American Express recently surveyed owners of small- and medium-size businesses, and the results show that 62 percent have a positive outlook for the U.S. economy next year. “People have still been spending money,” says Rachael Smedberg, who, with her husband, Jesse, owns Tulip Tree Gardens, a regenerative farm that grows produce as well as hemp, and processes hemp-derived CBD in Beecher, Illinois. “People are wanting to support small businesses, and especially farmers.”
Smedberg, like many business owners, quickly made changes and expanded e-commerce offerings at Tulip Tree Gardens in response to COVID-19. “The pandemic made us look at the profit centers in our business that weren’t making money and we cut those things and focused on things that were making money,” she says. She believes that small businesses that have been able to adapt and make rapid changes to their business models will be well suited for what’s next. "We’re feeling optimistic about 2021,” she says. In fact, the survey found that more than three-quarters of business owners surveyed say their business is now more resilient to handle a future crisis.
As entrepreneurs look ahead to 2021, I talked them about the ways they’re pivoting, their plans to attract more customers, how they’re diversifying income streams and the importance of talking about issues of racial injustice. Here’s what they said.
They’ve pivoted — and are prepared to do so again.
Pivot may well be the word of the year for business owners in 2020. According to the survey, 76 percent of those polled have pivoted or are in the process of pivoting since the pandemic, and among those, 73 percent expect to pivot again in the next year.
For Stuart Bewley, who owns Alder Springs Vineyard in Laytonville, California, flexibility and creativity have been key to resilience. Soon after COVID-19 hit, he saw an opportunity to help organizations in need, while also introducing new people to his wines. He launched an initiative called A Case for a Cause, which, at a price tag of $395, offers a deep discount on a case of wine (regularly $540) and gives a $200 donation to an organization or individual of the customer’s choosing. Originally, A Case for a Cause was going to be a limited-time offer, but it's been so popular that Bewley decided to extend it into 2021. "You don't want to lose these amazing organizations that do so much good work," says Bewley. To make it more widely available, Alder Springs, which is a limited-production winery, recently expanded shipping availability beyond its core markets to four additional states, for a total of seven states.
A large part of Alder Springs Vineyard’s business is selling grapes to other wineries, and Bewley is seeking to grow that in 2021. Currently, most of the grapes sell to California wineries. But thanks to a freezing process that keeps the fruit fresh, Bewley is looking to partner with wineries in other states, as well. "Maybe what they need is some really fine grapes from California," he says.
They’re investing in marketing.
Just before COVID-19 hit the U.S., Tulip Tree Gardens hired a firm for a rebranding campaign, which includes a new website. Smedberg says the timing was ideal: To reach more customers, the farm offered more items for online ordering, including eggs, produce, bread, peanut butter and its CBD products, and the branding company was at the ready to make those changes. The result, so far, has been a 220 percent increase in online sales.
I think that human beings are smart. [...] They’re going to figure a way around things and we’re going to survive, and we’re going to move on and of course things are going to get better. We don’t give up.
—Stuart Bewley, owner, Alder Springs Vineyard
Smedberg’s goals to broaden the farm’s consumer base align with 86 percent of those who responded to the American Express survey, who are also prioritizing finding new customers in 2021. In order to make that happen, Smedberg also hired a public relations firm to help spread the word about the business, which also makes wholesale CBD products that are sold under private labels. She believes that 2021 will be pivotal, because she’s seen increased interest from customers who want to support independently owned and sustainably focused farms, and who are willing to invest in wellness-related products, such as CBD. “We’re ready for a national rollout of our proprietary CBD products that are grown right here on the farm and processed here, so really seed-to-bottle and we use all regenerative farming practices,” she says.
They’re diversifying revenue streams.
In the next year, 75 percent of business owners surveyed say that diversifying their revenue stream is a priority. That’s an opportunity that Tulip Tree Gardens happened upon in the early days of the pandemic, when hand sanitizer was hard to find. Because the farm is home to a licensed lab to make its CBD products, it was stocked with everything needed to produce hand sanitizer. Smedberg says the new product helped the farm reach a new audience, and also benefited the community. “It allowed us to pick up some retail accounts and sell our hand sanitizer in grocery stores and hardware stores, which in turn allowed us to get our brand and our name out there,” says Smedberg. “Every bottle that was bought from us we were donating a bottle to our first responders and nurses in the area,” she says.
They’re making racial justice a business priority.
Two-thirds of polled business owners believe that racial equality should be a business priority, and 43 percent said they’re making changes such as issuing a public statement. Kortney Olson, CEO of GRRRL Clothing, a Las Vegas, Nevada-based activewear line that seeks to empower women to focus on what their body can do instead of what it looks like, has been active in this area. In addition to putting out statements on social media in condemning racism, Olson recently started an anti-racism virtual book club.
For new product launches, Olson started a video series that showcases the clothing while bringing together people from the community to talk about important issues. The most recent one includes a former police officer who is Black, and an active police officer who is White, along with other participants, including a Latinx feminist powerlifter, to discuss police brutality. “It’s going to get more traction than just showing clothes by itself, in our experience,” says Olson. She plans to continue these types of discussions into 2021, and believes that as a business owner, she has a platform to help make change happen. “Of course, you get people who are like, 'Can you just not pick sides?'” she says. “It doesn’t work that way.”
This year has been a challenge for many small-business owners. But the entrepreneurs interviewed for this story believe better times await. “I think that human beings are smart," says Bewley. "They’re going to figure a way around things and we’re going to survive, and we’re going to move on and of course things are going to get better. We don’t give up.”
Photo: Getty Images