A concert promoter, professional recruiter, brewer and restauranteurs rethink their businesses
Businesses pivot in the face of changes in competition, demand, consumer preferences, finances, and other pressures. But is it really possible to pivot in the face of a pandemic? You might reassess and pick a new direction, but the problem’s right there again, in front of you, surrounding you.
As any entrepreneur will say, there are no policies to offer guidance, no tested plans and no assurances at a time like this. The only way through, other than hard work and crossed fingers, may be to question business fundamentals that worked in the world we once knew, but many of which have no business in this one.
To try to understand what that's like, and to have livelihoods put at risk, we asked six NAIT grads how COVID-19 has changed their businesses. In each case, the answer is bigger than the impact on the bottom line, and the ways forward are defined by more than market analysis. The only thing that’s clear is that almost nothing will ever again be how it was.
For what that can teach, however – about life and entrepreneurship – that may not always be bad.
The show must (not) go on: The reimagining of concerts, festivals and fun
Mike Anderson’s business often depends on people getting what’s now considered alarmingly close to each other. A good day, for example, might see hundreds meld as a single, pogo-ing mass below a band on a strobe-lit stage. In other words, an epidemiologist’s worst nightmare.
But a kind of closing curtain lowered for Anderson (Marketing ’98, Business Administration – Management ’99), president of live event management and consulting firm, Trixstar, on April 24. That was the day Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw cancelled mass gatherings for the foreseeable future.
Anderson wasn’t surprised. After the provincial government ordered non-essential businesses closed a few weeks earlier, he and his team of nine knew the summer of 2020 was lost.
“It still wasn’t easy to hear,” says Anderson, who founded the company in 2005 and now has offices in Edmonton, Calgary and Nashville. “We hope that we’ll be back at it in September.”
The company organizes and stages 100 to 300 events a year of various sizes, some of which include K-Days and Soundtrack, an Edmonton music festival (both are cancelled for 2020). These days, Anderson is able to keep his six full-time staff members employed by working through cancellations that affect myriad local businesses and organizations, from fencing companies to electricians to caterers to transit and many more.
“It’s kind of depressing when you go through the list,” says Anderson.
That said, the soundtrack to life at Trixstar isn’t just a string of sad songs. The company is also getting creative about how they might operate once the shows are allowed to go on. There will still be demand for their services in time, but “people are scared right now,” says Anderson. “So, how do we make them feel safe?”
Possibly, it could ultimately involve things like taking attendees’ temperatures at the gate, masks included in ticket prices, physical distancing markers and traffic directing, relentless sanitizing, and having to drink beer through a straw. (They’ve outlined the future as the entertainment industry might know it on the Trixstar blog.)
“There’s no point in us being upset about the restrictions. Let’s start working with the restrictions.”
Anderson is positive by nature. “If you think of it as doom and gloom and you let those feelings take over, you can’t be productive and you can’t find the answers you’re looking for. I think being in a positive mindframe is key to being successful, even when you’re not going through a crisis like this.”
“If you think of it as doom and gloom, you can’t be productive."
It has also made him philosophical about the dips that come with the “rollercoaster ride” of entrepreneurship. Maybe you lose a major client, Anderson says, or someone skips out on a bill. “Taking those dips earlier in our business helped prepare us for this.”
He plans to learn from the latest “dip” too. Anderson writes in a journal daily, recording details on current challenges and how he’s meeting them. “You just have to take it in and learn from it. If there’s ever another crisis like this 10, 20, 30 years from now I can go back and see that I did this and this and this to get through it, and that this too shall pass.”
When finally it does, Anderson expects Trixstar to celebrate by doing what he knows how to do best: throw a party.
“The second we’re allowed to, we’re going to throw the biggest one,” he says. “Six feet apart, of course.”
Help wanted: Seeking new opportunities in the personnel recruitment industry
The pandemic wasn’t actually the dealbreaker for Shannon Neighbour (Marketing ’00). That came earlier, as the downturn dragged on, when clients began to break deals with her.
For a long time, says Neighbour, founder of what began as Shannon Neighbour Recruiting in 2012, “business was humming along.” It grew in reputation and size, including a partner, Chantelle Svensen-Lewis (Marketing '01; making the company Svensen Neighbour Recruiting), and two part-time staff. Companies hired the agency as a recruiter and consultant, and fees for identifying successful clients could run into the thousands of dollars.
Then, when the economy began to get really rough, Neighbour noticed a change, as if a sense of fairness was following declining revenues. A client might “bail at the 11th hour,” she says – a problem since she'd only get paid if the candidate they’d researched and vetted was hired. Instead, the client might hire the next best and get away with skipping out on the bill.
“It was almost like they were just using all of our hard work and our expertise to benchmark people they were bringing in themselves.”
This began to happen so often that Neighbour and Svensen began to question the integrity of the industry. “If this is going to be long term,” Neighour recalls wondering, “do we really even want to be in this business any more?”
Cue the pandemic, and its multitude of layoffs. Neighbour knows that most companies aren’t hiring now, and those that still must probably can’t afford pro recruiting, so they’re not even reaching out. Instead, she and Svensen are strengthening relationships with their most trusted clients, with companies that offer complimentary services (workplace training firms, for example) and with candidates who might prove good contacts when they eventually return to industry.
They’ve also been thinking, frankly, about how not to get strung along anymore. Their honour system broken, they’re finding ways to bill for their services as they go, and tacitly admitting that relationships aren’t what they used to be.
“It’s not been pleasant, to be honest,” says Neighbour. “It’s not been a happy time, the past few months.”
“It’s not been a happy time, the past few months.”
But it has been illuminating, even if by a harsh light, with respect to how she sees herself in relation to her company. And this may be the best possible outcome of a bad situation.
To paraphrase Neighbour, when you build something as an entrepreneur, it can be hard not to see your identity fuse with it. If it succeeds, you are a success; if it fails, well. For her sake, and her family’s, she has reconsidered her intelligence and talent as independent of the business, not defined by it, and learned to trust in her capacity for reinvention.
“I feel like being realistic has given me peace of mind.”
None of this is to say that she’s giving up. After much introspection and evaluation, “I feel we are so well positioned for when this turns around,” says Neighbour.
She is certain things will turn around, and that companies will need to hire back quickly and hire well – a delicate task that requires special expertise. Like everyone else, she’s just not certain of when this will happen. “It just needs to turn around within a reasonable timeframe,” says Neighbour, who has high hopes for better days come fall.
In the meantime, she adds with a confidence she'd encourage in any highly qualified candidate she’d put forward, “I think we are sharper than ever.”
Beers, not tears: How the pandemic snapped a brewery out of complacency
At first, the business model probably seemed fairly straightforward. Make small batches of beer, keg them, serve some in your taproom, sell most of it to bars and restaurants, and enjoy riding the craft beer wave that’s been flowing through Alberta of late. It’s a recipe for success as long as there’s beer moving fluidly and consistently from the brewery to customers.
That is, until the party ends, leaving behind what seems like the worst hangover ever.
That’s what Kevin Danard (Landscape Architectural Technology ’97) and Jeff Pollock (Finance ’95) experienced with the closure of the taproom at their brewery, the Growlery, when the province shuttered non-essential businesses at the end of March.
“There was a time there where it was really tough and we were wondering if we were going to make a go of things,” says Danard. “Which kind of sucked because we had only been open since June.” Like most young businesses, the brewery was not yet turning a profit.
Overnight, the Growlery’s main outlet for sales was cut off, sparking a healthy panic. “It kind of lit a fire under our butts.”
“It kind of lit a fire under our butts.”
Danard and Pollock didn’t pivot; they began to rapidly bring the business to the point where Danard says it should have been already.
“When all this hit, we hadn’t really done much with our website, so within a week we got it up and running.” That included online sales.
Before the pandemic, the brewery was set to increase its portable product – in addition to filling customers’ reusable glass jugs – by hiring a mobile canning operation. Essentially, another company rolls up with a van containing all the necessary equipment, packages a brewery’s beer, then moves on. But given the economy’s unhealthy state, Danard and Pollock realized that being subject to someone else’s schedule would hold them back, or worse.
“We wanted to be able to start pushing beer out as fast as we could,” says Danard. Cans could get Growlery beer into Alberta’s 1,500 liquor stores.
With that, they bought their own canner, a local second-hand unit. After crushing a few cans as they worked out the kinks, they ultimately achieved their aim, beginning with a batch they’d made for bars and restaurants and that was all kegged up with no place to go. Like most Alberta craft breweries during the pandemic, they also began delivering direct to customers, which began to cover lost taproom sales.
Along the way, Danard and Pollock made a few important realizations. One was that, because they were small (and smaller still because of laying off front-of-house staff), they could change quickly as needed. Another realization was that the community was behind them. Customers would come in and say they were there because they wanted to buy local.
Danard and Pollock just had to make sure that, if those customers planned to be there for them, they’d do everything they could to be there for those customers.
“[This] has taught me that, when times are good, you have to be really on your game,” says Danard. “It shouldn’t take a pandemic to get your crap in order.”
Success and survival: Oodle Noodle makes good on an old promise
When Sonny Pham (Cook ’01) saw government closures of Alberta dining rooms cut sales by 60% to 70% across Oodle Noodle, his chain of quick-serve Asian restaurants, he reacted as if sales had actually spiked. That is, he began producing more food than he needed.
Pham supplies the company’s 13 stores (all but two are franchises) from his own compact factory, where he makes noodles, tofu and sauces, in northeast Edmonton. Soon, he’ll also make spring rolls in a neighbouring facility he bought last August. He’s living his dream. In 1989, Pham arrived in Canada from Vietnam with empty pockets. As he worked his way through jobs washing dishes, packing meat and eventually cooking, he was pursuing a vision of building a business, and owning a place just like this.
When Pham opened the original Oodle Noodle in 2005 on Whyte Avenue, he vowed to repay the good fortune and support he’d experienced. The pandemic presented an unprecedented, even if unwelcome, opportunity.
“Sonny reached out to me and said, ‘I’ll just make extra food,’” says Jay Downton (Finance ’02), a partner in the company and its president.
“We have the factory, we have machines ready,” says Pham, “so I said to Jay, ‘Why don’t we do something to help out the community, with donations wherever they’re needed?’”
After ensuring that franchisees’ needs were met, Pham began to pump out hundreds of extra meals – each individually packaged like those sent to the restaurants, perfect for a time of heightened hygiene. The first stops were Edmonton’s Food Bank and the Mustard Seed, followed by the Youth Emergency Shelter and other food banks in the Edmonton area.
In addition, the company decided to start giving 10% of all takeout sales to a different charity each week, beginning with Win House.
“Money’s tight,” says Downton. “If you’re going to part with a few dollars to support one of our stores, we’re going to make sure it’s an investment into your community.
“It’s not about getting ahead right now,” he adds. “It’s just about survival and helping out Edmonton and the surrounding area in its time of most need.”
This altruism ended up helping the helpers, too. By mid-April, Oodle Noodle stores began to go from as much as 70% diminished to around 50% – a marked improvement in the time of COVID-19. Downton attributes that largely to word spreading that the chain was giving back.
“It’s giving us a fighting chance,” he says.
At the same time, it’s reshaping the conscience of the company.
“We used to engage with charitable activities here and there,” says Downton. “But, coming out of this, we understand the importance of giving back. It’s given us a sense of purpose other than being a quick-serve Asian restaurant. You can’t prepare for a pandemic. I don’t think there’s anything on the business side we can learn; it’s the community side. Coming out of this, it’s on us to try to lead the charge in giving back.
“This is probably the happiest I’ve seen Sonny in a long time,” he adds, “and we’re in, like, supreme distress.”
Pham’s factory has the capacity to ultimately support 30 stores, expansion that he and his partners will still pursue. Even though he spent decades working toward success as an entrepreneur, he’s content to wait longer. It helps that he sees a kind of success in what he and Downton are doing now, too.
“Because I got to grow a business, I wished that one day I would have the chance to help out,” says Pham. “I’m more than happy to give. No problem.”