5 small businesses that pivoted to help their communities and customers during the pandemic - and boosted their bottom lines
- The novel coronavirus pandemic has forced businesses to adapt to remote-work environments, and some companies have turned that into new products or changes to strategy to help others ease into the transition.
- Phone-booth maker Zenbooth switched from making booths to desks to help employees across the nation work from home.
- Office-technology provider Minim opened its customer base from internet providers needing WiFi support to going straight to remote workers.
- And other companies, like BioPure Services, PATHWATER, and ManufacturingChina.com, have scaled up production and sales to meet more demand.
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American ingenuity is never more prevalent than during a crisis. We saw the resilience of New York City businesses in the weeks and months after 9/11.
Now, when the whole country is in the throes of dealing with COVID-19, many US companies large and small are responding with equal aplomb, rejiggering their business models to meet the new needs of the nation. Even manufacturers and suppliers, usually the hardest cog to turn within any economic engine, are making changes to support our new social-distancing, remote-work culture.
Launching a product to help the new work-from-home nation
Zenbooth, the Berkeley, California-based makers of single-, double-, and quad-sized office quiet booths for phone calls and focused work, made the decision to adapt to change by doing something they've never done before - producing a desk instead of a booth.
The ZenStation height-adjustable desk, which runs between $500 and $700, is the company's first product in response to the surge in home workers, and they're currently canvassing their Bay Area neighbors to see how else they can be helpful. The company forecasts sales of thousands of units of the ZenStation as soon as its supply chain stabilizes.
"Zenbooth's focus has always been about making work more comfortable. In the open office, the burning problem was privacy. At home, the first burning problem is ergonomics," Zenbooth Founder and CEO Sam Johnson told Business Insider. "Most people we know were dissatisfied with their setup, and this was causing pain and will later cause injury."
And so it began with the ZenStation, which Johnson also viewed as low-hanging fruit because it was within the company's skill set.
"The ZenStation was also something within our capabilities - we could get it to market fast," he said.
When Johnson said "fast," he wasn't kidding around. Zenbooth developed and brought the ZenStation to market in just one week once California Governor Gavin Newsom announced his shelter-in-place order.
"With Zenbooth, I tested a few ideas and then released the first concept within 24 hours, and sold a few within a couple of weeks, so I had the confidence we could do it again," Johnson, who funded his company entirely on the proceeds from these early sales, said. "We now have a talented team and relationships that enable us to move even faster."
The one hurdle Johnson does have to cross, however, is California's aforementioned shelter-in-place restrictions, which have obviously affected his own workforce. Johnson is looking at rolling production across the country as needed to support his work-from-home customers.
"This is a moving target like no other. Last Tuesday, we shut down our manufacturing operations due to Berkeley City shelter-in-place restrictions. Those restrictions had an exception to the supply of working-from-home products and supply to other essential businesses, which we got advice we could work within," Johnson told Business Insider. Then, three hours after they put the product page up on Thursday, California released broad shelter-in-place restrictions.
"We're in this for the long term, though, and we will work - safely - with our suppliers in other states to be able to produce these as restrictions are added and then lifted," he added. "We're committed to balancing health at home with following the restrictions to enable community health."
Johnson takes the occasion of the pandemic to make a larger point about the importance of ergonomics to overall well-being.
"OSHA [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] states that ergonomic injuries have direct costs of between $15 to $20 billion per year, with total annual costs reaching $45 to $54 billion," Johnson said. "Well, we have heard from many who have suffered after working from home for one week with issues like neck strain, and with shelter-in-place restrictions, none of those people are going to see a doctor or physiotherapist anytime soon. We expect to see a 'whiplash' of injuries and claims after the coronavirus pandemic passes."
In addition to offering the ZenStation to the work-from-home audience, Zenbooth is selling their hero product to telemedicine and medical research companies that are in increased demand and need privacy to ensure confidentiality in their services. Johnson said he's examining other ways to make his company's capabilities useful in the context of this pandemic, for example, in the area of isolation rooms (often called airborne infection isolation rooms).
"If the opportunity arises to help save lives, we'll definitely jump at it. But otherwise, we'll be trying to help all those working from home," Johnson said.
A tech company adapts by changing its audience
Going from office furnishings to office technology, Manchester, New Hampshire-based Minim had long been working with internet service providers to provide network security, parental controls, and WiFi management tools. Then the news of the coronavirus began to spread.
"When the news of COVID-19 broke, we realized that the same platform we provide to ISPs could be democratized for businesses and their employees to provide secure remote working environments," Nicole Hayward, Minim's cofounder and CMO/CPO, told Business Insider. "Our solution helps remote workers who are experiencing choppy video calls, slow speeds from kids' streaming at home, and worse - the rise of targeted hacking."
Minim for Remote Workers was rolled out in the matter of a weekend, and the company is now offering four free months of service to people globally, which includes a Minim router, a mobile app for the employee, and a web app for the employer.
"On Thursday and Friday, March 12 and 13, we pulled together team leadership from all departments for a few work sessions. As marketing and product leader, I prepared a product launch template that we routinely use for new product and feature rollouts," Hayward shared. "We kept it concise and honed in on the immediate needs, such as the product workflow to enable four free months of services, and how to immediately get the message out to our partners."
She added, "It helped that the team was very bought into the vision; everyone contributed to the launch plan and collaborated through the weekend into the wee hours. By the time we hit Monday the 16th at about noon, we had a totally new signup path, a new section of our website, new SKUs on our ecommerce site, an automated journey, helpful handouts, an internal FAQ to help our customers, and more."
Hayward noted that getting the word out around the new offering was a critically important consideration surrounding the launch.
"One of the biggest challenges was ensuring that multiple leaders read our communications before they went out - to ensure we are hitting the right message and tone during this challenging time," she said. "To that end, we published a heartfelt letter to our community from our CEO, and our first sign-ups were friends and locals in the Manchester and Boston area. We are also thankful to have great investors and advisors to help us get the word out."
While it's still early in the launch journey of Minim for Remote Workers, Hayward is optimistic about its success.
"We're still assessing target adoption," Hayward said. "But, we're really hoping that businesses will step up and take on this responsibility to support their employees. It's such a big paradigm shift for many, and remote workers shouldn't be burdened with the added stress of not being able to get work done over their WiFi. Not to mention, there's an incredibly high risk to corporate data if a single employee's network is compromised. VPN won't even help there."
Other companies scale up to meet increased demand for atypical products and services
"It's doing the education piece for us," BioPure Services President Brandon Kinder said of the impact coronavirus has made on his business, which provides hospital-grade disinfection services to homes and businesses across the Southeast. "We've now experienced how quickly something can go from a few folks in China to right here in our backyard in a matter of weeks. Germs connect us all, and we're seeing the need to change the standard of clean."
With their chlorine dioxide-based spray treatment that's on the EPA's approved list of effective treatments against COVID-19 - among a lot of other nastiness - BioPure Services found itself suddenly with overflowing demand during this time of extreme economic duress. Kinder said his business has increased 75% over one month, with inquiries for services from all over the country.
"Any time you set a goal of trying to change the way something has traditionally been done education is a huge piece of that, but now I'm getting a barrage of calls, emails, and voicemails more than I can answer, and that's good," Kinder, who has increased his workforce by 50% in order to handle the influx of inquiries, told Business Insider.
Kinder acknowledged that people had a bit of a hard time understanding the importance of his service prior to the onset of the pandemic. "Our mission statement since we began this journey has been 'to change the standard of clean.' People are realizing that they may have been fooled - they can't clean for appearance or clean for smell, it's really about the germs. Well, we're a germ-control company, and our messaging just happens to align really well in this situation."
Kinder's business, previously generally commercial in nature, has also seen a considerable uptick in residential customers looking to increase sanitization while sheltering in place and working from home.
Fremont, California-based PATHWATER, which manufactures its own aluminum reusable water bottles then bottles both sparkling and still water, has experienced a 300% growth in sales over the last month.
"Even with the pandemic, the majority of our country still has access to clean drinking water. PATHWATER bottles are aluminum, which are 100% recyclable in a closed-loop system, so we hope the influx of people purchasing our sustainable alternative to bottled water will at least help keep a fraction of plastic waste out of landfills over the next few months," Company CEO Amer Orabi told Business Insider.
Orabi said that his company has benefited greatly from its use of technology while under California's shelter-in-place orders and observing social distancing.
"Operating during shelter in place is definitely a challenge, especially from an operations standpoint. Aside from our team, our second biggest asset is technology," Orabi said. "We utilize technology in every part of our operations/fulfillment. Virtual meetings, automated order processing, and a good communication platform are all ways to increase efficiency in a remote work environment."
To meet the increasing demand for bottled water, he added, the company has ramped up its production capacity by increasing efficiency and yields. "Almost all of our PATHWATER production processes are fully automated with a limited need for human involvement. Again, technology is a big difference maker for businesses in a situation like this," he said.
In fact, PATHWATER has increased production by 250% in order to meet demand, and has also made a commitment to give back and help the hard-hit San Francisco region where the company is based.
"We are grateful that PATHWATER hasn't been affected by COVID-19 like so many other companies and industries, and to show our support during this difficult time we are giving back to our community by donating 100,000 bottles to local food banks in the Bay Area," he said.
Ron Berkes, who connects his clients with Chinese medical supply goods manufacturers through his company ManufacturingChina.com, is fielding a similar barrage of calls and emails.
"I just got a request for up to one million masks per day, up to five million masks, from a customer buying for South African medical interests, straight through my LinkedIn," Berkes told Business Insider. "I even set up a special website to accommodate the special medical-related inquiries I've been getting, so that I can handle these requests and not lose track of what people need and what they're asking for."
Berkes, who'd previously overcome a delay in shipments from his Chinese suppliers when factories throughout the country were shut down for weeks to forestall the spread of COVID-19, said he has also been able to get clients he provides with non-medical goods to place larger orders in the interest of not running out of supplies.
"Honestly, the logistics in China can be a challenge even when there is not a pandemic," Berkes told Business Insider. "So I am always hedging to get my clients to order sooner or more product then what they typically want. In this case, ordering 30 to 50% more inventory has been a good decision, because we could see a lot more delays in the future."
Johnson concluded, "It's sad that there has been so much political rhetoric about protecting American jobs in manufacturing over the past couple years. This will be a historical lesson that you're better off investing in the health and safety of your people rather than tariffs and walls. Many companies simply won't survive this without innovating."
With that in mind, this country's manufacturers and suppliers are proving that American ingenuity is, at root, both good business and good for us.
Get the latest coronavirus analysis and research from Business Insider Intelligence on how COVID-19 is impacting businesses.
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