Loudoun Business Leaders Look Back on Year of Pivoting

Kicking off a scaled-down celebration of Loudoun Small Business Week on Monday was a virtual mini-conference, where business leaders joined sessions on topics ranging from recovery to ramping up production and returning to profitability, all major themes that have emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The keynote session focused on how three local entrepreneurs pivoted their business models to meet the economic challenges. GloveStix owner Krista Woods acknowledged that word “pivot” drove her crazy, but acknowledged that’s exactly what she and many others had to do in the past 14 months.

For Woods, whose GloveStix company creates deodorizing inserts for athletic gear and shoes, she had to look for new opportunities once the sports market dried up last spring during the initial period of quarantine. She spent one day reading through every review customers had written about her products, and looking for any unusual ways they were using GloveStix. She soon discovered a new marketing opportunity for workers who had to stand for long hours, and would use her products to deodorize their shoes.

Woods also faced a challenge with Amazon, which accounts for 70% of her sales. Shortly after the onset of the pandemic, the ecommerce giant shut down her listing, and would not allow her to send in additional inventory as part of an effort to make extra room in the warehouses for in-demand items like toilet paper, antibacterial wipes, and hand sanitizer. During June and July, when the economy was slowly opening back up and sports activities were resuming, Amazon capped the amount of inventory she could send in.

“That was a very big challenge,” she said. “I had to find new ways to bring in business in June and July. I had to restart everything and totally redo how I did business.”

Woods said she did not want to lower the quality of her product but, in need of both cash and clearing out inventory, she made deals with both Good Morning America and a hockey supplier to sell her products direct to consumer at deep discounts. With those moves, she had the cash to reinvest back in her business last August. She upgraded her website, and signed on with a better, and more expensive, marketing team. She happily reported the fourth quarter of 2020 was her best ever.

Tony Stafford of Ford’s Fish Shack said he was faced with the unfortunate reality of having to furlough 180 employees last spring, when the restaurant industry was among the hardest hit in the early days of the pandemic. He, like other business owners, started new initiatives, like offering takeout and family meals. Perhaps his most successful venture was being very engaged with Ford’s social media presence, posting regular updates and telling their story. He said that struck a chord with his followers, and it’s now become part of his regular routine.

Like Woods, he said it was important for his business to not skimp on the quality customers have come to expect, even if it would cut costs.

“You stay strong with your brand, stay strong with what’s gotten you where you’re at.You don’t lose that,” he said. “We sell an 8 ounce. chicken breast on our sandwich. I could’ve gone to a 6 ounce, or a different brand. You don’t lose sight of what got you where you’re at, as much as you want to be scared and pull your head back like a turtle.”

For Justin Dobson of Comfenergy, his rapidly growing business and workforce also came to a grinding halt last spring. Fortunately, in just the previous fall, his business had begun to offer new services that deemed Comfenergy an essential business when quarantine began. He increased his marketing budget, and the company also offered fogging and disinfecting services, which became popular as the pandemic set in.

Mother Nature also threw them a bone.

“It got to be 95 degrees for 20 days straight and then it rained for a month. We fix hot houses and we fix wet basements, so the challenge [was] we got too much work and not enough people. [The extra marketing money] paid off,” he said.

All three panelists encouraged conference attendees to stay true to their brand, and never quit, even in the face of extreme adversity. It’s a challenge all small business owners face, even in non-pandemic years, they agreed.

“That feeling, I’m not sure it ever goes away,” Woods said. As a small business owner, “you’re always learning to overcome, adapt, take risks. Sometimes it’s mentally exhausting. Our industries are different but in that way we’re all the same.”

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