NEW YORK (WCBS 880) -- Three local entrepreneurs who have proven sustainability through a series of essential pivots to survive the COVID-19 pandemic are sharing their advice for their peers in the business community.
Here are the major takeaways from the first-ever WCBS Virtual Business Breakfast, hosted by Joe Connolly.
Keep Your Ear to the Ground
Cindi Bigelow, third generation owner of Fairfield-based Bigelow Tea, relied on her experience and that of her team to make quick operational decisions that they would normally deliberate on for some time, because it was not an option as state and federal workplace health guidance changed rapidly.
“Listen to the sales people and encouraging the sales people,” Bigelow said as segments of her company’s revenue was wiped out amid the crisis and others have increased upwards of 200 percent.
She has weekly meetings with her sales team to learn how customers and retailers behaviors have changed and what that means for Bigelow Tea’s future.
Bigelow also believes strongly in being the face of communications with customers and partners as an owner during this unprecedented crisis.
“I’m saying to my sales team, whether it’s a good news story or not a good news story, use me,” she said.
Do Not Undersell the Art of Communication
It may sound simple and obvious, but many business leaders fail to communicate effectively to both customers and employees. Michael Bednark, founder of Bednark Studio in Brooklyn, says ensuring everyone on the same page is especially important during a time of crisis.
“The feedback we got early on was that we weren’t communicating well enough and we weren’t fostering that community you naturally sort of have when everyone’s in a team setting and in an office together,” Bednark said.
“Clear communication, making sure that everyone knew what was going on, what was to come, and what we were unsure of,” said Bednark on how he improved in that area since March.
He needed just two weeks at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic to move his Brooklyn Navy Yard factory into a larger space in the historic industrial complex to ramp up a war-like manufacturing endeavor to provide Personal Protective Equipment or PPE to New York City hospital workers, beating the largest face shield producer, Bauer Hockey, to market with its design.
“I know we’re talking with the Navy Yard here, seeing what’s available to us,” Bednark answered WCBS Business Producer Neil A. Carousso’s question regarding negotiating with landlords. “Is there a way we can get some sort of rent abatement here to get us through the next few months, and then, see what happens on the other side or see if we can extend the lease with better terms?” he pondered.
Bednark Studio is currently hiring assembly line workers. In the last month, it began designing and installing plastic dividers for ride-sharing drivers' cars to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Bednark shares its designs with other companies as an example of the community-focused businessman as the world grapples with the unprecedented health crisis that set off economic turmoil.
“Follow the Customer”
Joe Colangelo developed an app-based solution to commuter parking and had been thriving in the space until the pandemic shut down businesses and put the brakes on mass transportation. New Jersey-based Boxcar quickly pivoted to grocery delivery and pick-up, above ground pool installation, car detailing and drive-in movies for brand awareness.
"Talk to your customers on the phone. Just say, 'Hey, can I grab you for fifteen minutes? I just want to hear what your problems are,'" Colangelo advised.
“How did you want to act during this crisis?” reflected Colangelo. “Were you out there helping people, treating your counterparties, your partners fairly? Because, you will build up the best brand and that brand will be around for 30-40 years if you treat people fairly right now."
Make Prudent Business Decisions
“Attack your cost line,” Colangelo emphasized.
He explained that cost-cutting is necessary and one way to start is by attempting to renegotiate subscription agreements. A merchant may be content with receiving a partial payment during the pandemic rather than taking a risk that a company could file for bankruptcy.
“This is a real crisis and what a crisis does is it brings out the best in good people,” the Boxcar founder said. “Talk to the people who have helped you over the years and not everybody’s going to be in the same situation, but a lot of them may be in a position to help.”
“Tell Your Story”
Ramon Ray from Smart Hustle Media submitted an audience question about how small businesses can utilize video in their marketing. Bigelow said she’s a “big fan” of using video to show prospective clients your personality.
“I think small businesses have a really unique story,” Cindi said, adding that video “Can give you that opportunity to have that transparency that people are really looking for as well as that ability to say why you’re different and what makes you special.”