‘I Didn’t Want to Shut My Doors’: Businesses Find Ways to Survive


Sitting back, glass of wine in hand, John Kapon, the bespectacled chairman of Acker Merrall & Condit, a 200-year-old shop for fine and rare wines, leads scores of wine lovers in twice-weekly tastings.

Taking social-distancing mandates to heart, Mr. Kapon conducts the tastings using the teleconferencing platform Zoom as an extension of his business, a virtual function that he and other small-business owners had never contemplated before the pandemic wreaked havoc on the U.S. economy.

More than 5.2 million workers joined the tally of the unemployed last week, the Labor Department reported on Thursday, bringing the four-week total to about 22 million.

Faced with plunging sales as nonessential businesses are closed and more Americans lose their jobs, entrepreneurs are getting savvier about reaching their customers.

Mr. Kapon has set up a system in which wine aficionados can order ahead to have the bottles delivered before the tasting. The hourlong sessions are followed by continued discussions on Instagram Live with prominent wine figures who take questions from people at home.

“The backbone of our company is to drink and share great wines with our clients,” Mr. Kapon said. “Wine is meant to be shared. The Zoom format allows you to be with 50 or 60 people.”

When the pandemic passes, he plans to continue virtual tastings, as well as weekly online auctions, as long as people tune in. He said he missed the energy of the auction room, teeming with wine lovers and the bottles they bring to share while bidding on lots that sell for thousands of dollars, but was rethinking the business strategy given how strong wine sales had been online.

Orders from the shop’s website were up 300 percent last month, Mr. Kapon said. E-commerce sales and online auctions contributed to a robust first quarter for Acker. In-person auctions in Hong Kong and New York typically constitute the bulk of the company’s sales, but the virtual versions in March and early April still sold $7 million worth of wine, compared with just over $9 million from the same auctions last year.

The coronavirus shutdown has hit the United States economy hard. Sales have ceased for some businesses, like hotels, manufacturers and retailers without an e-commerce presence, while restaurants have hobbled along with curbside delivery.

Yet some entrepreneurs have created ways to connect with their customers and develop parts of their businesses they had never considered. These stopgap measures may prove to be new lines of business or new strategies for their old business whenever the economy restarts.

Such nimbleness is one advantage that small-business owners have over larger competitors, said Josh Baron, a partner at BanyanGlobal Family Business Advisors and an adjunct professor at the Columbia Business School.

“When time is of the essence, the ability to move fast in a major way is a huge edge,” he said. “I don’t want to paint an overly rosy picture, but after you’ve mitigated the damage as much as you can, how do you turn your energy to getting to the other side of this, whenever that is?”

One response seems to be reworking technology that’s already in place. Digital Reasoning, a privately held data analytics company, was using artificial intelligence to scan medical test results and identify cancer diagnoses more quickly. Now it’s using the same technology to quickly identify patients with Covid-19.

“It takes very little work on our side to change the models,” said Chris Cashwell, the company’s senior vice president of health care solutions.

Laurel Taylor, founder and chief executive of FutureFuel, which helps people select among the 127 federal repayment programs to reduce their student loan debt, said the company had added two features to respond to the enormous job losses and financial uncertainty. One program, FutureFuel Cares, automatically enrolls a person in a debt relief program it finds for free. (The company normally charges up to $6.99 a month for its service.)

FutureFuel GiveBack, which starts on Monday, finds cash-back savings from the goods that a borrower is buying online among some 450 brands. That money is used to pay down the principal on the borrower’s loan.

Other companies see the “work from home” move accelerating workplace issues they were pushing for already.

JumpCloud provides cloud-based security for its clients’ servers. Most of them wanted to ensure that employees could gain access only while in the office, said Rajat Bhargava, the company’s co-founder and chief executive, but companies now have to provide secure access to their workers at home.

The pandemic “has been a catalyst to shifting to the cloud,” Mr. Bhargava said. “Going forward, this is going to be the new normal.”

Quick responses for businesses that counted on human interaction may be even more essential.

After five years of building furniture out of wood he found washed up on Florida beaches, Aaron Moreno was doing the kind of large-scale projects he had hoped to do with his company, Drift, in West Palm Beach, Fla. His craftsmanship drew attention, and he was soon creating tables, doors and cabinetry for restaurants and mansions in Palm Beach County.

Now his workers have switched to building baby gates, shelving and small coffee tables. Everything has to be small enough for one person to build and for the customer to put it in place without help.

“I didn’t want to shut my doors,” Mr. Moreno said. “I have a lot of quality craftsmen who have taken years to put together, and I didn’t want to lose them.”

The strategy has not replaced what he was earning before: A 10-foot restaurant table would fetch as much as $7,000, but a small coffee table costs $500 to $1,000. But Mr. Moreno said he was optimistic that this could be a new line of business.

“When the world reopens, I don’t think things are going to be the same,” he said. “What I hope to learn is how I can meet the needs of my clients moving forward.”

To be sure, many entrepreneurs are overwhelmed by the crisis and unable to find a way out. Millions of small-business owners have applied for emergency loans, but the Small Business Administration has run out of money for its $349 billion Paycheck Protection Program.

Gympass, which Cesar Carvalho helped found seven years ago to offer flexible gym memberships, had no backup plan. It worked with companies like Tesla and PwC to give their employees access to 50,000 gyms worldwide.

“All the gyms and studios in all the countries we operate in shut down,” Mr. Carvalho said. “The core of the model was always based on in-person visits to our business partners. We had zero live-streaming solutions.”

In the past month, he has added two online options to Gympass: a collection of wellness apps for people stuck at home and a system that allows the company’s partners to be paid for live-streamed classes.

“We coached studios on how to charge for this and to encourage the sense of community,” Mr. Carvalho said.

He said these additions had brought in 20 new clients, including Zynga, the gaming company. “People are staying at home, but the need is still there to get active and have a healthier lifestyle,” he said.

Such rapid shifts are not without hiccups or learning to adapt on the fly. Mr. Kapon commands his wine-tasting in a setup that is more akin to “The Wizard of Oz” than a tasting room in a New York wine shop. During the tasting, he discusses the virtues of what is in his glass and calls on people for their thoughts as if they were in the room.

But if the camera pulled back, it would reveal Mr. Kapon sitting in front of a sheet in his bedroom in San Juan, P.R. He rigged household lamps to create the right lighting and bought a webcam.

“I actually love it,” he said. “You get to connect with so many people who you don’t get to see that often.”

There is one downside to the tastings: What to do with four opened bottles of wine when the other attendees are virtual?



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