COVID as a Business Owner
It’s the last day of September. For the last 10 years, October has been the beginning of the season wind-down at King of Pops: the bank account would be looking pretty good, and we would be looking forward to some much needed time off, both to recharge our batteries and to make plans how we could do it better the following year.
However this Spring, a couple weeks after our company cruise and just days after we had wrapped up a 50-person company Symposium hosted by our good friends at @ZingTrain, I first started to hear about Coronavirus.
I experienced the next few weeks in what I am calling Stage 1: "Disbelief".
I’ll never forget sitting in bed, talking to my wife about it. Was Coronavirus going to be a disruption? After some back and forth, we agreed that worst case, it was going to be an inconvenience for a couple weeks and things would quickly be back to normal. At that time there were only 12 cases in the United States.
I remember moping around that week, frustrated that our high from training was not going to make as much of an impact and that our momentum would be slowed down. King of Pops’ 10th Birthday Party was coming up and we had a week’s worth of activities planned. Surely this wouldn’t affect our birthday.
Soon after, more local events started to cancel, then some of the largest festivals, but there was no way professional sports could be cancelled…
Then week after week, the unbelievable became reality. It was a brand new feeling for many of us. It didn’t seem real. The idea of a 14 day quarantine with everything stopping seemed so challenging. I had no idea that things could even play out the way they did. But like it or not, we were all in it together…
It’s helpful for me to reflect on this season, and I’d love to hear your reflections too. What were those first weeks like for you? (I’ll process through the other stages in the days ahead).
At the end of April there were still so many unknowns. It felt like the world was crashing around us, and I remember feeling a sense of responsibility for our business to thoughtfully contribute. For the first time in my life, it felt like the opportunity to provide someone with a paycheck was a worthy cause.
We had dozens of ideas for how our business could adapt but decided to move forward with just two: the KoP Neighborhood Partner Program & Rainbow Provisions.
I had been laid off in 2009 and remembered the feeling of powerlessness as I drove home from the office. I thought other people might feel the same, especially in this new economy.
We decided to test this Neighborhood Partner idea, where folks could start a King of Pops business where they lived. We set them up with carts and pops and lessons we’ve learned. It was scrappy, but it was working, and we felt good about this new direction.
Rainbow Provisions was more of an opportunistic response based on where we were positioned as a business. We own a small distribution company - @p10foods - which represents 60 or so of the South’s best food brands. People were sheltered in place and avoiding the grocery store. Add to that the fact that Amazon orders were taking 3-6 days, and we had a legitimate opportunity.
In those first few weeks, our sales were growing quickly. We started to make some new products that made sense in this environment like homemade chili, vegan sloppy joe mix, and a DIY make-pops-at-home kit.
Eventually, the large businesses caught up. When that happened, our fledgling business simply couldn’t compete. While we have recently stopped operating Rainbow Provisions, we did learn some important lessons about online ordering which will help us going forward.
We decided to take what we’d learned from @rainbowprovisions and create a new online store for King of Pops at kingofpops.com.
Our business has changed drastically, but the Neighborhood Partners and the new website are two changes we are so thankful for.
Stage 3: “Will this ever end” or “Can we survive this?!”...
At some point, Covid stopped feeling like something we had to power through and felt more like it was here to stay. As more and more timelines for getting “back to normal” passed, it started to take its toll. From a business perspective, an uncertain future is impossible to plan for. From an individual perspective, it’s demoralizing.
Through all of this, Nick and I would head to our parents' cabin in North Georgia for a day of planning. We would come up with forecasts that felt right at that time, but they each had a contingency that COVID was soon coming to a close. After repeating this exercise three times, it started to feel silly. By the end of July, I didn’t feel even slightly confident in any timeline. It could be this winter, it could be Spring 2021, or it could be Spring 22 before we would be able to operate “as usual”.
The plan needed to be to have no plan (or at least for our plan to not cost too much money and to be easily changeable).
The not knowing of all of this certainly sucks. It takes a lot of energy to be optimistic with everyone, and as leaders, I feel like that is important to do. I believe in what we are doing, but our business is dramatically different if there are no social gatherings.
I hate to end this post on a negative note, but let's call a spade a spade: for the majority of businesses, this year was tough to find success.
The challenge though... that is the fun (and important) part. We’ll talk about that next.
Oh and one other thought on your way out:
As humans, we adapt very quickly to nearly any circumstance. This is why I don’t agree with folks that say things have changed forever. I’m extremely confident that eventually it will be universally agreed upon that we can go out and spend time with each other.
When this happens, I am confident that we will all show up.
Stage 4: "If everything is going to change, how can we be better?"
I’ve delayed writing this last bit because I can’t get it to come out quite right. I wanted to write something profound and useful all the while fitting our general vibe of uplifting and inspirational. But above all, I want to be honest, and sometimes those don’t all mesh.
Over the last eight months, we’ve transitioned our business to one that is sustainable during a pandemic. That meant saying goodbye to some of my favorite people, friends who had sacrificed for the company alongside Nick and I for half of the last decade in some cases.
And while I remain extremely proud of our business, there is no way to tie a tidy bow on it and move on. So maybe this post will miss the mark on our normal tone, but hopefully it’s useful to others going through similar situations (whether you are a struggling business owner or a dedicated team member who has gotten the short end of the stick).
I’ve worn both hats; neither are comfortable.
The pain from the lessons we’ve learned in 2020 very much makes me want to do right by any changes that were made, to use this period to become an even better company.
Coming into 2020, we were at a point where we had seen so much success and continued to have momentum, profitability, and a good culture. We could not imagine going out of business. Our biggest concerns were improving our company culture and how to grow thoughtfully.
Things were going great, so how could hitting the reset button be a good thing?
Well, for the most part, it wasn’t. But there are some positives to be found.
In my last post about our Covid response @fakenewyorkaccent responded with a Winston Churchill quote that I have heard and thought about quite often over the last eight months: “Never waste a good crisis.”
In a year when we could not depend on a typical plan, not wasting the crisis had to become the plan.
There were some decisions that we’d made over the years that didn’t end up working out. That said, our success allowed us to ignore them. Over time these decisions, whether they were a process, business line, or a position, added up.
Covid ripped off that safety blanket. We had to inspect each part of our business if we wanted to stay afloat.
As we’ve made dramatic changes this year, it has provided a lot of clarity.
That doesn’t make everything ok, but the least we can do in order to do right by the folks that we let go is to build back a better company.
We must make sure that we are truly living out our company's purpose to create Unexpected Moments of Happiness in the community and figure out ways to improve on the ideas and core values that made our company great to begin with.
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