Here’s How I’m Making My Business Virtual Post-Coronavirus
Seven entrepreneurs share how they're adapting (and even growing!) their physical businesses online.
From real-world to virtual
It’s still playing out but one thing is already apparent: The coronavirus pandemic may be the biggest economic blow to hit Americans since World War II. One of the hardest-hit sectors are small businesses that rely on in-person interactions but have been shut down to help with social distancing restrictions, like bars, restaurants, therapists, and gyms. But entrepreneurs are known for being excellent problem solvers and thinking on their feet and many are already figuring out how to adapt their business to this new world. We talked to people in different industries to find out exactly what they’re doing now to maintain (and even grow!) their business virtually. Here’s how much the coronavirus has been costing the world (so far).
“I’m streaming workouts online”
Gyms were one of the first public places closed in many cities as leaders worked to follow the government’s recommendations on social distancing. From a health perspective, it’s a good idea; all of those people breathing heavily in a confined space while sharing equipment seems ripe for virus transmission. But from a business perspective it’s a challenge, says Anthony Crouchelli, master/founding trainer GRIT Boxing and EXOS Trainer in New York City.
After all gyms in New York state were closed indefinitely on March 15 by order of Governor Andrew Cuomo, Crouchelli began ramping up his online training, coaching, and classes. “One-on-one online training was simple as I had already been training clients around the world that way,” he says. For group classes, he joined forces with seven other trainers (Jennifer Ortiz, Rob Almonte, Jill Barger, Martin Suriel, Scott Oziros, Rafael Turcios, and Valentina Elise) to offer HIIT, shadow boxing, dance, stretch, and more via Instagram Live on his Instagram channel, @anthonycrouchelli. The classes have been an instant success. “Last week we had over 9,000 profile views on the platform and each 30-minute class normally finishes with around 200 to 400 views.” Crouchelli doesn’t charge for the classes, but clients have been voluntarily donating to his Paypal and Venmo accounts.
But it’s more than just the monetary donations that have been supporting Crouchelli. “The amount of kind, warm-hearted, and sincere direct messages we have received from people telling us how ‘we are getting them through this’ is the reason why we do what we do.” These are the everyday habits that will be forever changed by the coronavirus.
“We’ve switched to take-out only”
Ever since Adrienne Burke re-opened Greiser’s Coffee & Market in Easton, Connecticut in November 2018 after taking over the lease and making over the space, she has worked to transform the coffee shop into a vital hub and gathering spot for the small Fairfield County town. At the under 1,000-square foot café, Burke has hosted art shows and concerts with local artists, prides herself on featuring produce from the area’s farms, and has thrown parties and festivals in conjunction with other local businesses.
Burke made the decision to switch to take-out only on March 15, the day before all restaurants were ordered to close (save for take-out and delivery orders) by the state because of the COVID-19 outbreak. “When I saw in the news that cafés in Paris had closed, I knew it would only be a matter of time before it happened here, and I wanted to be proactive for the health and safety of our customers and staff instead of waiting for the government to force something on us,” Burke shares.
Via its Facebook and Instagram channels, customers were invited to call, text, or email their orders in advance for pick up. Burke also offered contact-less curbside pickup so customers could grab their orders off of a wire shelf right outside the store’s front door without having to step foot inside. Greiser’s has since switched to contact-less pick up exclusively to better protect its staff.
But Burke didn’t stop there. She recognized that as the town of Easton doesn’t have a grocery store, residents might need more than the lattes, muffins, or paninis she regularly serves up. “For grocery staples, our customers are more likely to drive 15 or 20 minutes to stores like Trader Joe’s and Stop n Shop,” Burke says. “But with the pandemic, we saw an opportunity—and even an obligation—to provide our customers with a safe and trusted place to get what they need without having to go wait in line with dozens of other people wearing gloves and surgical masks.” So, she began advertising the store’s staples more aggressively on its social media channels and expanded into some new categories. “When several customers contacted me to say they couldn’t find flour anywhere, I was able to get four 25-lb bags of flour from our distributor, which I sold to four people in our community who offered to portion out their bags for others who also needed it.”
And because some nights you’re just not in the mood to cook, she is letting the Skinny Pines Pizza Truck, a locally-owned favorite, set up shop in the parking lot on Thursday evenings. Customers place their orders on the truck’s website and their steaming hot wood-fired pies will be ready and waiting for them at a makeshift drive-through at their pre-specified time.
While Burke concedes that, “Selling grocery staples is a much lower-margin business than what we have been doing as a purveyor of indulgences like matcha lattes and local honey,” she notes there have been some upsides. “The crisis has forced us to finally do some things we’ve been meaning to do all along, such as cataloging all of our inventory on our website with photographs, enabling online ordering, and aggressively asking customers to subscribe to our email list.” And it has also helped her appreciate her hardworking staff even more. “I already knew I had a professional and reliable team of people working with me, but it turns out they are all great in a crisis, too,” she says. “I’m proud of how we’ve been able to pivot so quickly.”
“We are doing interior designing via video chat and computer models”
When it comes to jobs that must be in the real world, interior design is about as real as it gets. How else can you get a good feel for the space, understand the customers’ needs, and make sure it’s all done properly? Well, when John and Sherri Monte, owners of Elegant Simplicity, discovered that their hometown of Seattle, was the early epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak, they knew they had to start answering that question fast.
“We’re a local service provider and are constantly working in the homes of clients with them and alongside other tradesmen but with COVID-19, we’ve had a lot of clients ask to delay or put projects on hold,” John explains. But instead of getting stuck on this fact, they decided to look for new opportunities presented by the quarantine.
“With a lot of people working from home now, there’s been a demand for designing and organizing home offices,” he says. But they still had to get around the challenge of not being able to go into clients’ homes. “We decided to use video chat for the initial consultation and then offer virtual design and organizing sessions to help get clients set up for success,” he explains, adding they’ve also switched to paperless billing and online appointment booking.
One unexpected benefit is that this has allowed them to focus more on empowering and teaching their clients how to design, organize, and declutter which will help them better maintain their new spaces, John says. (You can start in your home with these 50 organizing tips from professionals.)
“Our clients have actually been really excited about the new system,” he says. “Everyone understands that we are all doing whatever it takes to continue pursuing our work and this is a fast and efficient way to get it done.”
“We’re doing museum tours online”
Museum Hack is a business that gives “renegade tours” of museums, aimed at people who think museums are musty and boring. “Instead of just walking people through a museum, we focus on salacious stories, secret scandals, and all the things history books left out,” says CEO Tasia Duske.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit and suddenly she had no choice but to stop the tours. “It all happened so fast! Museums were closing left and right, social distancing became the norm, and all our public tours and team building events were being canceled,” she says. “It was clear we were going to have to adapt or possibly be put out of business.”
Meeting virtually, the team decided to start offering 90-minute online Storytelling Workshops. “We rolled these out two weeks ago and have already won back 40 percent of our canceled business as well as attracted new clients looking for things to do from home,” she says.
The other piece of the puzzle has been building and improving its virtual corporate culture. Even though the team has been meeting mostly remotely since 2013, this pandemic has offered unique challenges, Duske says. “We’ve had to focus more on how to help remote employees feel supported, heard, cared for, and motivated during these challenging times,” she explains.
She still hopes to return to real museums once the crisis has passed but in the meantime, she says these changes have been a good push to improve their online services. “That’s certainly the trajectory we were heading before all of this, now everything has just been sped up times 100,” she says. You can also check out these 11 adorable animal cams, which are like a trip to the zoo.
“I’m teaching music lessons via FaceTime”
A veteran musician, composer, and teacher, David Kanter, 73, of Washington D.C., has been teaching in-home music lessons for decades and thought there was no other way to do it. That is until the coronavirus pandemic hit and his age made it too dangerous for him to visit his students. Both he and they were very disappointed, until his wife Annick convinced him to try teaching virtual lessons via FaceTime on his Mac, allowing him to stay safely in isolation while still doing what he loves.
“I am not a techie! So it took a bit of coaxing for me to use the Internet to interact with my students,” he says. “But it was very easy to set up, all I really need is a good Internet connection. Barring a few minor interruptions, the lessons have run pretty smoothly.”
While nothing is as good as in-person, the FaceTime lessons do offer some surprising advantages over real life, he says. “I have found that the challenges of synchronized playing with them in the new format has forced me to listen more, and perhaps talk a bit less; this is always a benefit,” he says. “I haven’t noticed any lack of attention or engagement, the students actually love it. Part of that, I believe, is that I’m meeting them on their own technological terms.”
Both the students and their parents have been pleased to be able to continue with the music lessons, something that brings such happiness and structure during such uncertain times. “We haven’t skipped a beat with their studies. Being on enforced breaks from school, this is a valuable break in their schedule,” Kanter says. “And, as a teacher, I am glad to learn a new approach to lessons.”
“I’m selling my craft beer online”
Federation Brewing, a brewery in Oakland, California, has developed a long list of devoted patrons, both at their taproom and through the local bars and restaurants that stock their craft beers. Unfortunately, bars and restaurants have been some of the hardest-hit businesses during the coronavirus pandemic and many have been forced to close entirely for now.
“Obviously this was a huge hit for us too, bars that are closed aren’t buying beer,” says Aram Cretan, head brewer and co-founder. But just because bars are closed doesn’t mean people don’t want to drink. So he decided to focus on online sales.
“We were already working on moving into online, direct-to-consumer sales and this was the push we needed to put it in place,” he says. “We’ve basically moved everything online. Local health and alcohol ordinances allow us to both deliver and ship directly to consumers, so we’ve put up a web store with both a la carte and subscription options, in addition to gift cards that people can use once we re-open.”
The hardest part has been figuring out the logistics of fulfilling orders, he says. While they work out the kinks, Cretan says they’re getting a lot of support from the community. “I’ve been getting texts and emails from our customers asking how they can help support us—not just how they can get beer for themselves, but how they can support us as a business,” he says. “I can’t tell you how much that means to us and reminds me why we do this.”
Once the crisis has passed, he’s confident business will return locally as well. “In the long term, I don’t think that people are going to change anything fundamental about how they go out and socialize—the question is just how long will it take to get back to normal, and who will be left standing once we get there,” he says. Neighbors helping neighbors is a positive trend during this pandemic.
“We’re holding virtual networking events”
The company Brunchwork provides in-person career advancement and networking opportunities for young professionals in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City—and one of its biggest selling points is the “in-person” part. But when the government recommended social distancing, founder and CEO Paulina Karpis knew she’d have to pause on all real-world events indefinitely.
Instead of putting her whole business on hold, however, she brainstormed with her team and they came up with “brunchwork at home,” an interactive yet completely virtual experience. It not only allows people to chat online but has added features specifically to professional networking, like live polling, a chatbox, breakout rooms, access to speakers, and a place to pitch business ideas.
“This was a massive change for us and very challenging as we had to build, learn, and test a new platform,” she says. “This was a huge pivot for us as it required us to overhaul our marketing and logistics strategy completely.”
The pivot was a genius move and Karpis says her clients are loving the new system. “They are happy we’re still providing them with a way to learn from top-notch speakers and connect with smart peers,” she says, adding that it’s also provided an opportunity for growth. “This has opened up a whole new market for us. Before, we could only provide events to people who lived in and were visiting NYC, LA, or SF. Now, anyone with an Internet connection is able to participate.”
“I’m counseling people through teletherapy”
Talk therapy is traditionally done in person but it is one business that does translate well online and Carla Manly, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist in Santa Rosa, California, has been offering it for several years as an option to clients who travel. So when the shelter-in-place order went into effect in California she was prepared. Or so she thought.
She specializes in treating anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, this means that the pandemic has hit her patients doubly hard: Many of her clients’ mental issues have been aggravated by the panic surrounding the coronavirus but they’re also very anxious about doing therapy online. “Those who have high anxiety, chronic depression, isolation issues, and PTSD prefer and even need in-person sessions, yet it’s important to urge clients to shelter in place when at all possible,” she says.
So a big part of taking her business virtual has been figuring out how to meet her clients’ unique needs while helping them become more comfortable with the video-chat format. Another wrinkle is sorting out payments as insurance often doesn’t cover teletherapy sessions and billing can be complicated. and there is the issue of how to get paperwork properly submitted.
However, all these inconveniences are worth it as it’s far better than interrupting treatment for people who are already very vulnerable to this particular type of crisis, she says. “Teletherapy is becoming increasingly necessary,” she says. “While nothing is as powerful as an in-person session, video sessions are a wonderful back-up and I’m glad we have the technology for this.”