Community Becomes Critical for Success as Female Founders Pivot to Digital 

From fitness to fashion, the coronavirus pandemic is forcing businesses of every kind into unchartered territory. It’s the nimble, community-minded founders who are leading the way, launching digital strategies that will stay relevant far beyond the virus.

By Anna Deutsch

Cropped shot of a group of unrecognizable people holding one another's thumbs in a single line

On March 12, as news of social distancing and school closures began sweeping the nation, New York-based Marissa Evans Alden wasn’t just strategizing what this would mean for her two-year old and five-month old daughters. As CEO and co-founder of Sawyer, a platform that connects parents with neighborhood activities and classes for kids, she knew her business model was going to need a major overhaul—and fast.

“As we’re dealing with a global pandemic, we’ve had to spin up a new arm of the business in a matter of days. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” admits Alden. The rapid process brought together her 10-person development, product, design, and marketing teams. Together, they were able to add a digital destination on their marketplace, where parents can discover virtual classes running across the country.

In addition to launching new features and updating software, Alden is also ensuring it’s as easy as possible for providers and educators to host live and pre-recorded classes directly through their software (they have integrations with Zoom, Facebook, Google, and more). Within the first 48 hours, Sawyer had activated 250 online activities, from music and ballet to art and STEM, and now has over 1,000 which are growing daily. They’ve also doubled their customer base and are able to reach five times more children in a single virtual class. “Providers have been able to stretch their reach beyond their neighborhoods, having students attend across the country, all while allowing them to supplement earnings through this difficult time,” says Alden of the upside of a tough situation.

It’s now been just over three weeks since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, and there isn’t a person or place on Earth that isn’t affected. As measures to flatten the curve become more extreme bringing the economy to a halt, business owners worldwide had to pivot to accommodate an unprecedented landscape. And with “business as usual” off the table, it’s been impressive to see how female founders like Alden have been proactive in pivoting their strategies. Those who have harnessed the power of community and embraced technology to provide value and support rather than just sell a product have set themselves up well to weather the storm.

 

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⏱ 2pm EST TODAY ⏱ LIVE with Krissy & Chloe 📺 You bring your mat, they’ll bring the entertainment ⚡️

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One of the quickest pivots has come from the fitness industry. Before many studios even had the chance to work out long term logistics, they began live-streaming classes to keep their communities engaged during the transition to a mass work from home edict. Sky Ting Yoga co-founders Krissy Jones and Chloe Kernahgan were among the studios who didn’t skip a beat. “We bought a webcam and did some quick research into both using Zoom and Vimeo as platforms and decided to go with Vimeo to allow more viewers at one time,” explains Kernahgan. They initially planned to charge a small amount, but after seeing the gratitude expressed by the community across the globe following their first class, they decided to keep the live streams free with an option to donate.

Like many others, Jones and Kernahgan are also looking to the long term, especially with their studios shut indefinitely. They established a subscription-based streaming platform Sky Ting TV in November for $20 a month (one studio class us usually $22), and have been evolving the concept in the face of the current situation. In the two weeks since COVID-19, they’ve seen an 80 percent increase in subscribers, even with the donation-based live streams also on offer. “Now that online streaming is potentially our only source of income for a while, we’re finessing our schedule and exploring company sponsorships of classes that could cross-promote brands.”

Pre-COVID-19, at-home fitness had struggled to take off in recent years. According to a 2019 study by LatentView Analytics, the community aspect of gyms and studio classes is a key motivator for working out. With this option off the table for the foreseeable future, the industry is well-poised to evolve as people are pushed out of their comfort zone to embrace virtual class models. This, of course, extends beyond fitness to any traditionally in-person forum.

 

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The same Tia Care team you know and love. Now 100% virtual.⁠ ⁠ As a healthcare provider responsible for both real patient lives and that of our employees, the decision to close our physical doors was a bit different for us than others in the neighborhood. ⁠ ⁠ To date, we’ve been wowed by our Care Team’s commitment to keeping the physical Tia Clinic open, believing that we have an ethical responsibility to serve both women in NYC turning to us for Covid-19 concerns, as well as to support a healthcare system from being overburdened in these unprecedented times. ⁠ ⁠ Yet, the rising number of coronavirus cases in NYC has changed the risk profile for both our employees and patients showing up for in-person care, causing us to re-think Tia’s role in curbing this pandemic and the essentialness of IRL services. ⁠ ⁠ In light of this, we’ve made the decision to temporarily close the physical Tia Clinic doors and go 100% virtual — upholding our commitment to patients who need care and the greater NYC health system inundated by volume, all while practicing strict social distancing required to #flattenthecurve.⁠ ⁠ While yes — you can’t get a Pap smear on the Internet — we are providing expanded Virtual Care support for our patients through: ⁠ ⁠ ✔️Chat with Your Care Team — 7-days a week, Monday through Friday 8 AM – 8 PM, and Saturdays & Sundays 9 AM – 5 PM ⁠ ⁠ ✔️Video Visits — prioritizing Covid-19 assessments, cold/flu, and Rx refills⁠ ⁠ ✔️Coming soon! Additional video visits for other types of gynecology & primary care consults⁠ ⁠ Offline and online, we are here for you always.⁠ ⁠ With (virtual) ❤️, your Tia Care Team⁠

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When a physical space accounts for 100 percent of revenue stream, pivoting online is especially tricky. Tia, a women’s healthcare platform with services ranging from gynecology to wellness, was also forced to shut their doors. “As a founder of a healthcare company, making the decision to temporarily close our physical Tia Clinic was more complex than the average business,” explains Carolyn Witte, Tia’s co-founder and CEO. “We had to balance the fact that all of our revenue came from the physical clinic with employee safety, patient safety, and a healthcare system in New York City on the brink of collapse.”

In just five days, Tia established a 100 percent virtual care model, from virtual COVID-19 screenings to one-on-one acupressure sessions. So far, the response from the community has exceeded expectations. “While I continue to believe that women’s health is omnichannel—obviously not everything can be done on the Internet—how women are building relationships with Tia’s providers and between other women in the Tia community virtually has wowed me, and I think that consumer psychology will be forever changed.”

“We had five days to bring it to life, so we focused on what was critical for launch.”

For Ethel’s Club, a Brooklyn-based social and wellness club for people of color, meeting the demand for virtual community meant fast-tracking digital memberships and creating both live and pre-recorded virtual programing available throughout the day. The club’s founder and CEO Naj Austin felt that it was key to build out a content ecosystem to support the creators and freelancers who are most affected right now. “We had five days to bring it to life, so we focused on what was critical for launch,” explains Austin, who concentrated on community, much like she always has. Maintaining intention throughout the quick process was key: “What do they want? What do they need right now? How can we make them feel safe? What brings them joy?”

Ethel’s Club digital memberships cost $17 a month (a monthly House Membership is $195) and response has been overwhelmingly positive so far. “Beyond just making it more accessible for people, it engages a lot of people to try classes or workshops they maybe would not have tried before this all happened. Being literally stuck at home may make you try different or new things—Netflix gets old after a while!”

As businesses pivot their offerings to evolving consumer demands, the question becomes: for how long can these less expensive but further reaching  virtual membership models provide a sustainable revenue stream? For fashion brands, the shift in strategy isn’t as simple as going digital. Retail is in dire straits due to the breakdown of supply chains and wholesale. For perspective, China produces one third of the world’s apparel and the Lombardy region of Italy produces 22 percent of Italy’s total GDP. Not to mention people are hesitant to shop during the uncertainty of a crisis

“We’ve been hit super hard,” explains Hillary Taymour, founder of buzzy New York-based brand Collina Strada. “Stores have all cancelled spring orders, so I’ve been figuring out how to shift to e-commerce but also how to tactfully promote it without begging people to shop right now.” On social media, Taymour has been keeping it light, engaging her followers in playful ways including a fan art competition.

She’s also been using her resources to sew masks for @Masks4Medicine, a grassroots campaign started by New York doctors seeking to help healthcare professionals on the frontlines of COVID-19.  The masks got such a positive response from her followers that she decided to offer them as a gift with purchase for online orders as a small, but relevant, incentive to shop.

“How we cope during this time showcases what our brand ethos is,” says Taymour. “I want to show my followers that we can have fun. I don’t want to make people feel guilty for not buying right now. A lot of our customers are industry people—freelance photographers and writers—many of them don’t have jobs at the moment.” She believes this will change how fashion brands operate forever, shifting most businesses to direct-to-consumer and shuttering many of the larger stores.

Jill Martinelli, who co-founded Lady Grey Jewelry along with Sabine Le Guyader, has also leaned into the authentic relationship she has built with her customer base. “It’s annoying to see salesy email blasts and perfectly curated Instagram posts when the world feels like it’s falling apart,” says Martinelli. “We know when to hit pause on the promotional materials, and just take a step back and remind our customers that we are feeling what they’re feeling, what affects them also affects us.” Lady Grey Jewelry teamed up with Soft Skincare to donate 20 percent of sales to help purchase and ship N95 masks directly to New York hospitals.

 

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Went into the studio today to wrap up a few orders – Brooklyn feels so strange. As of right now, we are shipping orders twice a week. Our studio is just a 7 minute walk from my house, and I can get in without touching anything but an elevator button with my elbow (win!) Otherwise I’m trying to figure out “working from home” while taking care of a 1.5 yr old (lollll- moms u feel me?!) and Sabine is currently out on maternity leave. Every day brings a new challenge as we navigate this craziness as two new moms trying to balance it all. If you are able to, please continue to support small businesses like ours during these uncertain times. Even if it means sharing a post or tagging your friends, that kind of support counts just as much🌹 Ps. Wanted to let you know that since the above gear is pretty standard on the daily for us, I’m being a freak and also wearing these while packing up web orders. Gently wiping each piece down with alcohol before wrapping, and also including an Alcohol prep pad in the box so you can also clean it before wearing. We are being as crazy cautious as possible, and will of course let you guys know if anything changes with our shipping timelines. Stay safe and sane my friends, we are in this together. ❤️

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According to a 2019 Accenture strategy research report,  authentic brand values play an outsized role in consumer decision making, with 62 percent of Americans preferring that companies take a stand on current and relevant issues, which right now means speaking to COVID-19. In other words, it’s more important than ever for businesses to address what’s going on with their communities rather than gloss over it in an effort to push sales.

Many brands have also been bringing their brick and mortar experience online in creative ways. Earlier this week Sherri McMullen revealed how she’s kept her L.A.-based store McMullen afloat using Instagram Live to highlight designers, and FaceTime for client shopping consultations. She’s also creating “Goodie Boxes” of items that can be sent to clients to try on at home.

“It’s annoying to see salesy email blasts and perfectly curated Instagram posts when the world feels like it’s falling apart.”

Pip Vassett, founder of Sydney-based home textile destination IN BED Store is also bringing the brand’s flagship experience online via Instagram tours and virtual customer consultations. “We’ve been making it up as we go really and are constantly finding better ways to do things,” says Vassett, adding that she’s working to add a ‘Shop the Flagship’ section to their e-commerce site in the coming days to streamline the process for customers. Throughout the last week, Vassett notes an upside is that she’s connected more than ever with supportive international customers who previously wouldn’t have been able to visit the store.

“I think the biggest thing right now is the great unknown, so for the first time, our strategy is just to stay as nimble as we possibly can and adapt to the changing situation,” says Vassett. “That’s really the only way to be for anyone in retail right now.”

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