Editor's Note: Although the official Small Business Week has been postponed, we at Inc. feel it's always appropriate to recognize the teams and companies that serve the needs of their communities and help keep Main Street humming--and not just for one week!
Sweet Spot makes and sells derrière-cloaking skirts in funky colors and patterns for female bikers and runners to wear over shorts and tights. But despite owning a 12-year-old Australian shepherd, founder Stephanie Lynn had never heard of WellHaven, a $50 million company operating 41 veterinary hospitals that employ 450 people in five states.
WellHaven founder John Bork was similarly unfamiliar with his neighbor. "I had seen Sweet Spot but I never used it," Bork says. "I didn't really know what it was."
From the awarding of government loans to the designation of "essential" status, coronavirus frequently has set Main Street businesses at odds with larger companies. But in places like Vancouver, where a very active chamber of commerce is an enthusiastic yenta for its members, large and middle-market companies have formed surprising partnerships with mom-and-pops to fight the pandemic.
For example, when Chandelier Bakery was unable to obtain flour to fulfill all requests for bread donations for frontline workers, United Grain Corporation, among the Pacific Northwest's largest grain exporters, supplied the wheat. Ryonet, a $50 million supplier of equipment to screen-printing businesses, not only stepped up to manufacture masks and face shields itself but has also contracted with two of its small local customers, Brainless Tees and Opake Screen Printing, to decorate them.
And in Lynn's case, the larger company helped completely turn her business around. Sweet Spot does between $350,000 and $600,000 in annual revenue, much of it at sporting events. On March 12, Lynn was selling at a pickleball tournament in College Station, Texas, while the country was rapidly shutting down.
"I got on the plane in Austin, and by the time I changed planes in Phoenix enough events had canceled to take $50,000 off my plate," she says.
The next day, she was sitting with her landlord, in tears because she would not be able to make rent. The following Monday she laid off her entire staff of six.
Can you make this?
Bork, meanwhile, had approached the chamber for help. Government and industry leaders had begun asking veterinarians to donate their PPE to health-care workers who attend to humans. Bork wanted to find a local business that could replace his surgical-grade masks and caps with something that would protect animals during procedures. The chamber quickly reached out to Sweet Spot.
The next morning, four days after Sweet Spot's closure, Bork and his chief medical officer, Bob Lester, were at Lynn's doorstep with a model surgical mask and cap. Lynn called in one of her seamstresses and over the next two days created prototypes from the fabric used for her skirts.
With check in hand for just over $10,000 to cover 500 masks and 500 caps, Lynn brought back her whole staff. "She would text me when she had 60 or 100 made," Bork says. "I would walk over and fill up my backpack, bring them back to the office, box them up, and off they would go." Sweet Spot filled the entire order in just under three weeks.
Bork ordered another 500 masks and caps, which he distributed to other veterinary hospitals in Vancouver and neighboring Portland, Oregon. With each donation, he included Lynn's contact information. A few of those practices placed their own orders. Word spread, and other groups--Vancouver public schools, an organization of home inspectors--reached out.
With skirt orders down 90 percent, Lynn launched Facewear Fashions to go after the consumer PPE market. Those masks, with names like Pinch Me Pink Floral and Doilies for Your Face, retail for $14. (Businesses, which receive volume discounts, still account for 50 percent of mask sales.) Lynn plans to cross-promote her product lines. Buy a skirt, get a free mask made from the same material. "I match mine all the time," she says.
The collaboration with WellHaven continues. Bork made an offer to match any donations of masks to worthy causes by other Vancouver businesses. When the Vancouver Farmers Market reopens, Sweet Spot will have a place in WellHaven's booth.
"Had WellHaven not come about, I don't know where I would be," Lynn says. "They saved me completely."