To be an entrepreneur is to embrace risk. Yet some business owners are taking their time getting back on the road in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
I spoke to three founders who own fast-growing businesses with international reach. While accustomed to stretching beyond their comfort zones, the key to their overall success might be knowing when to make a move and when to wait. As of spring 2021, as the U.S. turns a largely vaccinated corner, their cost-benefit analyses regarding travel still err on the side of caution. Here they reflect on their new relationship to geography and the silver linings they’ve found in staying home.
Elevating the Potential for Travel
Pre-COVID, MikMak’s New York-based CEO Rachel Tipograph used to spend 50 percent of her time traveling, mostly to visit clients at consumer packaged goods brands. Her multi-retailer e-commerce enablement and analytics software company had an explosive 2020, when at-home consumer demand for online sales skyrocketed. Last year, the company raised $10 million in funding and increased revenue by 300 percent.
“I haven't met three-fourths of my employees in real life because they were hired during the pandemic,” says Tipograph. “It has been wildly exciting and challenging at the same time, because everything that we're doing to scale this company in a virtual world is unprecedented.”
During 2020, with all employees given the option to work remotely permanently, MikMak ended its New York City office lease. In 2022, Tipograph plans to open a few “hubs” nationally—spaces for employee onboarding, large meetings and entertaining clients, but not for daily desk work.
Rather than pack people into conference rooms, I think companies will organize 20-person off-sites with health precautions in mind. [...] It will be more of an elevated resort experience, with outdoor team-building events.
—Rachel Tipograph, CEO, MikMak
As much as she enjoys the efficiency and affordability of joining up to 15 virtual meetings in a day without leaving home in upstate New York, “it’s highly transactional,” she says. “We’re all craving those water cooler moments and shared meals.” She foresees an entire micro industry emerging to serve a new type of business travel market.
Going forward, she plans to invest more resources in destination travel for employees—and predicts this shift will be part of a larger trend. “Rather than pack people into conference rooms, I think companies will organize 20-person off-sites with health precautions in mind,” Tipograph says. “It will be more of an elevated resort experience, with outdoor team-building events.”
Results from the Back to Blue Skies report from American Express and American Express Global Business Travel (GBT)—which surveyed more than 1,500 business travelers and decision makers in April 2021—reinforce MikMak's optimistic yet vigilant outlook. According to the report, 7 in 10 decision makers believe increased remote work will lead to more business travel, while 87% of decision makers cite business travel as a way to reinvigorate employee engagement.
Communicating Across Borders
Before COVID-19, travel was also an integral part of Brevitē’s business operations. Brandon Kim founded the company with his two younger brothers, Dylan and Elliott, in 2015. Then university undergraduates, they bootstrapped what is now the top-selling camera bag on the market, made from recycled water bottles and streamlined with customer travel in mind.
They traveled from New York to Vietnam, where their backpacks are produced, three times a year. Visiting Asia, sometimes for a month at a time, allowed the brothers to innovate in their product design and manufacturing processes. Travel also allowed them to strengthen relationships with their suppliers.
Brandon Kim, with a hands-on approach to managing the company’s supply chain, took on most of the travel. “Business is old,” he says, despite his position at the cutting edge of e-commerce. “It’s deeply important to conduct it in person.”
Unlike some “young-gun” startup founders he observes trying to completely break from tradition, he views business as a continuum: “Business is conducted now the same way it’s been conducted for hundreds of years. To build the trust and rapport at its foundation, meeting in person is key.” Results from the Back to Blue Skies report back this up: Four in five business travelers prefer in-person brainstorms and collaborative meetings over virtual ones (79%), as well as in-person sales meetings over virtual ones (78%).
Back when he could walk the factory floor, surrounded by a cacophony of sewing machines, he was both awed and humbled. “There are a lot more people involved with our brand than meets the eye,” he says. “On the one hand, we’re a fairly small team, but the infrastructure required to support the business is much larger. Any bag that a customer receives is touched by at least 50 very skilled people.”
When COVID hit, Brevitē—like nearly all businesses—had to change direction. The sudden halt to travel increased the company’s focus and efficiency, Kim says, and meeting only virtually gave him a lot of free time back. Without much in-person contact, Brevitē’s entire team has had to improve their conversational skills. It’s been a “growing moment,” in Kim's words. A business is an organization, and an organization is just a group of people, he says. Opening up virtual meetings with genuine curiosity makes the experience less black-and-white and more personal.
Now that Brevitē is in frequent contact with their factory owner via virtual meetings, their supply chain has actually gotten tighter—even with an 11-hour gap in time zones, Kim says. “Going forward, we’ll be more selective with our business trips. At the end of the day, we found that not all of them were actually necessary.”
Intentional Travel Boosts Brand Clarity
Sarah Pierson and Alexa Buckley have also relied on overseas production since launching their direct-to-consumer footwear and accessories brand Margaux in 2015. Since day one, they have worked with factory and tannery partners in Spain. Roughly twice a year—until 2020—they brought their product development team to Europe, collaborating closely with artisans on the very tactile and intricate process of bringing made-to-measures shoes to life.
Like Brevitē, they were fortunate to have laid a strong foundation for these international relationships pre-pandemic. With mutual trust and understanding of quality standards already established, they have been able to adapt well in communicating by virtual meeting with partners in Spain over the past year. Pierson says she hopes to travel for in-person meetings with them during summer 2021. Likewise, according to the Back to Blue Skies report, three-quarters (72%) of those surveyed are optimistic that business travel will return to previous levels this year and are even more are optimistic it will return to previous levels over the next two years (83%).
With headquarters in New York City, she predicts that in a post-COVID world, “we will be more intentional about the time that we spend in transit, whether that's going uptown for a meeting or taking a train down to D.C.” Intentionality has been her personal theme over the past year—and an increasingly common priority among fellow business owners, she says.
As diverse as their days and business models might be, these three entrepreneurs are aligned on the future of business travel: Any trips that do happen will be for the most truly important things. And the clarity that emerges in this deciding process will have positive ripple effects for their operations at large.
Photo: Getty Images