For Akervall Technologies, 2020 started out “fine and dandy.” The Saline, Michigan-based company, which makes mouthguards for sports, sleeping, dentistry, and surgery, has grown every year since it’s founding a decade ago. CEO Sassa Akervall was optimistic, exploring new products to create and new markets to approach.
She just never thought it would be protective face shields for frontline workers during a global pandemic.
Like many business owners, COVID-19 blindsided Akervall. When 80 percent of your business is sports mouthguards, and organized sports are effectively canceled, what do you do? “We saw what we had built slipping through our fingers,” she recalls.
But Akervall and her team asked a question that countless others across industries continue to ask as we navigate this fluid situation: What can we make that meets a need right now?
Because of the company’s ties to the medical field, the obvious answer quickly became face shields, which remain in high demand. Akervall reimagined its team, repurposed its space, and worked its supply and distribution connections. Today, the company is selling its line of face shields to the State of Michigan, hospitals, dentists, ambulance services, and even direct to consumers who are looking for added protection in their daily lives.
And one more reason for Akervall to remain optimistic? With somewhat of a return to normal life, sports are starting to come back—and a recent check of the company’s site features its signature sports mouthguards alongside those still-necessary face shields.
We recently sat down with Akervall to discuss pivoting—and re-pivoting—in uncertain times.
Like all of us, you didn’t quite know what to do when the pandemic hit. Now you’re making face shields. How did this come about?
One morning early on, a member of my team mentioned that her husband suggested we make face shields instead. We have a medical-type business, so it wasn’t far-fetched, but we had obviously never done that before.
Within two weeks, we had sourced, prototyped, and brought in people to start making them. There was and is a big need for this PPE. We’ve been lucky that we found big contracts we could supply. It was pretty cool to see how it all came together like that.
How has your team responded to this pivot and new normal?
I’m really proud of the fact that in times of crisis, our team came together. Since we’ve been bootstrapped and small, we've always been close. Now, if we ever need an all-hands-on-deck—whether it’s licking envelopes or fulfilling orders—everyone says, “Sure, what do you need? I can do that.” It’s really wonderful to see how you can assemble a team that sticks together. I’m really, really grateful.
You’ve also been able to shift the approach to some of your core products in the meantime, which is almost a pivot within a pivot.
Face shields are definitely 90 percent of what we’ve been doing. But we do have a line of night guards for people who grind their teeth at night. We moved all the marketing money for the sports guards to the night guards, because my thinking was that people are worried and are going to be grinding their teeth more. And that’s flown off the shelves. That’s something we’re going to continue to build on.
A lot of business owners are wondering how to approach selling at a time like this. And in your case, how do you know what to charge for something that’s lifesaving, but also costs you money to make?
That was one of the most important things we needed to do—figure out what to charge. Because not only do we want to do good, but part of that is to keep the business alive and make sure that everyone who works for us gets a decent paycheck. What we’ve noticed since we started is that the competition has gotten fiercer and the willingness to pay the upper scale is going down and we’re just going with it. We’re lowering the prices as we need to. Because right now, this is our lifeline, and we’re providing a lifeline for others.
It sounds like you’ve embraced the challenge.
When every day is the same, you don’t grow and thrive as an entrepreneur. Something like this challenge—finding new ways and new customers—I think it can be exciting, even though I understand the seriousness, of course. If you’re an entrepreneur, you’ve got to think like that. You’ve got to like challenges.
Not every company can make quite as direct a pivot to the COVID-19 fight. What’s your advice to other entrepreneurs trying to find theirs?
I always tell my sales team that you’ve got to think outside of the box. This is not the time to sit and be content. This is the time to brainstorm. And I understand we’re in a unique position to do this, and a lot of businesses can’t. But you can just try to think creatively and look ahead. It’s so hard to say, but that’s the best I can come up with. I do think that there’s got to be a light at the end of this tunnel. And I guess that's entrepreneurial thinking. I just have to think we’ll all come back. We’re the United States. My new homeland. [Akervall immigrated to the United States, from Sweden, in 2004.] This will have an impact for years and years to come and we need to be smart about it. What’s going to come out of this? At least learn something.
As readers of this series know, I always make a point of checking in on a human level too. Business aside, how are you doing with all this?
Well, I was really, really depressed at the beginning. I think I spent a whole week crying. For sure, we saw what we had built slipping through our fingers. [Akervall’s husband, Jan, is the company’s inventor.] That has since changed because of how things came together with the team and the product and we can see that it actually works. Being at home this long, it feels like you’re in a bubble, it feels unreal. I think about it every day: When can we have dinner parties? When can we kiss on the cheek? When can we hug? When can we dance? Is that gonna be gone? So, as we come out of the home bubble, it’s going to be interesting to see how we navigate everything.
Photo: Getty Images