemented this year, we can build a world-class organization,” he says. 

Redstream Technology: Taking Tech Staffing From Deep Panic to Cautious Optimism

Sioux Logan, Birthing of Giants Fellowship Candidate (2021)

Sioux Logan, Birthing of Giants Fellowship Candidate (2021)

Panic may be a great motivator, but it’s no substitute for the perspective that experience brings. Just ask Sioux Logan, president of Redstream Technology, a New York City-based contract staffing agency for IT professionals “ I have lived in deep panic since March 11,” she says half-jokingly, “but this isn’t my first rodeo. We had similar situations with the dot-com bust of 2001, following 9/11 and during the Great Recession of 2008.” While COVID is certainly on par with those crises, the advances in remote technology have blunted the damaging effects to some extent. “If this was 2008 and [we] didn’t have the technology we have today, I would have lost all my business,” she says. “Instead, I’ve watched clients fairly seamlessly rise to the occasion with remote work.”

While COVID was a nasty surprise, Logan had a sense that an economic downturn was on its way thanks in part to the shift in hiring she observed from full-time positions to contract staffing. “I’ve been warning my recruiting staff for the previous 18 months,” she says. “I certainly wasn’t expecting a pandemic, but I did expect a correction of some sort.” That prescience and those earlier experiences paid off in terms of financial preparedness. “We run lean, and we were ready for a recession in terms of making sure we had cash reserved,” Logan notes. 

By late summer, the company was busy enough to hire an additional recruiter. “The employment market for tech people was gangbusters prior to COVID, so even when the crisis hit, companies wanted to hold onto everyone they could,” she explains. “And there were pockets of business that surprised me: help desk and production staffing, for example.” 

As things hopefully return to normal over the next few months, Logan expects some positive outcomes from the experience, however nerve wracking. “I think it will give us a broader geographical footprint, which will be natural as companies let their workforces be remote,” she says. “We’ve tended to be mostly tri-state, but I can see looking for staffing on both coasts for clients so that they have coverage throughout the day.”

In the end, perhaps the biggest shift in her role was psychological. “My biggest function has been as a cheerleader for those who are new in their career,” she muses. “I wanted to let people know this is not the only time that something like has happened, so as difficult as it is, it’s not the end of the world.”

Inspira Marketing: Keeping Spirits Up in the Experiential Marketing Space

Kim Lawton, Birthing of Giants Fellowship Candidate (2021)

Kim Lawton, Birthing of Giants Fellowship Candidate (2021)

Here’s a tough question: What do you do during the COVID shutdown if your business relies on large gatherings that more often than not take place in bars? If you’re Kim Lawton, partner at experiential marketing agency Inspira Marketing, the answer is: Roll your sleeves up and get creative. “You can’t just hang around and say, ‘what do we do?’” says Lawton, who is also the CEO of another agency, Enthuse. “We have 500 full-time employees in 40 cities across the country to consider. We could furlough our people or put them to work.”

So rather than sideline Inspira’s brand educators, she redirected their efforts into quarantine-ready tasks: creating content such as video testimonials that could be viewed online; leading Zoom training sessions to teach their clients’ employees about the history and culture of their portfolio brands; helping restaurants with menu development to move inventory; stocking the shelves of retailers after hours; and teaching bartenders speed-pouring techniques to minimize the time customers congregated. The company also partnered with the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild to process applications for the organization’s emergency assistance program. “Within two weeks, they had whole new job descriptions,” she says. 

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In addition, the pause necessitated by the pandemic gave Lawton and her team an opportunity to reimagine the business. Early in April, the team divided into small working groups assigned to focus on different aspects of the business. “We asked the question, ‘what do we change in our business model?’” she explains. The entire team then reconvened, and each working group presented their findings, which in turn led to brainstorming ways in which these ideas could fit into the company’s short-term tactics and long-term vision. “It generated a lot of ‘Aha’ moments,” she says. “I feel like we are not going to be just an experiential marketer anymore, but a full-service omnichannel agency. We’ve been doing more strategy and consulting work lately. We’ve expanded the way we interact with clients, creating deeper relationships.” That evolution, already in the works before the crisis, accelerated dramatically thanks to the pandemic. Through it all, she draws inspiration from Sun Tsu’s The Art of War: “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.” 

“That,” she says, “is where the magic happens.”

SydanTech: In Government Contracting, It’s All About Relationships

Daniel Zubairi, Birthing of Giants Fellowship Candidate (2021)

Daniel Zubairi, Birthing of Giants Fellowship Candidate (2021)

It’s not many businesses that can say the COVID crisis has had zero impact on revenue, but that’s the case for cybersecurity and information technology firm SydanTech. “We’re actually doing better,” says president and managing director Daniel Zubairi. “We have a unique set of customers who need to operate securely, pandemic or no pandemic.” Those customers? Federal agencies, including the U.S. Air Force, National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Interior, Department of Agriculture and other federal agencies, as well as critical infrastructure providers like Verizon. 

The one big change that COVID has brought to Zubairi’s business life is time. “I’m used to traveling around the country to visit clients two days a week,” he explains. “I’m not doing that, obviously, so I have an additional two days week to focus on growth and business development.” 

Zubairi started SydanTech as a “side gig” in 2000 while he was still an undergraduate at the University of Maryland. The company’s first government contract came from the Department of Commerce just a year later in the aftermath of 9/11, and it was a big one: building and managing the Computer Incident Response Team and Cyber Security Operations for the department and its 12 bureaus. 

Having spent time in the cutthroat world of electoral politics working for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, Zubairi appreciates the far more collegial and collaborative environs of government contracting. “There’s a lot of camaraderie among government contractors,” he says. “The fact is you often can’t win a contract on your own.” SydanTech often joins forces with companies ranging from one-person microbusinesses (“I was there once, so I like to pay it forward,” Zubairi says) to giants, like military shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls Industries. “Big companies open up opportunities because sometimes they can’t bid because they’re too large or they lack our capabilities,” he points out. 

“Anyone who wants to be in government or defense contracting has to understand, it’s all about working together to be successful,” he goes on to say. “This business is a lot of fun. There aren’t a lot of players, so a competitor can become a partner overnight. After all,” he says, “part of something is better than all of nothing.” 

Gillam Group Construction Management: Keep Your Powder Dry and Manage the Balance Sheet

Marcus Gillam, Birthing of Giants Fellowship Candidate (2021)

Marcus Gillam, Birthing of Giants Fellowship Candidate (2021)

When the Ontario provincial government shut down nonessential construction, Marcus Gillam, CEO of Toronto-based construction management firm Gillam Group, faced every business owner’s nightmare: an immediate 80 percent reduction in revenue. “That was a big problem,” he says six months later. “We had to focus on health and safety while also finding ways to reduce costs. We were under a lot of stress.” But Gillam had faith in his company and in his employees, with whom he maintained open lines of communication. “I was straight with our staff,” he recalls. “I didn’t try to sugarcoat anything. We did have to make temporary layoffs, but we continued to hold town hall meetings with everyone. As difficult as it was for everyone, there was a lot of positive feedback and a lot of support. It was very encouraging.” 

With a background in civil engineering—first in the family firm and then with the larger organization that acquired it—Gillam struck out on his own in 2011 and quickly found a market niche between small local firms and the construction giants by delivering complex midsize projects in budget and on time. While the company has grown briskly over the years, Gillam still has a reputation for collaborating closely with clients, even adjusting operational and financial structures to suit. 

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Thanks to a “mini building boom” brought on by reopened government offices running through backlogs of permit applications, business has rebounded to about 95 percent of capacity. But the difficult path there reminds him that managing risk must remain a top priority. “I came into the workforce in the 1990s, when we were coming out of quite a deep recession,” he explains. “I learned from that experience, and this one, that going forward, we need to keep our powder dry and manage the balance sheet.” He also expects to put more effort into developing digital capabilities that will facilitate operations for a more distributed workforce. “Much of our operations can be done online, but we still use paper in some cases,” he says. “We have a strong impetus to move processes online.”

In the end, Gillam feels that the high-touch approach he takes with clients has served him equally well with his own team. “We pulled together as a group and did things we thought were impossible through teamwork and collaboration,” he concludes. “It highlights the importance of fostering an open and collaborative environment.”

TRIOSE: Getting Creative in the Health Care Logistics Space

Ira Tauber, Birthing of Giants Fellowship Candidate (2021)

Ira Tauber, Birthing of Giants Fellowship Candidate (2021)

“It was like driving along at 60 mph and pulling the emergency brake,” Ira Tauber recalls of the COVID crisis. The president of TRIOSE, a nationwide logistics management firm specializing in health care providers. “We had about a month’s worth of business in the pipeline when the country closed down, and then ‘bam.’” 

TRIOSE had to pivot hard, and quickly. Its core business is transporting high-value, high-touch freight, often for surgical procedures. But the crisis set off a mad scramble for PPE among health care providers, who turned to TRIOSE for help. “All of a sudden, we’re sourcing gowns, masks and disposables that our customers couldn’t get from traditional sources,” Tauber recalls. “We got creative—going overseas, chartering planes—anything to track down supplies. Sometimes it was a wild goose chase, but when real opportunities arose, we jumped on them.”

At the same time, Tauber and his team immediately went into financial micromanagement mode. Monthly check-ins with his CFO became weekly, and weekly stand-ups became daily. “Our biggest issue was a focus on cash flow,” he explains. “We’re not on the clinical side of the business, and with hospital systems strained to the limits, we couldn’t be certain when we’d get paid.” Tracking leading indicators, such as accounts receivable, cost of goods and even customer-service call volume, helped plan for demand fluctuations. This scrutiny revealed a new strategic focus on higher-margin business opportunities. “We worked with our customers and suppliers to shift from smaller deliveries to trucks whenever possible,” he says. “It meant we could service our customers better as well as bring needed business to struggling manufacturers.”

“Now that we have the foundations put in place, I don’t think we’re going to change that,” Tauber continues. The strategy has paid off. TRIOSE kept all of its employees at full salary and maintained its schedule of merit raises and bonuses and accommodated flexible work hours as much as possible. While 2020 revenues are below plan, they will be higher than they were in 2019. “The people aspect was a real challenge,” he explains. “There’s no playbook. Instead, we just asked ourselves, ‘Is this the right thing to do? Are we acting in the best interest of employees?’ We rolled the dice, but we wanted to make sure our employees are taken care of in these crazy times.”

Comprehensive Care Services: Impossible Choices and Unseen Opportunities

Chet Czaplicka, Birthing of Giants Fellowship Candidate (2021)

Chet Czaplicka, Birthing of Giants Fellowship Candidate (2021)

The onset of COVID-19 hit health care providers in unexpected ways. As emergency rooms and ICUs braced for impact in March and April, other parts of the industry were eerily quiet—even for providers of essential services. “March was fairly steady, since procedures were already scheduled,” says Chet Czaplicka, president and CEO of Michigan-based Comprehensive Care Services (CCS), a leading provider of perfusion and other blood services required during heart surgery. “By April, we saw a 67 percent decrease, and it wasn’t until July that our volume returned to pre-COVID levels.”

As difficult as the downturn was for the business, its consequences were dire for many cardiac patients. “About 55 percent of our procedures are urgent cases, meaning that the patient presents to the hospital and are sent into surgery as quickly as possible,” Czaplicka explains. “When cases go down by two-thirds, it means patients aren’t getting the treatment they need.” In fact, he adds, deaths by myocardial infarction at home are up significantly. “People were afraid to go to the emergency room even when they desperately needed to,” he says. “This pandemic has taken a greater toll than we’ve even begun to calculate.”

Czaplicka started CCS in 2003 to provide perfusion services for surgeries that require a cardio-pulmonary bypass. The company now employs more than 550 perfusionists, anesthesia technicians, perioperative blood management technicians (PBMT) and licensed RNs “We provide the clinicians, the hardware and the disposables, and we collect data for that aspect of the surgery. It’s really a turnkey operation,” he explains. 

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As it has for many companies, COVID has pushed the accelerator on strategies that CCS already had in the works prior to 2020. “We’re in acquisition mode right now,” he notes. “We’ve been growing by acquisitions over the past few years, but we’ll likely conclude 2020 having completed four, which is more than we’ve ever done in a single year.” He adds that he expects 2020 revenues to be up 12 percent over the previous year despite the spring’s downturn.

The experience with COVID has left Czaplicka with some indelible and sobering lessons learned. “The big takeaway,” he says, “has been to hedge yourself against risk. Maintain or increase your cash positions, keep your credit solid through banking relationships and have a disaster response plan in place. People really need to do that.”

Triangle Home Fashions: Digital First for Speed, Agility and Customer Focus

Jenny Zhu, Birthing of Giants Fellowship Candidate (2021)

Jenny Zhu, Birthing of Giants Fellowship Candidate (2021)

For a company that sells home textiles online, a prolonged global home quarantine might seem like an oddly lucky break. But for Jenny Zhu’s Triangle Home Fashions, luck had little to do with the company’s stellar performance in 2020. Rather, it was the result of strategy, planning and plenty of elbow grease. When she launched Triangle during the Great Recession, its digital-first e-commerce strategy was unique out of necessity. Brick-and-mortar retailers weren’t buying, and online retailers demanded volume that the startup couldn’t meet.

But there was a niche that wanted what she was selling: online retailers, including Kohl’s, Target and Wayfair, that used their online storefronts as marketplaces. In this scenario, the e-tailer takes the order, but it is the vendor that warehouses, packages and ships the product to customers. 

Zhu’s overarching strategy—to create complete “looks” for every room in the home and every life stage of the customer—was perfect for this environment. “Places like Wayfair cross-sell by curating a collection and presenting it in a home environment—so they need to pull products from multiple vendors. We do that for them.” When COVID struck, her business model served especially well. Overall, Zhu credits her success to five factors: 

  1. Stay agile: “When I started this company, I said, ‘I don’t want to be bureaucratic.’ Agility and flexibility have always been part of our culture.”
  2. Think digital-first: With its focus on technology and e-commerce, Triangle leverages powerful analytics to drive profitability. This focus allowed the company to seamlessly respond to increased online demand when traditional stores lost traffic due to COVID.
  3. Diversify the supply chain: “We expanded our sourcing from China to include India and Pakistan, as well as the U.S.,” Zhu explains. “So, when one source fell through, we had options.”
  4. Offer employees flexibility: With a workforce made of up 60 percent women, flexible scheduling was always a priority, Zhu says. “But 2020 has brought this to a whole new level.” 
  5. Focus on the customer(s): “We make the consumer’s life easier by giving them the tools to create a designer look on their own,” she explains, “and we also help our retail partners with a collection of products that are designed to work together.”

In the end, Zhu says, 2020 is just another step in the company’s evolution. “It’s a different normal,” she concludes, “but our energy has never dulled.”

5 Star Roofing and Restoration: Positioning the Business for Continued Growth

Rob Cooper, Birthing of Giants Fellowship Candidate (2021)

Rob Cooper, Birthing of Giants Fellowship Candidate (2021)

Rob Cooper, owner of 5 Star Roofing and Restoration, wants to bring a bit more respectability to the roofing industry. “Retail roofing has become an almost a commodity business,” he explains. “We want to offer our customers old-school professionalism.” The service may be old-school, but Cooper’s approach to business is anything but. “It’s not unlike what’s happening in the used car sales experience,” he explains. “You used to have to visit car lots and deal with salespeople until someone came along and created a better experience entirely online. We want to take up the space between old-fashioned and high-tech.” 

The approach is clearly paying off. The company has twice appeared on Inc.’s list of the 5,000 fastest growing companies in the U.S., ranking as high as #116 in 2019. Since opening the business in 2015, Cooper has expanded from the original Birmingham location to four offices stretching from coastal Mobile along I65 to Nashville, Tennessee with the ultimate goal of creating a regional footprint across the Southeastern U.S. “We open in cities about five hours apart to form a contiguous service area from one location to the next,” he explains. 

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As an essential business, 5 Star remained open during shutdown, but the uncertainty it created put the company in crisis mode. “We pulled our management team together and hammered out how we were going to act, because nobody knew what the future held,” he says. “Our commercial manager challenged everyone saying, ‘Nobody knows where this COVID thing is going to end, but we’re all playing under the same set of rules. Some companies will emerge stronger, and some companies will come out of this weaker. What kind of company do we want to be?’” In addition to new procedures, such as contactless sales via Zoom, the company quickened the pace of expansion, acquiring an interior repairs contractor, adding work crews and opening in Nashville to reach that city’s booming market. “We think Nashville was a really good strategic point for us to establish a business so that we can then leapfrog up around the Louisville and Kentucky area,” he explains. “We want to get ahead of the curve.”

“If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that we’ve got to be prepared for just about anything,” Cooper concludes. “We have to put our heads together and try new things, even if they don’t all work out. I think we are a better company because of what we’ve been through.”

El Clasificado: Keeping an Eye on the Prize

Martha de la Torre, Birthing of Giants Fellowship Graduate (2019)

Martha de la Torre, Birthing of Giants Fellowship Graduate (2019)

When Martha de la Torre started El Clasificado in 1988, it might have been described as a niche publishing firm—a Spanish-language version of the familiar local classified paper. But to de la Torre it was much more: “a way to serve the Latino community by making connections,” as she explains it. This higher mission saw El Clasificado, now EC Hispanic Media, thrive by building out multiple services to connect businesses to their communities including online advertising, websites, education, live expositions and more. When COVID arrived, bringing financial contraction and uncertainty to the communities the business served, de la Torre was ready. 

“Many of our customers were doing fine without a strong online presence until COVID made that an absolute necessity,” she recalls, “so we decided to offer free 90-day packages that included websites, Google My Business integration and online advertising.” The goal: to get 1,000 small businesses online. The company rehired staff and trained them to assist customers with their most urgent needs. “We turned our marketing team, our print team and some of our administrative people into designers and content writers. And where we used to only produce 20 websites a week at most, we got to the point of producing 50 per week.” When customers saw positive outcomes from these initiatives, many signed on to continue with the paid version, opening up an entirely new revenue stream for the business. 

The next hurdle was to transform the company’s dozen or so annual live events, including quinceañera fashion shows, small-business expos and job fairs, into virtual events. The company has also reached out to chambers of commerce around the country to promote its free services and offer webinars and workshops with its small-business experts on topics like starting a business or applying for PPP loans. 

Despite the disruption of COVID—or perhaps because of it—de la Torre says she was able to achieve the goals she set for 2020. “COVID made us very laser focused on where we needed to be,” she says. “We got rid of all the fluff, all the disruption, all the distractions. I feel that we’re stronger already.”

Chesapeake Plumbing and Heating: Making Your Own Luck

Travis Martin, Birthing of Giants Fellowship Candidate (2021)

Travis Martin, Birthing of Giants Fellowship Candidate (2021)

“I find that when I work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, I get lucky,” Travis Martin says with a chuckle. He’s referring to the 2008 recession, when the revenues of his plumbing business, Chesapeake Plumbing and Heating Inc., fell by half, and he and his team did whatever they could to survive. “We took any job we could get our hands on—pushing snow, digging footings for foundations,” he recalls. 

Martin started the business in 2003 as a two-man plumbing operation and has since expanded into HVAC, geothermal heating systems, fire sprinkler systems, home services and home performance, each unit its own independent subsidiary. By 2014, the business appeared in the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing companies in the U.S. and has remained there every year since. 

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Surviving the Great Recession prepared Chesapeake for the arrival of COVID-19 in the spring of 2020, as unprecedented as it was. “We realized we had to take all the lessons from the 2008 recession and bring them back overnight,” Martin recalls. That meant keeping a sharp eye on cash flow, cutting back on capital expenses as much as practical and redeveloping the company’s three-year, annual and quarterly strategy. 

One of Chesapeake’s biggest pivots—remote work for its 45 office workers—has been so successful that it is now standard operating procedure. “We started seeing wins immediately, so we thought, OK, there are too many positives not to make this a permanent change,” Martin says. One advantage: expanding the talent pool from regional to national, with new hires coming in from New York, Wisconsin, Florida and other areas outside the company’s footprint. 

Martin is bullish on the future. Chesapeake headed into 2020 following breakneck growth the previous year, and while he intended to tap the brakes, revenue was still up 25 percent in the first quarter. “I was worried that everyone was exhausted from that growth spurt, but we’re on a great path right now,” he says. “It turns out there’s no reason to slow down at all.”

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