In 2014, Ariel Kaye founded Parachute, a luxury brand for bedding basics, in Venice Beach, CA. She started the company to fill what she found to be a gap in the bedding products market — namely misconceptions about thread counts and mislabeling of products as eco-textile certified when they hadn’t been. Kaye saw it as an opportunity to channel her appreciation for clean aesthetics and sharp design into creating premium quality sheets for consumers at accessible prices. In relatively short order the company found success, and over next few years, Kaye harnessed the momentum the brand had gained from its reputation of excellence to expand beyond sheets into home goods.
Along with the expansion of product came an expansion of footprint. The company started as a DTC, ecommerce-only brand, but eventually moved into 10 physical locations across the U.S., looking to win new customers by giving them a chance to experience the quality and unique style of the products in person. Plans to expand to new locations in 2020 continued until March, when the coronavirus spread accelerated and triggered a virtual all-stop to retail across the U.S.
As part of our Office Hours Q&A series on @AmericanExpressBusiness on Instagram, we asked Kaye to dive into the details of how she pivoted Parachute in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, how she made difficult workforce decisions, and what she’s looking to see as states begin to reopen:
Walk us through your experience as a business leader during the COVID-19 outbreak. What were some of the early decisions you made during the outbreak? What has paid off? What hasn’t? What have you learned or do you wish you did differently?
This has truly been an unprecedented situation and not something I ever thought I would have to deal with as the CEO of a company. It became clear in the beginning of March that COVID-19 was going to impact our business. On March 14th, we made the difficult but necessary decision to temporarily close our 10 retail stores for the foreseeable future. Our hospitality program has essentially paused as well. I believe that we acted quickly and in the best interest of the business, for our employees and for our customers. It is my fiduciary responsibility to make decisions to keep the business running and that’s what we did.
We were testing a virtual styling consultation program which we have now expanded. We have served over 100 customers since February and have seen conversion rates at 50%. We want to be able to provide the same personal shopping experience customers had in-store online. People are really enjoying it!
I’ve learned in this process a lot about our business. Going through scenario planning teaches you a lot about the levers of the business and we’ve thought through initiatives and strategic decisions that have never been discussed before. I’ve also been reminded how important it is to trust your gut and intuition.
What have you learned about yourself and your employees after a few weeks of working-from-home? Are there any tips you’d share when it comes to maintaining productivity or approaching your and your employees’ emotional and mental well-being during social distancing?
I find that maintaining a routine and rituals helps me to stay motivated and grounded. I like to work out in the morning – stretching, streaming a video, or doing a yoga practice – before I start work. Movement is like therapy to me. It keeps me happy and the creative juices flowing. I’ve always known that my employees are a hard working team of dreamers –through this they have shown me just how resilient and dedicated they are. We are checking in daily to make sure everyone is feeling motivated, healthy and nurtured. I’ve also found that it’s alright to not be ok sometimes and we should honor those feelings. This is a very difficult situation.
People are spending a lot of time in their homes — you mentioned bedroom furnishing and robe sales have been one bright spot of the situation. Are you thinking about how you can maintain that momentum even when society begins to open back up? How would that bleed through, in marketing? New products?
We are always looking for new ways to connect with our customers and answer their needs. This applies to products, our online experience, shopping in-store, etc. We are considering what shopping might look like when things open back up and have pushed up initiatives that were in the pipeline. Right now, we’re exploring curbside pickup, appointment shopping in-store as well as buy-online-pick-up-in-store optionality for our customers.
Having a strong network has helped me tremendously through challenging days and decisions. I would advise other small business owners to reach out to their support system or contact someone they admire to get their insights.
— Ariel Kaye, founder and CEO, Parachute
We’ve seen certain products do really well during this time and we’re thinking through how that impacts our product road map and if there are areas where we should add to our collections. We are communicating with our customers via social media and email more than ever to bring them a sense of comfort and community and we look forward to finding even more ways to do that as society adjusts.
You’ve fast-tracked buy-online-pickup-in-store and curbside pick-up as two new ‘products’ in response to social distancing mandates. Can you talk a little bit about the fast-tracking process? Prior to this, had you been comfortable to the ‘move-fast-break-stuff to get an MVP’ development ethos? What are some things you would have liked to focus on but didn’t have time to?
We continue to be thoughtful but proactive when it comes to launching new programs. We have a great team that does the research and training to make sure we are launching initiatives that will benefit the customer.
I think being nimble is something we can improve upon – and we have during this experience. We are adjusting to moving faster, being comfortable with the imperfections and evolving along the way. We’ve been able to adjust quickly with our styling consultations and I’m proud of the shifts. In terms of initiatives, our team has been talking about buy-online-pick-up-in-store and curbside pickup for well over a year and initially it wasn’t scheduled on our roadmap until later this year. We have fast tracked our plans and are able to give it more attention now.
What’s the greatest learning curve thus far, and how will the lessons you have learned during this time affect the way you operate a business in the future? Doyou have any advice for small business owners currently struggling in this climate?
This has been completely unprecedented and continues to be unpredictable. I’ve learned that I need to be flexible as well as decisive. I’ve also learned to lean on my community even more. I’m so inspired by my friends who are also CEOs and founders. Having a strong network has helped me tremendously through challenging days and decisions.
I would advise other small business owners to reach out to their support system or contact someone they admire to get their insights. It’s critical to communicate, brainstorm and share information during this time. You never know where your next great idea may come from. Being a small business has its advantages. You likely don’t have the overhead of a large team, or big office – you can be extra nimble. Take this time to think about how you can make your business even more valuable to the consumer. What do they need today that can impact and improve your business tomorrow?
Watch a recording of the live Q&A below and stay tuned for our next episode of Office Hours by following @AmericanExpressBusiness on Instagram.