Taylor Made Volume 10: How our business grew in a pandemic

Posted by Taylor Barkin on

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We thought 2020 was going to be our worst year, but it ended up being our best.

We went into 2020 accepting that we would probably have the worst revenue year in our recent history.

With forced closures, an entire year of canceled events-and so much more, there was no way we could hit the numbers we did in previous years that were full of growth, right? We just needed to keep our doors open.

As the months went on, we saw something else happen. We brought in more revenue than any year in our history in business.

We grew significantly revenue wise but more importantly, we grew as humans. If any of you reading this have scaled a business, you know how incredibly challenging it can be. Then throw in a global pandemic, constant need for pivots, forced closures, constant uncertainty, endless supply chain and shipping issues and oof-that challenge just escalated drastically.

While I sit here proud to say that we had our best year of revenue to date, it's what went into getting there that I'm the most proud of. Everything about our lives was tested daily. Everything in our business, in our marriage and in our partnership as the two real humans running it all.

Art by Tanner Barkin

I know I'm not alone in saying this but while we felt like the universe was constantly testing our limits last year. It showed me that all those years of building an incredibly solid foundation is what saved us.

From our community, to our internal systems and way of operating, to how we have put the effort in to tackle problems in the past-it showed me that we have built that house of brick, not a house of cards. We spent the past decade thinking about how we could grow a sustainable business. Never did we think a chapter like this would unfold in the way it has but we knew shit would hit the fan at some point. We spent 6 years paying ourselves next to nothing because we believed that in order for our business to be successful, we needed to do it right. That meant putting the time in to grow slow and steady and to grow in as healthy of a way that we knew how.

We always believed that this would work, somehow If we kept putting the work in. We didn't know how long it would take or what, but we always believed in it. While we thought it would come in the form of simply having a growing team and paying ourselves a real living wage and seeing it grow with time, we never truly thought about just how much this would make or break us, until it was all tested.

As I've reflected on the past year, I can sit here thanking my past self (and Tanner's past self obvi) for all that we put into growing our business the healthy way and for the willingness to grind to build our super solid foundation for so long. That is what not only saved us from collapsing in the pandemic but what actually made us have our best year yet.

How did we go from feeling like this could be the end to kicking ass?

I sat here at the end of our season really reflecting and wondering: How? How did we go from feeling like this could be our demise to experiencing the biggest period of success and growth that we’ve ever had? Like how??I reflected for a very long time and determined it was 3 things: We built our solid foundation, every day last year we fought like hell and we put our well being first.

Oh, time off is a thing-you just need to prioritize it.

For the first time in about a decade, we gave ourselves weekends off because we couldn’t spend them at events. For the first time, we went home at 5 and stopped working, at 5. For the first time, we put an emphasis on rest. Through the year we accepted that we would make less money and that it was just going to be what it was.

We weren’t hyper focused on hitting that revenue growth percentage or that ambitious (yet surely achievable!) goal. We knew we needed revenue to keep our business going but we made the decision early on in the pandemic that while we would try our hardest, we were OK with accepting mentally that the year could bring significantly less than we had initially hoped for.

We knew our mental health needed to be prioritized over hitting a revenue goal.

Doing that allowed us to not just end up meeting our goal but significantly exceed it. This taught me a lot about how we will continue to run our business in the future and what we will prioritize.

We went back to our roots and remembered that we are our biggest asset.

By spending almost a full year putting our focus and mindset on protecting our biggest asset, we experienced something we never thought we would in a year like this: growth. Revenue growth, personal growth, marriage growth, all of the growth.

In the heat of navigating last year, every day was hard. Every day was a challenge and every day presented us with a fair amount of uncertainty (the planner in me hates this). While day after day of this year was full of some level of frustration, it pushed us in the direction we needed to go on all fronts. The most challenging year turned into the one that I am the most grateful for.

It's not always easy, but I often truly try to see the good in the bad. Instead of dwelling on the shit of the situation, instead think about what good can come from what just happened?

We could’ve sulked all year and said poor us, we’re a small business in a pandemic and there’s just nothing we can do about it. But when you build something worth fighting for, you fight like hell to keep it alive.

A misconception: All small businesses got government help

I am really proud to sit here and say that we navigated this entire year without a government bailout. We didn't use government funds to boost our revenue, we bootstrapped the damn thing!

When the potential of funds was released, we felt like we could be okay. Like we could have support to get through this but that reality was a joke. I really can't even go into this rabbit hole because this will be 40 pages long but in a nutshell, these funds were allocated really unfairly. One of my applications from March is still pending. When I called to speak to someone about it, I was caller 347 in the queue. 347! I don't have time for that, so I went to work to put matters into my own hands.

I think there is something significant about knowing we can't rely on a bailout and that everything we might succeed at or get through is a result of our own actions. I'm grateful that I was raised to earn my own shit (thank you mom and dad) because that has allowed me to not depend on anyone else when shit hits the fan. We knew getting out of this chapter financially was up to us and our efforts to see it through and that drive is what got us really thinking how the hell we could do it. If you have followed this blog series, you know that the panic that set in triggered us to switch our manufacturing to face masks until we could see our normal business come back again. It was truly full on survival mode and we didn't have someone coming to rescue us.

It took adapting, pivoting, innovating and really reflecting on what matters (our mental health, marriage etc.) and accepting your biggest challenges as your biggest opportunities.

We looked at our biggest challenges and turned them into our biggest opportunities

About a week after we shut down, we had a conversation about how different the year was probably going to be. At the time, we thought we'd just be getting through a weird summer but as time went on, we realized that all these quick, seemingly temporary changes we made are now actually going to change how we run a lot of things. The way we ran for many years and the ways that we grew into the company we were couldn't happen, now for an entire year. We couldn't be at events like years past. Online was, at that point our lowest performing channel but now our only option (scary!).

We knew that our biggest challenges could be our biggest opportunities if we strategized and put a significant amount of thought into how we could make that shift. 9 months of thoughtful shifting later, our website didn't just save our business but is now at the point where we always wanted it to be.

The six figures of lost revenue from not being at events left us stressed but the force to not be hustling like mad gave us time to actually recharge and reflect every week. This recharge gave us the energy we needed to not just get through the pandemic but to actually have our best year ever without ever reaching a level of unhealthy burnout.

Goals are still important to me but not if they contribute to unhealthy growth

I still think goals are important and we will still set them but instead I’m going to check myself as we go. It’s not going to be all about that number because my biggest goal is to have a happy and healthy life and if we can keep our business growing through that while maintaining it, awesome.

That sense of hyper awareness helped to get through this chapter without hitting burnout as well. Knowing that our national mental health crisis could be at an all time high made us put that first for ourselves. Knowing it was a make or break period for small business made it so all of our customers put supporting small over big. Knowing our fate was dependent on our actions to steer us out made us find a way. We had no bailout, NONE- so we had to find a way. We pivoted, we innovated, we adapted and we did it.

How did last year change things for us?

While a lot of how we run and operate is the same as it was before the pandemic shifted, a lot of it is also different. We used to spend every damn weekend going to events because we loved connecting with the community and because they were a good source of revenue for us. While we loved them, we always knew they would have a time and place. Since we knew this, we spent many years slowly building up our online site and wholesale channel.

For many years, we saw that online and wholesale were growing but not at the rate that would allow us to cut out events. This year we had no choice because events couldn't safely happen so we took this as an opportunity to really focus on those channels. In doing so-we went from having 50 retail partners to 260 by the end of the year. We found that if we are putting our all into perfecting our internal operations instead of doing the constant event run around hustle then we could actually perfect our systems, get everything down and focus, again on our healthy long term growth. Growth that is now not at a crafters level but like a real big business level.

We've shifted a lot of the ways that we operate in house, all in good ways! All of these shifts that were forced by the pandemic allowed us to focus on the next chapter, which we are seeing as a big one of growth to keep up with.

We did a lot of heavy lifting to make this happen but the community showed up and the community saved us.

I just about started sobbing writing out that sentence because the support and warmth from the community on all fronts was my favorite part about this year.

We spent 7 years hustling at community events. Up until last year, Tanner or myself were the ones at every single event. They were exhausting beyond belief and people always asked why we wouldn't just hire people to do the back breaking work? The answer was simple to us: the entire purpose is for us, the owners and creators to connect face to face with our people. We wanted to be the ones there having those conversations, getting that feedback and being a part of something more than a growing bank account. Events obviously mattered financially but were never truly about the money for us-it was always about the purpose and connection. When people bought something from us, we wanted to connect through stories-both theirs and ours. As it turns out, 7 years of doing this built the best foundation of people.

We had a collection that took us 3 months to create set to launch the week we shut down. While the timing felt weird to still launch, we did it as planned and it ended up being our biggest launch to date. When we launched face masks-people bought thousands from us and stepped in to say how can I help? When we felt like we could lose it all-we had pizza, coffee and fresh baked goods at our damn door from people we didn't even know. When production exploded, people came to help without expecting anything in return. When we were transparent about how damn hard this chapter was on us and every small business, our customers said screw you Amazon and bought from us and all of our retailers. When the postal delays made most holiday shipments late, our customers were (mostly) not ass holes-they said it's all good, they will just get a random New Years present instead!

Community has always been at the forefront of our business and this year showed just how much that emphasis can do for you. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we saw many, many businesses who didn't put this first have to close because all of their wrong doings and selfishness were called out and people wouldn't stand for it.

This year showed me that while some of the most exhausting chapters might not have always felt worth it over the years, they were. They were because we spent 7 of them building our solid foundation instead of building a house of cards. When the world gets scary, people show up when you are a good and genuine person.

Community matters and we love ours so much!

If we mentally checked it off as a loss, how did we keep up with the largest demand we've ever experienced?

Navigating growth in a healthy way, in a normal world typically requires a lot of advance planning. This year gave us quite the opposite-we couldn't plan much of anything! Early on in the pandemic, we thought about how we could get through this chapter to meet potential demand while keeping our expenses as low as possible.

We knew that one of our biggest strengths is that we do most of our production in house. While we normally bulk stock up to be efficient, we switched things around and got an abundance of raw materials but didn't make them until we knew what sold. We went from having mountains of inventory to making mostly on demand, which worked because we received orders online and could then fulfill them instead of needing stock for events or shows like the past. We were able to get through the scariest part this way.

Q4 is always bananas for us but we worried we wouldn't see that this year so once again, we braced ourselves for either situation. We made sure we had raw materials and when things exploded, we ramped up our production and made exactly what was to order and because we were doing immense volume, we could batch production every few days to still be efficient. WIN!

There are so many Internal challenges consumers just don’t see that we faced every day.

I don't even know if I can begin to explain the challenges that came with this year. If you have read along, you know that there were days that I just cried last year because the thought of losing all we ever worked for wasn't just terrifying, it was heartbreaking to even think about-but it could've been the reality.

Every day was full of challenges at some level, here are some the ones that were the hardest to navigate:

-Ongoing supply shortages (despite having incredible demand)

-Shipping delays and hiccups (and having to be the full time customer service person to handle frustrations)

-Keeping a VERY small team of trusted people despite the growing demand. We couldn't hire anybody and everybody to help us because the health and safety of the team we have had to come first.

-Fearing that we could get sick. If either of us got sick, there's no way we could've gotten through this year but the possibilities were high

-Pivot after pivot after freaking pivot

-Endless uncertainty

-Cancelation after cancelation

How do we feel going into 2021?

I don't think I have been fully able to process all that 2020 was just yet and I might not ever. I am such a planner so this year messed with all of that level of comfort (yeah you and everyone else, Taylor). The uncertainty was both exhausting and exhilarating at the same time.

2020 was the biggest mind F*** of my life. I feel a lot of sadness about what went on in the world. Between the pandemic as a whole, social justice, watching small businesses suffer and so much more. It's just been a really heavy chapter. I'm grateful to sit here and say it was our biggest year yet because I know that isn't a given for many and that it's been a really hard chapter for everyone. I don't sit here saying we had our biggest year yet to brag, I'm saying it to hopefully inspire others to know that they can get through anything if they put their mind to it.

I sit here going into 2021 feeling like our world still has a lot of work to do to get to a place of healing. There's a lot we can control and a lot we can't. I am committed to doing what I can to make our society a better place and to continue making my life something that is healthy and exciting.

Typically at the start of a new year, I am incredibly burnt out. I normally feel like I need a lot of time to catch up mentally from the year prior. The start of this year feels more energizing from the rest. The hyper-awareness to put our mental health and well being first made us prioritize that and I'm so glad we did.

I keep hinting at exciting plans we have in the works and while I'm not ready to announce them just yet, I will say that Tanner & I have the biggest adventure of our life planned and will be launching another business this year. We have so many fun plans with Moore and are excited to get after the next projects and to be going after some really, really exciting personal things.

We have some ambitious goals, but our biggest goal is to put our mental health and well-being first. If we can hit our financial goals and accomplish that mission at the same time, amazing.

Your support this year has meant everything to us and in many ways we feel like we can't repay everyone for the support that was shown. If you have been a part of this blog series, I want to really say thank you for taking them time to read about my ups and downs this year. Some blogs have shown the true reality-the hard shit and others aimed to be motivating, which is why I wanted to start this series from the start.

Until next time,

Taylor

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