It's officially been one year navigating this pandemic as a small business
I’ve been doing so much reflecting lately because we are officially sitting at one year since the pandemic started. It's been one year since everything as we knew it changed.
While the last year has been full of battle after battle, this week is feeling extra heavy because it's been exactly one year since we shut down. I talked in my first podcast about how we were able to grow in the pandemic this is not something we saw coming but I wanted to take this episode to walk through what this pandemic was like for us and what it felt like to go through the motions of that shutdown and the last 365 days.
We had no idea what was about to hit us
This week last year, we were getting back from a month of traveling and just wrapped up a massive public event in Phoenix (ew, thinking back to it now). In the days that we got back, we knew the virus was something to seriously think about but weren't near shutdown just yet and never could've predicted what was to truly come. We put our heads down and got back to work and to begin processing all of the wholesale orders in our queue that were ready to go out and tackle the super fun projects we had on our plate.
Less than 2 days later, we were ordered to shut down and life hasn't been the same since.
In so many ways, this past year flew by but in many others, it feels like it’s been a lifetime. I know we've all been through some type of challenge in the past year and the week of lockdown is one of those times that we can all talk about to our grandkids one day-because we all went through something.
One year ago, the news of the pandemic broke. We were set to launch a collection that we spent 3 months bringing to life, we were gearing up for the busiest planned year on record and we were ready to absolutely crush the year ahead of us. We felt like it was all planned out and suddenly the plans meant nothing.
Then it hit.
In the matter of 3 days, we were forced to shut our doors, every order in our queue was canceled, every event that was not only paid for, but also prepped for was canceled indefinitely and we were told that if we even stepped foot in our shop- we’d be fined.
The day that we had to lock our doors for who knows how long was really surreal.
We told our only employee at the time that we didn’t know when we’d be back. She gracefully said please don't worry, we're going to get through this together. I was grateful in that moment that we didn't have a full staff that we had to painfully let go of because if we did have a big staff at that point then we wouldn't of had any other option and that truly would've broke my heart. We locked our doors that day and were greeted with police sirens rushing through our complex which was not something we'd ever seen before. We believe now, that that was our signal to lock up, get home, and stay home. Shutting our doors was surreal, especially thinking back to that moment now because we simply just had no idea. Not a clue of truly what was in store.
Panic didn't set in at first
The panic didn’t initially set in because we all thought and hoped it would be temporary. A few weeks in, we realized this wasn’t going to be temporary. It wasn’t going to be a 14 day lockdown, it was going to be prolonged and it was going to be hard.
We instantly realized that if we didn’t do something, we could be done.
Thinking back to this week puts a deep pit in my stomach because the reality was that if we didn’t do something, we would, without a doubt go under. A collapse was inevitable unless we did something drastic.
We had to get really creative because the country was on lockdown. A significant revenue stream for us was makers markets and selling to retailers, that were also shut down. So how could we survive being locked down? We didn’t have an ounce of relief, to this day. All of our bills were still due in full but we had absolutely no way of operating. We felt so stuck and so much of the world felt incredibly unfair. We obviously weren’t alone in feeling this way but to fell like our livelihoods were on the line and that was truly heartbreaking.
We had to do something but just didn't know what
We thought long and hard about what to do but didn't have any time to waste. It was truly just complete survival mode. At this time we were a month in, all of our bills were due in full and we had probably 2 months worth of savings before that would be it. I just couldn't even fathom what it would feel like to of been done at that point. Our operating costs are really high because we've seen a lot of growth in the past few years and needed to accommodate to that growth. But what happens when we go into full shutdown with the operations that we have?
I tried to secure funding for us but it was clearly not working
First, I did all that I could to secure funding. Between loans and grants-I spent all of my waking hours trying to secure some type of relief. It was out there but everyone needed it and my applications went seemingly unnoticed. It became apparent that this wasn't going to get us out of this. It is how many got out of this but it just wasn't going anywhere for us...it's a long story and I will spare you of that. Our only option was to pivot or die.
Here's what the last year looked like:
Now I'm going to walk you through the main events of the entire last year. I'm sure I'm missing things but here's what stood out as I started to reflect on the past 365 days.
We spent 3 months working on our Desert Collection.
This was the biggest collection we ever put out. It consisted of about 10 tee designs, 2 candles, other various home goods a big Zine and a pack that could be purchased in a screen printed box-all hand drawn by Tanner. We went to the Phoenix Flea to test the designs in that market and did our entire lookbook shoot in various desert landscapes. It took a while to truly capture everything in their element. 3 days after we got back and were so ready to launch this set of work that we were SO proud of, we hit lockdown. We went through with the launch anyway, hesitantly and people showed up and it was our best single launch date ever. But then we had to sneak in to make and ship everything.
It went well but wasn't nearly enough
We were so grateful for the response but part of why we launched this was to capture an entirely new market of retail partners-ALL OF WHICH WERE NOW SHUT DOWN. It did well but not nearly well enough to pay our bills that were all still due in full. EEK
Then we created the Stay at Home Collection
We thought long and hard about what products we could make for the state of the world. We knew people were going to be bored and stuck at home and also probably were going to have complete tech fatigue so we created the "Stay at Home Collection." This collection consisted of a coloring book (for adults or kids), a greeting card set to write snail mail to people, a cookbook with our favorite recipes and some other fun stuff. We made all of these things from scratch in about a week (it was an intense week) and found out that one of our favorite local print shops was also still doing production (probably against orders like us but none of us had any choice because nobody had relief for bills) so we were able to turn this around pretty fast.
It went over well but once again, just wasn't going to be enough
This collection did well again but it was still nowhere close to paying our overhead. Our overhead is high because we've grown so much in the past few years and everything was still due in full. We thought-Awesome. We just busted our asses to put this out but it still doesn't even cover what we need to pay our bills for the next month. Then what the hell happens beyond that month when we are still shut down? We also still had to sneak into our shop to even ship these
I sat in solitude with a glass of wine and nearly broke down
All of my loan and grant applications were going nowhere, the world was shut down and we were actually not just having to pay our bills in full but our landlords actually raised our rent on us and told me that if our business went under in the next few months, it was because of my inability to run our business, not related to the pandemic. That was one of the biggest FU's I have ever received in my life. They had no clue how hard we were and have forever fought to grow our business. I wish I was kidding about this.
The defeat was really getting to me.
We were about a month into this and nowhere near getting out of it. This was the darkest point of the pandemic for me.
The darkness sparked my A-ha moment: Masks
I looked at Tanner and said don't ask questions, just get a shirt, we're going to make a mask. I don't know what this will mean or look like but we need to see if this is possible. We have a machine and hundreds of defective t-shirts that have been sitting in boxes for a long time.
We made a prototype. Looked at each other and said holy shit, we have something here.
Within 2 hours we posted it online and our website BLEW UP.
The next day we got to work. We dropped literally everything and scaled the manufacturing the best way we knew how. Nothing else in life mattered in this moment then to make mask after mask.
We had one material to use for every part of the mask: T-shirts. There were supply shortages everywhere which is part of why people couldn't make as many masks as needed. The good news was that we had enough material for thousands of masks just on hand but the challenge was how to make every par of the mask out of this material. It took a lot of ingenuity bu we figured it out
Suddenly we had hundreds, turned thousands of mask orders
This was an entirely new product and manufacturing process for us. We had 1 sewing machine and it was only the 2 of us. We ended up getting featured on the Colorado Mask Project website. There were maybe 3 manufacturers on there when it launched and that's where every Coloradan went to buy a mask. Suddenly the demand was absolutely through the roof and we couldn't keep up, there was just no way.
When we realized masks were here to stay for a while, we got to work to build a team.
We reached out to our network to get more machines in house and recruited 7 remote sewers that were out of work. It took a bit but we finally got to the point where we were catching up.
The exhaustion was some of the worst I ever felt and the challenges were stacking up.
Since people needed masks so fast, we had so much pressure with a million challenges preventing us from scaling this fast, efficiently and with accuracy. We needed a break so bad but we couldn't take one. People had to be protected, we were one of the only companies in Colorado at the time that had a solution to that so we felt morally obligated to protect people but it was defeating us every damn day.
Then we shipped out about 1,000 but the postal service was a wreck
The Colorado distribution center for the USPS was shut down for an outbreak. Every single Colorado package went to another state, hung out there for a while before coming back. People accused us of sending it to the wrong address and we didn't have answers at the time to figure out what was happening. It was absolute mass chaos.
I had to spend hours a day on customer service because everyone was panicking about something and I had to do constant damage control which totally derailed me from being able to just keep making masks.
The city gave us an official letter deeming us essential so we could at least operate without the fear of getting fined.
We spent 14 hours a day sewing and making masks. Prior to this, we hardly knew how to sew.
Even though we could now work at the shop, we had to do most of our sewing out of our 400 square foot apartment because we had to spend every waking hour on sewing. Our house became a mask factory and one day our power got cut and I almost lost my shit.
When masks became easier to find, we put a stop the manufacturing
When other companies found out how to scale mask manufacturing and they were becoming easier to find, we decided that we now needed to prioritize our mental health. We spent 2-3 months making 4,000+ masks, dealing with constant chaos and quite frankly some really, really nasty customers so we set a cutoff date and never made one more beyond that. We just couldn't. We made enough money to fuel the next few months comfortably and started to see normal business come back again
Then we had to say goodbye to our mobile retail shop
Our landlords told us we had to get rid of one of our biggest labors of love, our mobile boutique. I had a lot of anger surrounding the fact that they would make us do this in the hardest time for business owners in any recent history, especially after a rent hike a month prior.
We started supplying our retailers again
We saw our stores opening back up and have never had more appreciation for simply printing t-shirts to supply them again. We were really happy to see these orders come back not just because we now had real revenue from our normal business coming back but it meant that they hadn't gone under and were now busy again. It felt like we were getting out of the woods but really weren't close to getting out just yet.
We tried really hard to find some inner peace and process what the hell just happened but there wasn't much of any time for that
It became really clear to us at this point that our society still had a lot of work to do in regards to inequalities and it was really heartbreaking.
We knew it wasn't enough to just stand by. We spent a lot of time working on a campaign and self educating on how we can work towards making this society a better place. We of course do not have all of the answers, but couldn't (and can't ever) ignore the inequalities happening in our country.
We spent a lot of time reflecting on the state of the world. Life was feeling really, really draining but we found time for creating something to reflect that.
We set out to create a collection that stemmed from passion-the first one since the pandemic started. It was our Night & Day Collection which was inspired by the idea that 2020 was a night and day difference compared to any year prior. The passion poured through this line of work and it really resonated with people. When you create things from a point of passion and intention, it often does quite well.
Then we got hit with a big legal battle with Coleman ripping off one of our designs.
Like after all that this year had thrown our way, this was the LAST thing I wanted to deal with. Fighting a legal battle with a big company. But we stood our ground, fought the battle and reconciled with them a few months later.
Then supply issues became unreal
More challenges ensued. We had our normal levels of demand coming back but now there were mountains of supply issues so we couldn't fill all the demand coming our way and had to be on constant patrol to snag supplies when they came back before everyone else came in to snag it.
Then we were at the point of prepping for the holidays. Every year we put pretty much all of our money and a comfortable amount of debt into bulking up supply in the fall to meet holiday demand. Every year it feels like a risk, bu every year it is beyond worth it for us to do it this way. This year was different. We didn't have events, we didn't know how spending habits would be and we didn't know how our retailers would fare. So we had supplies on hand but didn't make a lot of things because we just had no way of planning shit this year.
What ended up happening? We way underproduced, our wholesalers all underbought and the demand was through the roof.
We went into production overdrive again
We were floored and so happy but it became, once again a mad dash to get everything made and produced to meet the holiday demand. We had retailers every day asking us to ship their massive orders ASAP. We totally understood and wanted them to make as much money as possible in this time if the demand was finally there so we hustled like mad to get everything out to them as soon as we could.
We couldn't plan for a staff
We didn't have much of a staff because a. we didn't know if we could financially prep for this and b. we were still fighting a freaking virus and had to do all that we could to protect ourselves so that we could still steer this ship so it all fell on us and our real small team. But wow, bless them for working as hard as they did for us to get through this.
The orders came in up until Christmas Day-even wholesale orders which normally taper off in November but because nobody could plan, people just kept ordering and ordering. We basically celebrated Christmas by having a basic catered dinner and had to get back to work the next day because the demand still wasn't tapering.
We thought we'd get a break when the year ended but nope
Every year we work like mad until Christmas and then see a huge halt so we were expecting that, but it never happened. We embraced every second of it but were mentally assuming we would get a big break to recuperate after going through everything we did last year. We didn't end up having a singular day off and when we realized things were continuing to move forward in the ways we needed, we decided to expand our permanent team which brings us to present day.
The growth allowed us to build an amazing team
This amazing team is now allowing us to step out of the deep weeds by truly helping on the production and fulfillment front. Having this team is allowing us be closed on Fridays to adventure because we can get everything accomplished Monday-Thursday.
We recently bought an Airstream so that we could really force disconnection and find that level of inner peace by maintaining our mental health by not working 24/7 in a survival state.
The future is still scary
I always, and continue to have a lingering feeling of fear that we will hit a complete halt again and my guard is constantly up because I just don't know if we could go through that fight again, truly.
It's been a year. An entire freaking year to feel like we're back to a semi normal level of operating. Things are still a lot different and we still ahem a lot of ongoing challenges but at least we aren't in full panic and survival mode every day now.
The reality is that we still have many challenges a year later
A year later, we are still seeing the worst supply issues we've ever seen in our 10 years. The factories that make our raw materials were all shut down for a few months. Then they had to operate at limited capacity. Then most of our textile factories that we source from also only produced masks because the priority was to protect people-not get people t-shirts. So, in total they just couldn't even produce anything for many months but once the world started opening up at some capacity-the demand was still there
This has leveled out to an extent but we are still seeing problems. The beginning was horrible. The entire distribution center for our STATE shut down so everything had to get rerouted or it was just sitting there waiting to be processed and finally processed months later.
We are not in the priority class to get vaccinated by any means so we will be waiting for a long time for that day so every day that we come in to work with our team, we remain diligent about wearing our masks because we truly couldn't afford to have any of us go down. Having Tanner or I go out would prevent us from doing what we need to do to keep getting out of this and even worse, if we infect our team because of a dumb choice, we would not only feel horrible but couldn't operate to keep going.
Rising rents and bills
We spent a year fighting just to stay afloat so to deal with this level of defeat on top of that has been really painful. Our rent has risen 4 times since last March and I’ve been laughed at for even saying this has been a hard time on small business. I’ve been attempted to be gaslit into believing that if we didn’t make it out of the pandemic, it was because of my inability to run our business, not because of the pandemic and that was really hurtful.
We still can't do what we did in a pre-covid world-We used to spend so much time physically out in the community and that has and will continue to be gone for a while.
We're trying every day to remain optimistic
I aim to be an optimistic person that doesn’t give up and I genuinely felt like everything could be gone and I was bracing myself for that but wasn’t going to stop fighting.
I look to the future with optimism but in many ways the same level of fear because what does the future economy hold? I want to believe that it has strength but I just don’t know
People don’t understand that we are still navigating challenges but the reality is that it will be a long time until we aren't. Part of that is just a natural part of being a business owner but toss a pandemic in there and my, my that shits hard.
Hoping that we don't need to talk about the pandemic much longer as something that's a present reality.
My goal and hope is to have this blog be the last one where I talk heavily about the pandemic because I'm hopeful that we are actually, finally returning to a level of normalcy. I think many of us had false hope for the past year that we could return to normal faster than we ever did but I truly feel like we are finally climbing out of the worst of it. I fear an economic collapse in this country but the reality is that we don't know what we don't know. We don't want to be dumb and ignorant on that front but we would also love to get to a point of not having constant fear about what is going to happen next. We don't have a safety net to catch us so in many ways, we are hanging on for dear life on the side of a mountain, hoping we can make it to the peak. I know we are going to see many challenges for months, or years to come but I am hopeful that the worst of it is behind us. I'm seeing this point in time as a point of reflection to see how far we've come in the past year. It hasn't been easy, it will continue to be full of complete uncertainty but we see the light and we're running the business we built, the way we built it and that's encouraging.
Still haven't processed it all
I still to this day haven't processed the insane pivots we had to go through to even get to this point a year later but if there's one thing I'm certain about-I am damn proud of where we are sitting today and the fight we put up to get here.
So now that kind of leads me to now what? There's a lot of fun things on the horizon and it feels really good to get back to the point of creating and working on things from that point of passion again. I'm hopeful for a brighter next year and will do all that I can to make it happen but time will tell.
That's my 365 day pandemic story. Cheers to a brighter next 365 days ahead.
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