Lessons From The Pandemic: Our Survival Story
In this post our General Manager reflects on the lessons learnt from the pandemic and provides tips to other small businesses on building a more resilient operation.
I hope all of you are faring well during this pandemic. I know as a small business we've fallen on the wayside on communicating with you, but we are just getting back into the swing of things and I felt like it was time we had a heart to heart.
Under normal circumstances we would have been in the full swing of candle season, heavy with the promotion of your fall favorites from our Goombay Candle brand, but we are trying to regain our footing.
This pandemic has certainly taught us several things at Goombay Labs, and has forced us to our knees to the point where we were going to throw in the towel and pack it all up. And this blog is mostly to share my experiences navigating Goombay Labs throughout this pandemic so that other small business owners can learn to make a more resilient operation.
Back in September, I had made the decision to shut the business down. I had prepared an inventory listing on what we would liquidate, I had contacted our suppliers advising them that we would be closing our accounts, and I even called our part-time employees and gave them notice. After a near 4 year run, I was closing the door on Goombay Labs. From the beginning of this year, the business was experiencing difficulties like no other.
Recall that back in January we experienced a fatal server crash where our entire website failed and was deemed unrecoverable. It took us 2 weeks to rebuild the website, and if you know anything about coding and web administration, that was an impressive feat.
When we were building the website back in 2017, it took us 4 months to get to a baseline and even then there were multiple improvements being made every week. I'd really like to thank our IT team for their efforts.
Despite being able to rebuild our website, we weren't able to recover or re-engage the prior 3 years of customer data that we had, and essentially, it was like we restarted from day 1 again.
Then came March and all hell broke loose with the onset of the pandemic and the executive orders. Supply chains and logistics systems took a critical hit globally. Manufacturers suddenly had reduced capacity or shifted their operations to accommodate the needs of the pandemic. Raw materials suddenly became difficult to procure as prices increased, and the length of time to receive them grew exponentially.
Around this time, I was still pushing the team to bring our Wax Cubes to market. Which we did with some semblance of success. We were only able to bring around 5 fragrances to market but they were well received. A huge thank you to all of those customers who took a chance to try them out.
With the release of the Wax Cubes, that meant after 3 years we finally could close the door on the development phase of Goombay Candles. The original dream for the Goombay Candle brand was to round the product offering out to 3 items; a small candle, a medium candle, and either a wax melt or diffuser offering. As a brand, Goombay Candles has gone through so many stages of evolution and it was a tearful moment for me to see the dream brought to its complete end.
This meant that as a business, we could finally devote our full focus on the development of our first skincare brand, Man In The Sun™ (MITS), previously branded Island Bey. Now work on MITS had started in 2018 with the formulation of our lip balm but was never released because we wanted to debut a complete product line.
We started research and development on the soap products for MITS in 2019, and in 2020 we were to complete the formulation of the moisturizer and start to get the branding together with a planned summer release.
Unfortunately, that did not go as planned. The lockdowns and closures affected us in ways I never could have predicted. Suddenly, as hotels announced extended closures, retailers reduced staffing and operating times, Goombay Labs found itself hanging on the edge. Our distribution channels went on hiatus, our customers changed spending habits, our suppliers frequently experienced disruptions and so we tried our best to evolve as the pandemic evolved.
We scaled back our production levels and cycles, we canceled supply orders; we did everything we could to try to remain lean but operational. Then the final nail in the coffin happened: EMS ceased operations.
As a small business, we enjoyed reaching our overseas customers throughout the early stages of the pandemic, and they were a source of relief as our domestic options shrank, but when the Express Mail Service announced their closure, it was devastating.
Although FedEx, DHL, and UPS were operational, we weren't in a position to afford their rates, and certainly we couldn't pass that cost on to our customers. To compare, EMS flat rate for the 1st pound is $16.50. DHL was the next cheapest at $43.00 for the same pound. We had no choice but to cease accepting international orders as we couldn't even afford to cost-share logistics with our customers with the remaining operating couriers.
What happened next was more lockdown and closures and shrinking cash flows. It was at this point we decided to temporarily close and reopen when a sense of normalcy was expected to return. Although we had stopped operating, we were still proceeding with our development of Man In The Sun™.
This was proven to be a costly endeavor but it was cost gladly accepted as we needed some sort of light in this cloud of pandemic darkness. Nonetheless, we decided on the logo, we procured packaging, we finalized product formulations, and we chartered a new timeline for release.
When we reopened in October, we expected things to flow smoothly, and we re-engaged our suppliers only to run into a massive supply chain issue which tied up our remaining cash flows. Cash strapped and hopeless, I decided to close.
However, we didn't. It was thanks to Mrs Hogg, Mrs Darrell, Mrs Rolle, Mr Thompson, and so many of you who messaged and sent emails asking when we were going to get back items in stock. So many reached out and expressed how you needed Goombay Candles for a little stress relief during the pandemic. And it's that engagement that prompted our path to recovery.
Unbeknown to me, one of our part timers, came to the office one week end and did a detail accounting of our inventory; trying to see what he could make for a customer who was asking for just one candle.
Now I knew we were out of all of our waxes, and our supplier was promising to send us some by mid to late November. Our part time production tech, Lamond, spent a few hours scraping the sides of the storage containers where we keep our waxes to salvage around 4 pounds of wax.
He Scrapped The Sides Of These Buckets
I recall him calling me excited, saying he has enough to make about a dozen candles and he's going to make them for a customer, and how we don't have to close. I laughed at him and said that's not even enough to buy back anything. What he told me next, was the fuel that restarted my dying fire.
"Something better than nothing. And and you always use to say you made your first 48 candles with less than $100 and you grew it from that right? Just do it again."
Our amazing production tech
A lesson on going back to basics coming from someone I least expected it from.
He was very much correct. Back in 2016 when I first started, I spent $82 on some kits, made 48 candles, and sold each one for $14. I just kept repeating that process until I got enough to start buying supplies wholesale, and grew Goombay Labs from that.
In the vein of 'something is better than nothing', I've decided to bootstrap Goombay Labs again. But this time, we are doing it from experience. This year has certainly been difficult, especially for small businesses. After much reflection, here is what I have learnt, and some advice for other business owners struggling right now:
Don't give up - You wouldn't have the dream in your mind if you didn't have the capacity to bring it to reality and achieve it. Eventually your efforts will pay off, so keep at it. Even if you have to resize down to operating out of your house or car, do not stop.
Build a committed team - Our team is small, but highly dedicated. To truly foster a dedicated team, is to be transparent with them. I know as business owners, it is scary to share the bad and the ugly, but if you commit to transparency with your team, they will dedicate themselves to your cause; they will want to grow and succeed with you. Trust them to help you tackle problems. A great support system is everything.
Build a resilient operation - Be proactive and adopt those new technologies. Fortunately for us, when we started, we were already online and lean. I can't imagine how I would have managed the costs if we were a traditional brick and mortar trying to switch to online during this pandemic. Create systems for disaster recovery, and create a business continuity plan.
Scrutinize cost and inventory - This is extremely important for businesses who create products. When you run into cash flow problems or supply problems, take a hard look at your inventories and try to restructure without losing product offering. For example, we use to stock a dozen of each fragrance, but we couldn't afford that in the pandemic. We restructured to doing only 6 of 20 fragrances to keep our costs tight but still allow for all of our options to be available. This has been so helpful that we've added this to our business continuity plan.
Diversification - Try to have more than one source of revenue for your business. Candles has been our main revenue driver from inception, but I can imagine that if we had completed Man In The Sun™ earlier, we would have been more resilient throughout this pandemic.
Redundant Systems - Have back ups for your back ups, whether they be suppliers, distribution channels, logistic partners, etc. If there is a failure somewhere, you must have a solution to rectify it, and quickly.
Communication - Communicate honestly with your customers, suppliers, and team. You would be surprised of the great ideas they can provide you with.
I just want to take this moment to say thank you to my team, as well as all those customers who kept checking in and keeping me accountable. It certainly hasn't been easy, but with a renewed commitment, I am eager to take us forward again. Thank you for the lessons.