You Spin Me Right ‘Round, Baby - Pivoting in the Times of Pandemic & Political Unrest

Welcome back, Team PinUp Preserves! It’s been a little while since our last installment of Forking Spoons! Did anything happen while I was gone? (/s insert: Tony Stark eye roll GIF) Unless you’ve been hibernating in a cave these past few months - of which I would be extremely jealous - you know that a whooooooole lot has happened. Sadly, we’ve lost over 500,000 lives to CoVID-19, millions more now suffer long-term damage from their coronavirus experience, hundreds of thousands of businesses have closed or laid off staff, and there was this little ice storm that completely devastated the already pandemic-ravaged state of Texas when it knocked out their non-federally-regulated privatized electricity grid thus plunging millions into darkness and freezing temperatures with deadly consequences.

Oh, right! We also had an election. Yeah, so the despotic dude who lost by over 3.5 million votes the last time now lost by over 7 million votes this time (so there’s clearly a trend), but didn’t want to accept that he lost by over 7 million votes so he tried to interfere with the state certification of votes and when that didn’t work, he riled up his lizard-people/blue-avian/zombie-JFK,Jr./baby-eating-robot/sex-ring-on-Mars-believing followers to storm the U.S. Capitol Building in a literal insurrection and try to overthrow the government and the ONLY REASON we still have a democracy left and I can write this epic run-on sentence is because of the quick thinking and amazingly brave actions of St. Eugene of Goodman, Our Protector of the Line of Succession. God! Bless! That! Man! D.C. is still covered in concertina wire and the National Guard is still defending the Capitol Building, though, sooo... That’s not at all disturbing.

WHEW! There has clearly been some ish this year and that brings us to the question: How do small businesses adapt to pandemics, recessions, and political unrest? We pivot, and this last year, many of us have done more pivots than a prima ballerina who just downed a triple espresso with 8 sugars and a Ginseng chaser. What is a pivot, you ask? It’s when a business takes their skills and resources and redirects them to where the current need (and revenue stream) exists. You’ve seen various examples over the past 12 months. Distilleries who stepped up to fill the hand sanitizer void by converting their ethyl alcohol stock, thus continuing to generate income and keep their staff employed while meeting the needs of average citizens and first responders. Fine Dining restaurants switched to serving breakfast sandwiches and burgers so that local communities could have hot fresh food and employees could continue to receive a paycheck. Sit-down restaurants built out to-go windows and created online ordering systems to keep business going. You get the idea.

In all of these examples, the pivot each business made was still relatively within the scope of their existing product line. Distilleries already had access to ethyl alcohol stocks and knew how to safely work with the material. Restaurants continued to serve food, just under a different delivery model. Some could make it work. Others ultimately had to close. There are a myriad of reasons for this. Many cited the unwillingness - or complete unavailability - of landlords and landladies to renegotiate existing leases or negotiate new ones. Others saw this as an appropriate time to sell their business, retire, or perhaps close one chapter and start a new one entirely. The reality is that some of us have had to go a little farther in our pivot than hand sanitizer and takeout and it’s been ugly. Very, very ugly.

We know this pandemic hasn’t been easy for anyone, but women have been impacted far more than men when it comes to job loss. According to Fortune Magazine’s recent article here, nearly 3 million women have been pushed out of the workforce due to CoVID-19. It’s impossible to say how many will be able to return. Why are more women being impacted by this? Um… have you met The Patriarchy? In all seriousness, women are more likely to be caretakers, either for children, aging parents, or both at the same time. Despite being equally qualified, they are often paid less and have less job security than men. In short, women are seen as more expendable from a business standpoint. It’s a complex issue that we can (and will) address another day, but the fact remains that women have been hardest hit with job loss, which also impacts our financial security, independence, and safety.

What about women small business owners? I am so glad you asked because this post is the first in a new series that will ask that exact question. You see, as much as I appreciate all the wonderful triumphant stories of businesses who have overcome pandemic challenges to thrive in the face of adversity, I know that is not *everyone’s* story. Not by a long shot. For every one glorious shiny success story splashed across the glossy pages of a magazine, countless other stories of struggle, heartbreak, anxiety, and uncertainty are going untold.

So I have decided to tell them myself.

Our stories not only deserve to be told, they NEED to be told because we are more representative of the larger pandemic pivot experience than General Motors and José Andrés. Sure, both are doing important work, with General Motors producing lifesaving ventilators and Andrés mobilizing his World Central Kitchen to feed millions facing food insecurity due to job loss, but they have tremendous resources at their disposal that the average small business does not. I don’t see myself represented in these wonderful pivot articles and I doubt many other small business owners do either, so let’s talk about what this past year has really done to small businesses across the nation.

The first woman business owner we are focusing on comes from a nearly 25-year freelancing background and started her company a few years ago in the competitive male-dominated food industry. This woman is tough - like, “wrestle a bull and come out with the horns” tough. She’s been through Hell and back so many times that she walks around like she owns the place and even the Devil himself scurries when he hears her footsteps. She’s more used to disappointment and having the rug pulled out from under than not, and keeps a sharp eye out for such chicanery. She knows that just because something is billed as a “great opportunity”, that doesn’t mean it’s actually worth her time. This woman is not intimidated by anyone, though many men are intimidated by her. She understands that life can change in a moment, so she prepares for those rainy days and extensively calculates the risk to reward ratio before moving forward with a plan. She’s what they call “savvy”. She’s a resilient, adaptive, intelligent, and fiercely protective independent critical thinker who does not take bullshit of any shape or fragrance. She has also been dealt an absolute gut-punch by this pandemic, with nearly her entire network for hustle being completely shut down and new opportunities few and far between due to her high-risk status. You all know this woman. She’s the one writing this post.

I cannot in good conscious ask anyone else to “go there” if I’m not willing to do so myself, so grab an adult beverage while you read along because I guarantee you will need one after this. February/March (read: “tax time”) is when I get to digest exactly where finances from the prior year stand. As a business owner, you always have an approximate sense of what is going on, but End of Year is an opportunity to put it all in perspective. You can see where the trends were throughout the year and compare them with years prior. You can assess what marketing tools generated a positive return and which were unsuccessful. You can identify new markets and product lines and perhaps retire ones that are underperforming. It’s a “come to Jesus” moment that gives the business owner an honest perspective of where things really stand. It’s not always pretty. This year it was downright fugly.

I’m not going to get into actual dollar amounts ‘cuz that ain’t nobody’s business but my own, but we can talk about percentages. That’s something everyone can understand and it’s also a more accurate assessment of what those random dollar amounts mean. The first big blow is that my overall combined income dropped 46%, with PinUp Preserves’ income dropping - are you sitting down? - 82%. 8-fucking-2%! Yeah... good times... My pre-number-crunching guesses had been 50% and 75% respectively, so I was quite close! No wholesale, no pop-up markets, no nothing and while I tried to pivot to a stop-gap of facemasks, so did everyone else including Wal-Mart, Jo-Ann’s, and Amazon. Thanks a lot, Big Box Stores. Back to the drawing board!

You know what did not go down? Expenses. I still have to pay for the phone and internet (which went up 6%), still have to pay for the website (which went up 8%), still have to pay for the insurance (which went up freaking 86%!!!), and so on and so forth. With all that factored in, even in a non-production year, my total expenses only went down 8%, and it actually would have been worse had I been in jam production. I can’t afford my own kitchen (most small business can’t), therefore I would need to work in a shared commercial space. That word: “shared”. It’s not where a high-risk person like me needs to be and even if that wasn’t an issue, there is still the problem of the glass jar and latex glove shortage.

Oh, you didn’t hear about those shortages? Well, there was a severe shortage of both food-safe latex gloves and glass jars. Food-safe latex gloves were scarce because #pandemic, and glass jars were scarce because everyone decided to can while quarantining at home, which depleted stock here in the U.S. that was slow to be replenished since the factories in China were shut down for months due to - say it with me - #PANDEMIC!! I’ll give you an example of how that impacts production costs: the 12-ct case of quart jars I used to buy for $13/case were selling this summer for $175 for 4 cases (with FREE SHIPPING!!!) on Scamazon because that’s the only place they could be found. That averages to $3.65/jar before you fill it, or to put it another way, a 338% increase in cost. Gloves? I used to buy a case (10 boxes of 100 gloves/box) for around $30, which included shipping. After months of being out of stock, I was finally able to order a case of the same gloves from the same source… for $105. That’s an increase of 350% for the exact. same. gloves.

Now, even if I could manage production, where am I going to sell (don’t say “WhaT aBouT fArmEr’s MaRkeTs”; been there, done that, it sucked) and how do I offset those additional costs? Are customers going to pay $30-$35 for an 8oz jar of jam? Because when every price increase is factored in, that’s what I would be charging. This is the ugly line-item reality that many small businesses are facing.

What about other income? As previously mentioned, I still freelance and last March - in fact, EXACTLY one year ago - theater was shaping up to be a very good season. It’s not unusual for a small business owner to still work another job, even if it’s not a 9-5. Between PinUp Preserves and theater gigs, it seemed like the world was taking a positive turn. Then… the ‘Rona. We thought it would be a few weeks off theater with a return in June. Then it was the summer off, but the fall looked good for holiday shows to start pre-production. Then no fall, no holiday shows. Maybe smaller pieces in January… or maybe not. Now? I don’t know and I’m not sure it’s worth asking anymore. “Maybe in the fall”… again.

With all that and the dismal numbers, you may wonder why I have not closed my business. I debated that step. In fact, it has always been an option even before the 2020 madness. A business takes an awful lot of time and money to establish. It takes effort to build your brand, grow a following, craft your story, and create products. I’ve invested a tremendous amount of myself in PinUp Preserves over the last 6 years and I am not going to throw that away because of some terrible, horrible, no good, very bad, mixed-up-bucket-of-shit year that was completely beyond my control. This year has sucked harder than a NASA-engineered wind tunnel, but I have so far gotten through with my health and determination. That’s more than I had when I started this business, so I’ll call it a “WIN”. I’m still in this fight and I plan to come out with those horns.

Moving forward, PinUp Preserves will look very different. When I realized this was an extended haul and the stop-gap of facemasks wasn’t going to cut it, I began to look at a long-term pivot. This blog is part of that equation. Other parts will roll out over the next few months. No, there will not be jam, but I don’t believe there will never be jam. Just not jam in the foreseeable future. What will be coming are feature posts on some fantastic women who are hip-deep in this hustle. They have had their lives and businesses upended over the past 12 months, but they are still here and still in the fight. Their stories deserve to be told.

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