Navigating Covid-19 — Surviving & Adapting as a Small Business
Afrocenchix was born out of recession. In 2008, when the last economic crisis occurred, Joycelyn and I met, then started mixing products in our university kitchen soon after. We registered as a business in 2010, simply to collect the prize for the Ethical & Sustainable Business Innovation Competition we’d won. We figured Afrocenchix would be a great way to help people and a good side hustle as we figured out our careers. But by the time we’d graduated in 2011, there were no jobs. But somehow, we found jobs and grew Afrocenchix to the point that we needed to quit our jobs to serve our customers.
So we’re not uncomfortable with adversity. The resilience we’ve developed as business partners and as a team has been an asset in navigating this pandemic. But being used to hustling doesn’t mean we’ve found it easy and we’ve taken some major hits due to the pandemic.
In the face of so much suffering, the immense loss of life and health challenges, people losing jobs and struggling to make ends meet, our difficulties have felt almost inappropriate to talk about. We decided to share this article as we know it’s helpful to talk about whatever you’re going through. Minimising and comparison isn’t helpful. Every small business we know is under huge stress right now and if sharing how we’re overcoming difficulties helps others, then it’s worthwhile. We can’t do anything to alleviate the toll of the virus but we can comply with the WHO guidance, support food banks and keep growing, so we can protect jobs and serve our community.
Before Covid-19 hit, we had a great quarter planned. Our community has been threatened by toxic cosmetics for decades. We’ve spent the past 10 years researching ingredients and formulating safe, effective products to fix this problem.
Just before the virus, things were going well. After years of fighting for black women’s health to be valued in the beauty industry, we became the first brand for Afro & Curly Hair to launch in Holland & Barrett in their Clean & Conscious Beauty concept store.
This should have been our best quarter yet. We had a bunch of plans. The biggest things were:
- We were in the middle of signing contracts with two major high street retailers, which would have seen Afrocenchix products in around 300 stores from this summer onwards.
- We’d planned to launch Spring, our new hair butter in April.
- We were about to schedule our first production run with our partner factory.
- We were about to start a product trial for our latest new product — a vegan protein hair mask
- We were about to start properly prototyping a natural hair gel.
- We had a new intern about to start.
- We’d just moved offices and were building out a lab.
Then the Coronavirus pandemic broke. For a week, everything crumbled. Just before the government announced the lockdown, we’d just started a wonderful new team member in the Social Media & Content role. We decided to have the team work from home for their safety but was faced with the issue of remote working and training. Once the lockdown was announced, sales dropped to the lowest levels yet.
As the infection rate increased, we stopped all ads except shampoo as they felt distasteful. Financially, we’ve been safe as we carefully manage cash flow and we raised investment last year. So we knew we could afford a dip in sales and still pay our bills and cover payroll.
We switched our approach to offering free support and education. We don’t believe that being selfish ever pays off. The pandemic makes it tempting to close down and only focus on looking after yourself. We resisted that and looked for ways to support our community.
We’ve helped doctors, nurses and other key workers that reached out for advice on how to care for their hair when they need to stay safe by washing it after every shift. We’ve had small business owners and sole traders tell us that their sales and bookings have increased since we featured them in our newsletter and across our platforms. We’ve had parents send us heartfelt thanks because their children finally like how they look and love their hair. For these reasons, we’re proud that we’ve kept going.
We’ve taken some hits. Several members of the team are dealing with losses or supporting people close to them in their grief. The decisional fatigue and stress of making big decisions that could impact someone’s life or livelihood has been intense, the research, communication and thinking around our Covid strategy has been time consuming and also taken an emotion toll. But it’s all been worthwhile. The team has been safe and well (except for me, I caught Covid at the start of the lockdown, likely from my key worker husband who was sick first.) Sales have grown massively, but safely getting products to customers and managing logistics has been a huge headache.
Overall, we’re fortunate to say we’re doing well. We’ve had a bunch of wins including:
- Our highest online says ever with over 480% YoY growth.
- More engagement than ever with our community — we’ve sold out on every webinar we’ve hosted on Zoom, seen record email open rates, grown massively on social media.
- Launched our website quiz hoping for 100 responses on the beta version. We’ve had almost 2000.
- Opportunities to support others with our resources. We have a hugely engaged email list and we’ve been able to leverage that to get more orders and booking for the small business owners in our community and see our sales increase as an extra benefit too.
- We’ve found new delivery partners and we’re working towards making next day and same day delivery possible.
- Doubling our Sub Club members.
It’s challenging as socially minded founders to navigate a time like this. You want to look after everyone. You also know that keeping the company afloat allows your team — present and future — to support themselves and their families. It can feel like so much is riding in your success that failure isn’t an option and there’s little room to breath.
Stepping back and sleeping on decisions has been a big help for us. When something is hard and has huge implications, we discuss it. Stop the conversation and pray through the decision then revisit it after a break. Being thoughtful and never rash helps us optimise our time. This approach has helped us to turn this pandemic into an opportunity to help more people access our safe, effective products.
No-one knows the future but we can say we’re coming through this difficult time stronger. The next phase of our growth hasn’t been what we planned but in many ways it’s been better.
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