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Positive examples of pivot strategies and business changes made during COVID show how innovation, investment and community have improved things for these SMEs.
According to a survey by training organisation The Entourage, one in five Australian businesses have accelerated their top-line performance since March – not only did they stay afloat during the travails of 2020, they reported increased revenue and profit. “People have to realise there are businesses, like mine, that are growing,” says Karen Edbrooke, whose BG fuller-size lingerie and swimwear company had 20 staff before the pandemic and now has 49. Whether they’ve tweaked their product or totally pivoted, here’s how five operations made business changes during COVID-19 (coronavirus) to take their SME to new heights – and what you can learn from them.
Japan Scissors sells specialist cutting tools to hair salons and barbers, an industry that has suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic, so founder and director James Adams was “expecting a difficult year”. But when a stream of first-time visitors to the site started enquiring about cheaper options, he discovered he had a whole new market: ordinary people wanting to cut hair at home and needing decent tools and advice. He introduced beginner scissors, added more educational content to the brand’s website and has subsequently enjoyed a doubling – sometimes tripling – of its standard 100 to 150 orders per month.
Similarly, Talea Bader, co-founder of Workit Spaces co-working spaces, says it took a few weeks and some 3am brainstorming sessions to decide there were opportunities amid the challenges. As Workit made business changes to offer counsel and discounts to clients late in March, its founders saw the e-commerce businesses occupying Workit’s Sydney-based office space “doubling and tripling their sales overnight” and hungry for more space. Workit is now at 100 per cent occupancy and will be launching a 9000-metre-square space in stages from November, three times the size of its current facilities.
Workit also invested in its e-commerce hub in response to the new world of stay-at-home shoppers, providing its e-commerce clients that only sell products online with showroom and storage areas, as well as integrated logistics to manage packing and shipping. It’s hired digital staff to develop the world’s first 4PL (fourth-party logistics) software and fulfilment service, SKUtopia, which will launch early next year.
What You Can Do: Identify and address new consumer habits that will stick around post-pandemic.
Pre-COVID, 80 per cent of The Other Straw’s growing footprint was business-to-business – restaurants, bars and festivals buying the Mornington Peninsula-based company’s reusable bamboo straws. “That cut off overnight,” says co-founder Jamie-Lee Kay. But the company had observed the bubble tea trend – the milky Taiwanese tea packed with tapioca pearls – and developed an extra-wide straw for their small e-commerce store. “It was the safest option because most [bubble tea] stores are takeaways and less affected by restrictions,” she explains. “We ran A/B testing Facebook ads and it blew up. The straws sold out in a week.” Prototyping the straws and Australia’s first bamboo toothbrush with a detachable head (which also sold out in a week) was a more drawn-out process than usual given the makers are based in Vietnam and flight restrictions meant further delays, but “customers are understanding; we’ve been transparent at every touchpoint”.
Also investing in innovation was BG (also known as Big Girls Don’t Cry Anymore), which started hiring more office and LiveChat staff in April and buying more laptops, bringing forward more virtual fittings (where customers schedule Skype and Zoom consultations) and doing more social media and live events.
What You Can Do: Test new products and services with trusted clients before a broader release.
Recent Ventures Insights’ research found 70 per cent of Australian consumers now consciously support local businesses. Stride, a fashion retailer that sells only ethical and locally made labels, increased the emphasis on Australian-made this year. “Australians have always been patriotic,” says owner Jordan Wilkes. “But there’s been a surge in Aussies looking for locally made since March. In particular, ‘Australian-made clothing’ has performed admirably for my Google Ads and SEO efforts recently.”
What You Can Do: Get certified with the Australian Made logo and tap into a network of partners and supporters.
When Workit shot videos of its e-commerce clients sharing their experiences of the pandemic, the intention was to get the voice of small business onto LinkedIn, IGTV, Facebook Watch and YouTube. “It was to encourage our clients,” says Bader. “If we put their names out there, they would try to do more to improve. And that’s what it did. It created an energy and translated as a much better branding exercise for those businesses. If the client grows, we grow.”
In April, BG’s Edbrooke leased vacant premises next door to the shop in Brisbane, expanded its distribution facilities, added a new BG TV studio and launched a café and pop-up area to showcase other labels. “I believe in helping other businesses,” she says. “There are a lot of plus-size clothing companies online. Why not give them free rent in bricks and mortar for four weeks? Then we use each other’s social media.”
What You Can Do: Extend your reach by cross-promoting with other relevant brands.
Japan Scissors’ Adams says that while “all the energy has been on home hairdressing”, he continues to work on his Perth-based company’s second strategy: to target an international audience. But there are more radical ways to prepare for an uncertain future. Clayton Christensen, the late business consultant who came up with the term “disruptive innovation”, urged business owners to employ “jobs to be done” thinking rather than considering sectors.
BG’s Edbrooke has employed a similar mindset for her business. “If you’re big-busted, you can’t not wear a bra,” she says, articulating a customer need that has not changed through all the iterations of her 28-year-old business, from wholesaling to a massive space with pop-up store and café to virtual fittings.
What You Can Do: Use scenario planning to see how a particular strategy could play out across multiple futures.