5 small businesses that pivoted to help their communities and customers during the pandemic — and boosted their bottom lines

Zenbooth team, with Founder and CEO Sam Johnson

  • The novel coronavirus pandemic has forced businesses to adapt
    to remote-work environments, and some companies have turned that
    into new products or changes to strategy to help others ease into
    the transition.
  • Phone-booth maker Zenbooth switched from making booths to desks
    to help employees across the nation work from home.
  • Office-technology provider Minim opened its customer base from
    internet providers needing WiFi support to going straight to remote
    workers.
  • And other companies, like BioPure Services, PATHWATER, and
    ManufacturingChina.com, have scaled up production and sales to meet
    more demand.

  • Click here for more BI Prime stories.

American ingenuity is never more prevalent than during a crisis.
We saw
the resilience of New York City businesses
in the weeks and
months after 9/11. 

Now, when the whole country is in the throes of dealing with

COVID-19
, many US companies large and small are responding with
equal aplomb, rejiggering their business models to meet the new
needs of the nation. Even manufacturers and suppliers, usually the
hardest cog to turn within any economic engine, are making changes
to support our new social-distancing, remote-work culture.

Launching a product to help the new work-from-home
nation

Zenbooth, the Berkeley,
California-based makers of single-, double-, and quad-sized office
quiet booths for phone calls and focused work, made the decision to
adapt to change by doing something they’ve never done before —
producing a desk instead of a booth. 

The ZenStation
height-adjustable desk, which runs between $500 and $700, is the
company’s first product in response to the surge in home workers,
and they’re currently canvassing their Bay Area neighbors to see
how else they can be helpful. The company forecasts sales of
thousands of units of the ZenStation as soon as its supply chain
stabilizes. 

“Zenbooth’s focus has always been about making work more
comfortable. In the open office, the burning problem was privacy.
At home, the first burning problem is ergonomics,” Zenbooth Founder
and CEO Sam Johnson told Business Insider. “Most people we know
were dissatisfied with their setup, and this was causing pain and
will later cause injury.” 

And so it began with the ZenStation, which Johnson also viewed
as low-hanging fruit because it was within the company’s skill
set.  

“The ZenStation was also something within our capabilities —
we could get it to market fast,” he said. 

When Johnson said “fast,” he wasn’t kidding around. Zenbooth
developed and brought the ZenStation to market in just one week
once California Governor Gavin Newsom announced his shelter-in-place
order

“With Zenbooth, I tested a few ideas and then released the first
concept within 24 hours, and sold a few within a couple of weeks,
so I had the confidence we could do it again,” Johnson, who funded
his company entirely on the proceeds from these early sales, said.
“We now have a talented team and relationships that enable us to
move even faster.”

The one hurdle Johnson does have to cross, however, is
California’s aforementioned shelter-in-place restrictions, which
have obviously affected his own workforce. Johnson is looking at
rolling production across the country as needed to support his
work-from-home customers. 

“This is a moving target like no other. Last Tuesday, we shut
down our manufacturing operations due to Berkeley City
shelter-in-place restrictions.
Those restrictions
had an exception to the supply of
working-from-home products and supply to other essential
businesses, which we got advice we could work within,” Johnson told
Business Insider. Then, three hours after they put the product page
up on Thursday, California released broad shelter-in-place
restrictions. 

“We’re in this for the long term, though, and we will work —
safely  — with our suppliers in other states to be able to
produce these as restrictions are added and then lifted,” he added.
“We’re committed to balancing health at home with following the
restrictions to enable community health.” 

Johnson takes the occasion of the pandemic to make a larger
point about the importance of ergonomics to overall
well-being. 

“OSHA [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] states
that ergonomic
injuries
have direct costs of between $15 to $20 billion per
year, with total annual costs reaching $45 to $54 billion,” Johnson
said. “Well, we have heard from many who have suffered after
working from home for one week with issues like neck strain, and
with shelter-in-place restrictions, none of those people are going
to see a doctor or physiotherapist anytime soon. We expect to see a
‘whiplash’ of injuries and claims after the coronavirus pandemic
passes.”

In addition to offering the ZenStation to the work-from-home
audience, Zenbooth is selling their hero product to telemedicine
and medical research companies that are in increased demand and
need privacy to ensure confidentiality in their services. Johnson
said he’s examining other ways to make his company’s capabilities
useful in the context of this pandemic, for example, in the area of
isolation rooms (often called
airborne infection isolation rooms
).

“If the opportunity arises to help save lives, we’ll definitely
jump at it. But otherwise, we’ll be trying to help all those
working from home,” Johnson said.    

A tech company adapts by changing its audience

Going from office furnishings to office technology, Manchester,
New Hampshire-based Minim had
long been working with internet service providers to provide
network security, parental controls, and WiFi management tools.
Then the news of the coronavirus began to spread.

Nicole Hayward, Minim's cofounder and CMO/CPO

“When the news of COVID-19 broke, we realized that the same
platform we provide to ISPs could be democratized for businesses
and their employees to provide secure remote working environments,”
Nicole Hayward, Minim’s cofounder and CMO/CPO, told Business
Insider. “Our solution helps remote workers who are experiencing
choppy video calls, slow speeds from kids’ streaming at home, and
worse — the rise of targeted hacking.”

Minim for Remote
Workers
was rolled out in the matter of a weekend, and the
company is now offering four free months of service to people
globally, which includes a Minim router, a mobile app for the
employee, and a web app for the employer. 

“On Thursday and Friday, March 12 and 13, we pulled together
team leadership from all departments for a few work sessions. As
marketing and product leader, I prepared a product launch template
that we routinely use for new product and feature rollouts,”
Hayward shared. “We kept it concise and honed in on the immediate
needs, such as the product workflow to enable four free months of
services, and how to immediately get the message out to our
partners.” 

She added, “It helped that the team was very bought into the
vision; everyone contributed to the launch plan and collaborated
through the weekend into the wee hours. By the time we hit Monday
the 16th at about noon, we had a totally new signup path, a new
section of our website, new SKUs on our ecommerce site, an
automated journey, helpful handouts, an internal FAQ to help our
customers, and more.” 

Hayward noted that getting the word out around the new offering
was a critically important consideration surrounding the
launch. 

“One of the biggest challenges was ensuring that multiple
leaders read our communications before they went out — to ensure
we are hitting the right message and tone during this challenging
time,” she said. “To that end, we published a heartfelt letter to
our community from our CEO, and our first sign-ups were friends and
locals in the Manchester and Boston area. We are also thankful to
have great investors and advisors to help us get the word out.”

While it’s still early in the launch journey of Minim for Remote
Workers, Hayward is optimistic about its success.

“We’re still assessing target adoption,” Hayward said. “But,
we’re really hoping that businesses will step up and take on this
responsibility to support their employees. It’s such a big paradigm
shift for many, and remote workers shouldn’t be burdened with the
added stress of not being able to get work done over their WiFi.
Not to mention, there’s an incredibly high risk to corporate data
if a single employee’s network is compromised. VPN won’t even help
there.”

Other companies scale up to meet increased demand for
atypical products and services 

“It’s doing the education piece for us,” BioPure Services President
Brandon Kinder said of the impact coronavirus has made on his
business, which provides hospital-grade disinfection services to
homes and businesses across the Southeast. “We’ve now experienced
how quickly something can go from a few folks in China to right
here in our backyard in a matter of weeks. Germs connect us all,
and we’re seeing the need to change the standard of clean.”

With their chlorine dioxide-based spray treatment that’s on the

EPA’s approved list of effective treatments against COVID-19

— among a lot of other nastiness — BioPure Services found
itself suddenly with overflowing demand during this time of extreme
economic duress. Kinder said his business has increased 75% over
one month, with inquiries for services from all over the
country. 

“Any time you set a goal of trying to change the way something
has traditionally been done education is a huge piece of that, but
now I’m getting a barrage of calls, emails, and voicemails more
than I can answer, and that’s good,” Kinder, who has increased his
workforce by 50% in order to handle the influx of inquiries, told
Business Insider. 

Kinder acknowledged that people had a bit of a hard time
understanding the importance of his service prior to the onset of
the pandemic. “Our mission statement since we began this journey
has been ‘to change the standard of clean.’ People are realizing
that they may have been fooled — they can’t clean for appearance
or clean for smell, it’s really about the germs. Well, we’re a
germ-control company, and our messaging just happens to align
really well in this situation.”

Kinder’s business, previously generally commercial in nature,
has also seen a considerable uptick in residential customers
looking to increase sanitization while sheltering in place and
working from home. 

Amer Orabi, PATHWATER CEO

Fremont, California-based PATHWATER, which manufactures its
own aluminum reusable water bottles then bottles both sparkling and
still water, has experienced a 300% growth in sales over the last
month. 

“Even with the pandemic, the majority of our country still has
access to clean drinking water. PATHWATER bottles are aluminum,
which are 100% recyclable in a closed-loop system, so we hope the
influx of people purchasing our sustainable alternative to bottled
water will at least help keep a fraction of plastic waste out of
landfills over the next few months,” Company CEO Amer Orabi told
Business Insider.

Orabi said that his company has benefited greatly from its use
of technology while under California’s shelter-in-place orders and
observing social distancing.  

“Operating during shelter in place is definitely a challenge,
especially from an operations standpoint. Aside from our team, our
second biggest asset is technology,” Orabi said. “We utilize
technology in every part of our operations/fulfillment. Virtual
meetings, automated order processing, and a good communication
platform are all ways to increase efficiency in a remote work
environment.”

To meet the increasing demand for bottled water, he added, the
company has ramped up its production capacity by increasing
efficiency and yields. “Almost all of our PATHWATER production
processes are fully automated with a limited need for human
involvement. Again, technology is a big difference maker for
businesses in a situation like this,” he said.

In fact, PATHWATER has increased production by 250% in order to
meet demand, and has also made a commitment to give back and help
the hard-hit San Francisco region where the company is based. 

“We are grateful that PATHWATER hasn’t been affected by COVID-19
like so many other companies and industries, and to show our
support during this difficult time we are giving back to our
community by donating 100,000 bottles to local food banks in the
Bay Area,” he said.

Ron Berkes, who connects his clients with Chinese medical supply
goods manufacturers through his company ManufacturingChina.com,
is fielding a similar barrage of calls and emails.

“I just got a request for up to one million masks per day, up to
five million masks, from a customer buying for South African
medical interests, straight through my LinkedIn,” Berkes
told Business Insider. “I even set up a special website to
accommodate the special medical-related inquiries I’ve been
getting, so that I can handle these requests and not lose track of
what people need and what they’re asking for.” 

Berkes, who’d previously overcome a delay in shipments from his
Chinese suppliers when
factories throughout the country were shut down for weeks
to
forestall the spread of COVID-19, said he has also been able to get
clients he provides with non-medical goods to place larger orders
in the interest of not running out of supplies.

“Honestly, the logistics in China can be a challenge even when
there is not a pandemic,” Berkes told Business Insider. “So I am
always hedging to get my clients to order sooner or more product
then what they typically want. In this case, ordering 30 to 50%
more inventory has been a good decision, because we could see a lot
more delays in the future.”

Johnson concluded, “It’s sad that there has been so much
political rhetoric about protecting American jobs in manufacturing
over the past couple years. This will be a historical lesson that
you’re better off investing in the health and safety of your people
rather than tariffs and walls. Many companies simply won’t survive
this without innovating.”

With that in mind, this country’s manufacturers and suppliers
are proving that American ingenuity is, at root, both good business
and good for us.

SEE ALSO: 5
tips for leading a team that’s scattered across the globe if you’ve
never really done it before, from CEOs who’ve managed remote
employees for years


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5 small businesses that pivoted to help their communities and customers during the pandemic — and boosted their bottom lines