This article was published in the Fall 2020 issue
by Nelson James, President and Co-Founder, Signs.com
You have to prepare for every possibility in business. At Signs.com we worked hard to build a solid business model that could adapt to various situations, but I don’t think any of us had ever considered a worldwide pandemic as a possibility. In March 2020, that became our reality.
Within a matter of days, COVID-19 was spreading through the country, impacting every facet of our lives and our economy. Supply lines were disrupted, workplaces were abandoned, and we were all left trying to figure out how to balance the safety of our employees and somehow keep our businesses running so they could keep their jobs.
At Signs.com, we felt a unique responsibility to help any way we could. We’ve always believed in the power of good signage, but suddenly it was vitally important. While most companies were forced to shut down, we realized it was time for us to sprint.
MAKING THE PIVOT
While our company has grown exponentially over the past years, we’ve tried very hard to keep some of the values and practices that make startups so incredible. We’ve tried to maintain fundamental lean startup principles and I’m confident our ability to act like a startup was what helped us the most during this pandemic.
When we saw that things were changing, that the demands from our customers had pivoted, we had to be able to pivot with them. Their demands seemed to change overnight. Multiple times during the first weeks of the pandemic we would have a meeting in the morning where we discussed a product, an idea, or a project and within 24 hours we would have that product launched. That’s not something big companies can usually do, but we were able to because we practice being lean. We practice acting like a startup.
We saw early on that many small businesses were having to immediately adjust their hours, furlough employees, or, unfortunately, even close up shop temporarily. Understandably, most faced cash-flow challenges, but they still needed to let customers know their specific situation and quickly provide clients and employees with the latest COVID-19 information – which was changing daily.
We wanted to find a way to help, so we set our design team to work. We began offering free, downloadable COVID-related signage templates that would enable small businesses to immediately get their message out there. We produced templates for specific COVID categories ranging from social-distancing, masks required, handwashing tips, and temperature checks to curbside/delivery, maximum occupancy, and temporary hours signage. We had tens of thousands of downloads in the first few weeks.
At the same time, we had a huge increase in demand for more permanent COVID signage. It became clear that these new business practices were here to stay and businesses wanted to be ready. We were grateful that there was work for our employees, but we had to figure out how to adapt our procedures to make sure our workplace was safe. We restructured our manufacturing flow, making sure we socially distanced, provided adequate sanitation and protective gear. Because our manufacturing was already working well, and we have amazing employees, we were able to adjust and scale to handle the demand.
As experts learned more about the virus, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other organizations highlighted the importance of face coverings in reducing the spread of the virus. We already offered printed fabrics, so we adapted to use our existing materials and expertise to make face masks for our employees and their families. Our first priority was making sure our Signs.com family had what they needed. Once we realized we could create face masks, we added them to our list of offered products.
The response was overwhelming.
We had the technology in place, but the challenge became finding enough manpower to fulfill. We brought on additional staff – permanent employees plus contract workers – and still found ourselves flooded with mask requests. We started outsourcing, adapting responsibilities of existing employees, even reaching out to the community for temporary help. After the initial overwhelming burst, we have established a system that is sustainable.
ADDITIONAL LESSONS LEARNED
We still haven’t seen the end of the pandemic or its effects, but we have already learned some valuable lessons, in addition to the power of startup mentality.
- Listening to your customers: Your customers’ demands change and you have to always be listening so you can stay relevant. Floor decals are a great example of that for us. It’s always been one of our lower performing products, but during the height of the pandemic it became one of our top 10 products because that is what our customers needed. Because we listened, we were able to make sure we had the designs, supplies, and workforce available to get our customers taken care of.
- Working remotely: I’ve always been a little skeptical of working remotely, wondering if employees are truly as productive in a home environment. While the weaknesses of remote work are very real, I have learned that there are strengths, too. We’ve learned, for example, that our remote employees feel their personal health has improved since working from home. We’ve seen that they can maintain productivity and relationships while physically separated. Mostly we’ve learned that we can do it, that we have the caliber of employees who can handle it, the values in place, and the technology available to work from home and get things done.
- Transparency: We have always practiced transparency with our company, sharing our financials and goals on a monthly basis. During a crisis, transparency and communication pay big dividends. We made sure our employees knew where we stood financially, what we were planning, and how everyone could help on a weekly basis and often more frequently. By keeping everyone on the same page, we were our most effective.
- Relationships: When supply chains break, which many did during the pandemic, having healthy relationships with vendors and suppliers can help. We had multiple instances where suppliers with whom we had a good relationship went the extra mile to get us the supplies we needed to keep production going.
- Giving back: While we felt like the work we were doing was necessary and important, we realized that there were many others giving so much more. We wanted to find a way to give back, to thank those on the front lines and to play a part in getting us through the pandemic. We created a signage campaign to thank and support healthcare workers for their selfless and heroic efforts during the pandemic. We also donated a portion of our profits to the CDC foundation to help combat the virus. To date, we have donated tens of thousands of dollars to the cause, helping communities prevent, detect, and respond to COVID-19.
While we hope the effects of the pandemic are minimized quickly and that life can return to a new normal, we’ve learned so much and grown into a stronger company than we were before. If this experience has taught us anything as a company and as a people, it’s that we are resilient and we have the capacity to survive — even thrive — no matter what lies ahead.
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