Robyn Hochglaube, an Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO) member in Toronto, is founder and CEO of both RadTagz and YourSafetySupplyStore.com, which aims to keep businesses safe, healthy and strong by providing personal protective equipment. We asked Robyn how she pivoted her business in the face of the Covid-19 crisis. Here's what she shared:
Know what drives you
As entrepreneurs who put our hearts and lives into our companies, the Covid-19 crisis was an abrupt wake-up call. I feel fortunate to be a member of EO, a community of like-minded entrepreneurs who are facing the economic and social turbulence together. In my EO Forum--a small group that meets monthly--we examined our businesses, values, motivational factors and key drivers for success. Many of us decided to make a significant pivot to survive this crisis.
EO helped me realize what aspects of my business satisfy my values. By examining past patterns, I learned that I'm passionate about making connections between people and building community. I don't think I would've noticed that or truly understood myself if I hadn't been encouraged to go deep and reflect from an internal perspective. That's a gift EO has given to me. I know what drives me: community.
It makes sense. Growing up, my family's business was summer camps, where I developed a passion for budget travel, camping and taking kids on trips. I started my first company, a teen travel camp called Westbound Adventures, and ran it for three years. Looking back, building community and connections has repeatedly been where I thrive within my businesses.
That realization has taught me so much about myself. It's helping me understand why I make certain decisions and react in certain ways.
Build strong relationships
Before the virus changed everything, I was growing my company, Radtagz. Though we sell bracelets, the objective is to create a connected humanity business--with bracelets symbolizing those connections.
RadTagz products are manufactured in China. When Covid-19 hit, the relationships I'd been building in that business were just starting to come to fruition.
One of my suppliers in China, whom I've visited and formed a strong relationship with, emailed to ask if my family and I needed protective face masks.
We didn't at that moment. But soon after, with personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages, I started thinking that if I could get masks, it might be feasible to supply them to others. I had a few aha! moments, followed by a furious 24 hours investigating the viability of this business plan. Everything lined up.
The lesson I learned is how important relationships are: This business idea was viable because of the strong relationships I'd built, emphasizing teamwork and cooperative problem-solving to help each other. My suppliers went above and beyond to find the right PPE suppliers, introduce me, make sure the products were of excellent quality--all without putting themselves in the middle, so I could get reasonable pricing to pass along to customers. Clearly, even though I was a small customer to my suppliers, the way we worked together had value.
I pivoted from supplying a retail item to supplying PPE. The transition was smooth because the strong relationships that made it possible stood on a solid foundation.
Confront challenges judiciously
While the shift in product line was fairly seamless, I faced other unexpected challenges.
I decided to focus on supplying PPE to small- and medium-sized businesses, rather than hospitals.
Here's where being a member of an entrepreneurial community again proved invaluable: I posted on my community's Facebook page to ascertain the interest level for purchasing PPE. EO members spread the word, told their friends, and enabled me to ship a few "test orders" to verify my process.
I purchased CovidSafetySupply.com as a domain name, thinking that Covid was a good keyword to have, and I built a Shopify site.
Within four days and in the midst of dozens of orders, I ran into an insurmountable problem: Because scam websites were popping up claiming to sell PPE, Shopify froze my incoming funds, requiring proof of shipment, tracking numbers and waybills. Even though I was operating legitimately, this stopped my forward progress.
I lost a lot of sleep. The Canadian dollar took a dive. It felt like everything was imploding. Even my email address was blocked from servers because it had the name Covid in it!
So, I got a new domain name and transferred everything from the previous website. Once I reopened, I thought it would be smooth sailing. Wrong!
The next hurdle occurred around shipments being returned to global shipping companies in China with requests to resubmit paperwork. Delays of 10, 15 and then 20 days meant my clients weren't receiving their orders in a timely manner.
I endured more sleepless nights. Though I never intended to hold inventory locally, eventually, I decided to do exactly that. Now I fulfill orders from Toronto, and am no longer at the mercy of global shipping protocols.
Leverage the benefits of community
Once again, I learned the benefit of being involved in a community of entrepreneurs. Other EO members are also now supplying PPE, many in larger quantities than I am. This is a big benefit, because I can buy product from their companies to fulfill orders, when necessary.
In addition, I've gained new clients through EO members in other countries who have clients that need PPE in my region. I've even got several international deals in the works.
I feel good that I'm able to deliver high-quality PPE with integrity, by delivering it quickly and with normalized margins--I'm focused on trying to keep prices low.
Savor your achievements
One thing I learned about selling PPE is that you can't use social media to market these products. Every online ad I placed got taken down. I can't connect my product list to Google shopping because it's PPE-related. With those marketing channels closed to PPE businesses, it's very difficult to let people know what I'm selling. Other EO members with wholesale distribution businesses utilized existing customer lists, but I didn't have that luxury. Getting the word out about my products continues to be a challenge.
However, I won't compare myself with entrepreneurs who started from a different mark than I did. I've started from scratch and am cash-flow positive. I've climbed a steep learning curve. It's a growth process. I can appreciate what other people are capable of, but I must also appreciate what I've accomplished. In these turbulent times, you have to celebrate every win!