- Social enterprise founders are making changes in the wake of the pandemic
- A more nimble approach sets companies up for future success
- Businesses everywhere are facing challenges and opportunities; pivot execution may dictate who survives
Businesses, of all sorts, are struggling to respond to the deluge of economic chaos brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Social enterprises and other impact-driven businesses are no exception.
The challenges vary, and so do the creative “pandemic pivots” that many founders are executing now to keep their businesses afloat and addressing the new or emerging needs of their customer base.
That creativity will be essential to the future success of these companies, with research showing that entrepreneurial resilience comes in part from being nimble.
I spoke with the founders of four social enterprises who are in the pirouette stage of their “pandemic pivot” in marketing, sales channels, fundraising, and strategy. Here’s how they hope to stick the landing.
Marketing: How much, and to what end?
Inboxes around the world were flooded with COVID-19-related sales pitches in March as lockdowns went into effect across six continents. For Hannah Levinson, managing director of Lahayim Cooperative, the opportunity to gain new clients — Lahaymin’s core offering is matchmaking for impact investors and social enterprises through blended portfolios — had to be weighed against the risk of turning off those same potential clients.
“While I know many of those efforts were well-intended, it all felt unethical — like pure ambulance-chasing,” Levinson said of the marketing messages she received. “I agonized over what response, if any, was appropriate for the circumstances. Would anything really cut through the noise and not exhaust or overwhelm?”
In the end, she and Lahayim decided to refocus on the business they already had, which included a number of clients facing new challenges in the wake of the pandemic. “Instead of sending newsletters or spinning up a (likely redundant) webinar series, we redirected energies toward communicating directly with current clients and partners and doubling down on local relief efforts,” Levinson explained in an email.
Sales Channels: From B2B to e-commerce
“We were working with a bunch of coworking spaces to get into their bathrooms, selling directly to office managers and yoga studios,” Viv founder Katie Diasti said in a phone interview.
She was describing the go-to-market strategy she planned for Viv, which sells organic, bamboo-based menstrual products. After soft-launching in October 2019, Diasti planned to build her customer base through partnerships with local businesses that catered to the progressive millennial and Gen Z women in her target demographic.
Then, of course, COVID-19 pushed yoga classes online and indefinitely closed co-working spaces. Diasti had to not only rewrite her strategy, but also figure out what to do with the thousands of Viv products intended for partner distribution that were now crowding her Boston apartment.
So she doubled down on e-commerce and subscription models, previously planned as secondary channels.
“We put a new product offering on our website that offers more pads and liners in one box — helping ourselves by reducing the number of boxes we ship, because people buy five times as many,” said Diasti. She also rethought Viv’s marketing, using social media to capture the intimacy she originally hoped to cultivate in those shared bathrooms in studios and offices.
Fundraising: Launching New Tools Ahead of Schedule
Esusu, a tech platform to help tenants build credit through their rent payments, accelerated some of their longer-term plans in response to COVID-19 — which also meant a fundraising pivot.
“We’ve seen 10 years of change in just 10 weeks,” co-founder Samir Goel said in an interview with Karma. “We need to make sure that shift elevates all communities equally.”
Goel and his co-founder, Abbey Wemimo, always planned to launch a rent relief fund as part of their service offerings for landlords and tenants to de-risk participation for both parties. Then, the pandemic made that conversation much more than hypothetical.
“Sixty-five percent of renters on our platform are at risk of missing their next payment, and landlords don’t want to evict,” said Goel. “It gave us an urgency to accelerate those plans.” Esusu’s users are primarily immigrants, minorities, and low-to-moderate-income households — all especially hard hit by COVID-19.
Goel and Wemimo raised $25,000 on a crowdfunding platform to start their rent relief fund. Acumen Fund and the Global Good Fund, both of which previously supported the venture, provided an additional $160,000 in grants for the no-interest loans they can now offer.
Strategy: Accelerating new uses for a core product
Kenzen already had customers interested in its solution to heat stress and other industrial work-related injuries: a wearable device called the Kenzen Patch for workers that alerts them and their supervisor when their core body temperature increases to the point where they need to rest or see a doctor.
When COVID-19 hit, Kenzen’s customers began asking a different question. Could the Kenzen Patch’s temperature-sensing tools also flag people who have fevers? The answer was yes.
“Good is doing a spot temperature check when you come onto a work site, and better is continued temperature monitoring, which is something our solution was already designed to do,” said Kenzen engineer Nora Levinson in a phone interview. Best, she said, would be illness detection — something Kenzen had on their road map, but have now accelerated.
“The difference [with illness detection] is that it’s not just saying ‘your temperature is elevated, therefore you have either heat stress or a fever, let’s get a doctor’,” she explained. “We can look at the other sensors on the platform and create a baseline for your physiology. If, after a few weeks, we see that your physiology is outside your baseline, we can refer you for additional screening.”
Mindful of the need for privacy in health tech tools, Levinson and Lehrmann designed the dashboard so that only the individual worker can see their complete data; supervisors can only see who is potentially at risk at a given moment. Those built-in protections will become important if the company scales beyond clients with work sites where heat stress is a significant risk, like mining or construction.
“We heard from a big brand with a climate-controlled work environment — meaning for heat stress it’s low hanging fruit — but they said they were looking to the future, expecting that pandemics are going to happen with more frequency,” said Heidi Lehrmann, Kenzen’s Chief Commercial Officer. “This is something they’re going to have to monitor.”