Business not as usual: How Unbelts went from high-fives to remote work in less than a week
Update: We are relieved and beyond grateful that our feature on The View (!!!) broadcasted live this morning. *Thank you* to everyone who tuned in and/or sent words of support - not to mention all of you who ordered your first Unbelt! Your timing couldn't be better .❤️️
What a difference a week makes.
Earlier this week, our six-person Edmonton team gathered around our small conference table and Skyped in our two remote team members, Alison (who’s on a study-abroad program in France) and Grace, for our weekly team meeting. The top item on the agenda: reviewing the complex logistics of attending four out-of-town trade shows in five weeks, plus finalizing plans to support our very first U.S. national TV appearance on Monday, March 16. The latter involved flying two staff down to Lawrence, Kansas to support our warehouse staff there, bringing in extra customer support peeps to our Edmonton office to work around the same conference table fielding calls and emails, and, in general, getting all well-washed hands on deck to get through the most major sales push in Unbelts’ history.
Then came Wednesday’s U.S. travel ban from Europe.
Alison cut her academic exchange short and hustled to get on a plane home before Canadian borders could tighten, too. Grace and Holly flew to Toronto, determined to staff the Green Living Show, and landed hours before we decided the risk just wasn’t worth it… and then the show was cancelled. With domestic plane tickets suddenly in the thousands, our gals holed up in their AirBnB and waited the days out until their original return date arrived today. (Was it idiotic to put them on a plane in the first place? Yeah, it was. It turns out I’m not immune to the sunk-cost fallacy of having already shipped product and our booth display across the country, and shelled out for a booth; I’m still facepalming knowing I should have put my foot down and kept our team members in place, even in the face of their generosity and can-do spirit. #bosslessons)
On Thursday, we changed everything.
We cancelled our other three trade shows, and then the shows were postponed indefinitely, anyway. We braced ourselves and asked the TV producers if we could have an extra day to fulfill any orders that came from the on-air feature so our Kansas team could handle the load without Canadian staff getting on the plane… and, thankfully, they said yes. They also gave us the heads-up that the show we’re featured on will be the first to film without a live studio audience - a COVID-19 precaution that makes total sense, and which must be downright spooky to the hosts used to presenting to hundreds of engaged fans.
On Friday, we started to reassess.
Amidst the chaos, there are some things we can control. Our customer service team tomorrow won’t be working from the conference room. They’ll be at desks in our warehouse with 10 feet or more between them. We’ve put away our candy jar of gummy bears in favour of individually-wrapped cookies. Everything from sewing machines to doorknobs is getting repeated Lysol treatment. Everyone who can work from home now does.
But… there are some things that are out of our hands. We’re seeing a quick plunge in wholesales as our buyers are facing terrifying uncertainty in their own businesses. Customers are withdrawing from public life, and we get it - I’m not shopping right now, either (except for toilet paper, amirite? #toosoon #butalsoweboughtabidet #notajoke).
15 more hours of waiting and seeing...
As psyched and as prepped as we are for our TV spot tomorrow, we know we need to prepare for the plug to be pulled at any moment as the network makes its own big decisions about who should be coming to work, and what they should be doing once they get there. One host tweeted earlier this morning that the show will go on (YAY!), and that it’ll be focused on the coronavirus (makes sense), which may or may not leave room for a shopping segment. We won’t know until the last minute, which will be tomorrow at 9 a.m. MST.
...and a whole shift in attitude and operations
It would be easy to focus on the very real challenges of redirecting weeks of logistical planning and inventory investment (from belts to shipping envelopes to sticky labels to enclosure letterhead), and I might give myself a good five minutes to lean into that disappointment. But we’re far from the first business along our supply chain to feel the blow dealt by a global pandemic. Our component suppliers in China, who’ve been operating understaffed since the extended Chinese New Year holiday in February, have been seeing orders from brands *much* larger than ours evaporate as discretionary spending slows. While we order our few thousand metres of elastic, they struggle to patch up production gaps that used to be filled by orders for millions. It’s easy to think of offshore factories as monoliths, but the truth is, many of them are small, family-owned operations who can’t absorb more than a few months of revenue disruption.
We know that as we’re changing the way we do business in the coming weeks, you’ll be changing the way you work, study, visit, and just about everything else. I’m typing this from my bedroom preparing for our family’s first week of staying home from the office and preschool, with all playdates, dance classes, coffee outings, and even grocery runs cancelled. I’m grateful we have the Internet to keep our communities knit together, because we’ll need each other in ways we haven’t conceived of yet. For now - thanks, as always, for following our story, and don’t hesitate to tell me what else you’d like to hear as our team navigates uncharted waters.-Claire