Great adaptations: How small businesses can beat back big challenges

September 1, 2021 | By Vicki Hyman

What do you do when your dreams don’t go according to plan?

That’s what many small business owners who depended on foot traffic wondered last year when suddenly the pandemic forced them to close their doors or to institute expensive health protocols for a limited number of customers. A global survey by the World Bank conducted in May 2020 found that a
quarter of small businesses were “non-operational.” For some, the closures may have been temporary during the early days, when so much was unknown about the virus, but another online tracker of U.S. data shows that 37.5% fewer smaller businesses were open in June 2021 than in January 2020.

Rachel Hunter, who ran her floral design business A Florae from a 1,500-square-foot storefront in Longmont, Colo., saw her revenue evaporate as most couples postponed or canceled their weddings last spring. But, she says, “there’s a lot of good that comes out of fear sometimes. If you’re not willing to let it fail, then you expand your way of thinking.”

So she dreamed bigger.

She shifted to retail, but that didn’t cover her bills because of the store’s small footprint. Then one day she spotted a much larger storefront for rent. She signed the lease, and now runs A Florae from the second floor and has a boutique specializing in vintage clothes on the first. Her father asked her why she would triple her rent and commit to hiring more staff when the pandemic was still raging.

“Because you can’t have your dream right in front of your face,” she told him, “and decide to choose fear.”

Hunter’s story is one of the dozens highlighted in Ingenious, a global filmmaker competition launched by Mastercard and Pollinate that celebrates the entrepreneurial spirit — and in particular, the way small business owners had to reimagine how they were doing business during COVID-19. Quickly pivoting to online commerce, embracing electronic payments and adopting delivery and curbside pickup was only one part of the story.

Here are some of the ways these entrepreneurs were able to reinvent their businesses, reconnect with their communities and reimagine a new future:


Reassess your assets to identify new opportunities

The American Legion Hollywood Post 43, housed in an historic 90-year-old Egyptian Revival-style building, had just undergone an expensive renovation when the pandemic hit. The income it made from hosting film festivals and movie premieres in the theater and from leasing its parking lot to the nearby Hollywood Bowl instantly vanished. “How are we going to keep this place alive?” wondered Jennifer Campbell, the post’s commander. “What do we do for revenue? Because these bills from the renovation are still coming … We had to get creative.”

In October, she was able to put the theater team back to work by turning the parking lot into Hollywood’s first-ever drive-in theater. The completely cashless venue — still in operation 10 months later, even as the indoor theater has reopened — features pre-assigned parking, touchless ticketing and QR concessions. “It was just a really awesome experience for the public to see who we are and what we do, because this was veterans creating something for Hollywood,” Campbell says. “I’m really proud of that.”


Use technology to find new customers

Fitness trainer Alexz Parvi’s Hustl studio on Australia’s Gold Coast had not been open a year when COVID-19 forced her to close her doors. But a few days later she started hosting live and recorded workouts on Instagram seven days a week for free. “I started as a way to keep my community together and to keep me sane,” she says.

Soon she had 2,000 people tuning in. “I had so many people saying, ‘Charge $50 a week,’ ‘Charge $20 a week,’” she says. “I was like, ‘I’m going to charge $5 a week and I’m gonna make it available to every single person in the world.’ Because right now I’m not interested in making millions. I’m interested in keeping this brand afloat and keeping communities together.”

Now Hustl has 32,000 followers on Instagram, and Parvi has 13,000. “I remember sitting down on my couch just watching — ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding — and thinking, ‘Oh my God.’ I never knew how much technology can change someone’s life. Twelve months ago I was scrubbing toilets and folding hospital corners, and now I am paying 18 people’s wages, I have two CEOs, I have a booming online business.”

In Newberg, Ore., UFlora Planthouse hosted plant speed dates on Instagram, posting photos of plants with different pots to encourage customers to mix and match, with delivery for those found botanical soul mates. “Digital payment technology was crucial during a time like COVID, because of the fact that many times we weren’t meeting face to face with the people that were purchasing our products,” says Taylor Hickenell, a co-owner. “One of the things we never could have imagined is that we were actually selling more during COVID than we had previously.”


Find strength in numbers through meaningful partnerships

When the French-born cheesemonger Aurore Ghigo opened her tiny fromagerie and café in Balgowlah, just north of Sydney, she had no idea its name — Cheese on Wheels — would be so prescient. When Australia’s strict lockdowns in the early months of COVID-19 forced the closure of the Sydney-area farmers markets, a major source of income for Ghigo, she turned to delivery. But she soon realized that her fellow stall holders were in the same boat. So she created the Market Drop, a website where customers could shop from any purveyor via one online basket, with no minimum for delivery.

“We were all in the same boat, running around doing deliveries any time of the day,” she says. “We are all in this together, and we have to get ourselves out of trouble together.”

Hickernell too found success by joining forces. Once the lockdown ended in Oregon, he asked fellow vendors and botanical artisans to participate in the Living Room Market, an outdoor fair, using mobile card readers for simple and safe transactions. “There are so many digital resources that allow small business owners to create more personal connections as well as create a more enjoyable experience for the customer.”


Increase loyalty by staying close to your customers

On a Saturday in March 2020, Kelly Nenezian, who runs Gainesville Healing House, a mental health clinic in north Florida, learned that the state would be imposing a ban on most in-person business that Monday. Nenezian had to quickly pivot to online therapy, including finding a HIPAA-compliant platform and bringing her clients on board.

“It was messy at first,” she says. “The first week on teletherapy was trying to figure it out, for them and for us.” Some of her clients lost their jobs during the pandemic, with no money to spare for therapy at a time when they needed it the most, so Nenezian and her staff worked out payment agreements on an individual basis.

“The relationship with our clients got so much stronger during COVID,” she says, “because they could feel we cared about them, and we could feel they cared about us and wanted us to be OK, too.”

In the British beachside resort town of Brighton, a distillery founder faced the loss of her hospitality accounts when the U.K. went into lockdown. “We looked around the distillery,” Kathy Caton of Brighton Gin says. “We may not be selling any gin, but one thing that we had was ethanol — and skills, and a desire to help.” So Caton and her team started churning out bottles of hand sanitizer instead.

When they pivoted back to gin, they also instituted home delivery on cargo bikes and with delivery vans (and with occasional special deliveries by a drag queen). “I spoke to many people who hadn’t spoken to another human being for weeks,” Caton says. “[We’re] trying to raise a smile and spread a bit of cheer ... A drag queen with a gin in hand is going to lift anyone’s spirits.”


Video credits, from top: "Hollywood's First Drive-In," Ryan Pratt; "She is a HUSTLR," Drishti Videography; "Houseplant Happiness,"  Isaac O’Farrell; "Cheese on Wheels," Itchy Feet Digital; "Healing in Crisis," Isaac Applegate; "Spirit of Brighton Delivered," Happenstance Films. 

Vicki Hyman, director, communications, Mastercard