Small businesses across the U.S. are dealing with the severe economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. We checked in with four alumni small business owners to see how they’re managing the crisis.
Partnering with charity
Ivory Ella, co-founded by Richard Henne, BBA ’15, has a history of partnering with charitable organizations. The elephant-themed women’s clothing brand contributes 10% of all profits to Save The Elephants. The firm has also partnered with other charities, recently raising $165,000 Australian dollars for wildfire relief, according to Henne.s
The small firm has been lucky. Ivory Ella has one brick-and-mortar retail store in Mystic, Conn. While the shop and the design and marketing offices in New York have closed, much of the design and marketing work can be done virtually.
However, the printing, packaging and customer service offices in Rhode Island have remained open. Ivory Ella is still selling online and to wholesalers. Henne said they are also using a portion of their facility to help other charitable organizations, creating products for nonprofits, including Project Sunshine, Heart to Bone and Bones & Bones. In each case, 100% of the proceeds from the sale of products connected to those three lines go to charity.
In addition to Ivory Ella, Henne is co-founder of TM38 LLC, a full-service digital agency assisting entrepreneurs with grass-roots marketing strategies, and Soothe LLC, a health and wellness brand providing Cannabidiol-based (CBD) consumer products. Soothe is based in Fishtown and 10% of their profits go to charities, including mental health awareness programs.
Looking to help in a crisis
COVID-19 attacks the lungs. So cutting-edge pulmonary healthcare technology is among the most essential needs in treating patients and studying the disease. Nicholas Delmonico, BBA ’17, is hoping that is where Strados Labs can help.
Strados has created a remote respiratory monitor called RESP—Remote E-Stethoscope Platform. The device allows doctors to conduct checkups on patients with pulmonary illness from their office. It also collects data in real-time. Delmonico said doctors have told his team that having access to data about pulmonary issues that occur outside their offices is critical.
At a time when doctors and nurses need to diagnose patients without exposing themselves to the illness, Delmonico’s product could be key.
Delmonico said his team has submitted a request for the FDA to expedite their review of RESP for use in clinical trials. The goal is to have the platform on the market in time for an anticipated second wave of COVID-19 in the fall or early winter.
“The good thing about being a small company,” Delmonico says, is that with “12 staff, seven fulltime, five part-time in Philadelphia and Atlanta—we are already prepared for remote work.”
The Strados teams use Google Hangouts to hold meetings and happy hours. Delmonico said they are building relationships with healthcare organizations, including the National Institutes of Health and industry partners like Johnson & Johnson.
The challenge for Strados is their next step. The team needs to scale up production in time for demand once they are approved for clinical trials. That is Delmonico’s contribution: business development. He is accustomed to traveling 50% to 70% of the time. Now he works from home.
“The tough transition for me to avoid feeling like I have idle hands,” Delmonico says. “At this point, we are looking for capital to start to scale up. That was the plan to start fundraising by March.”
Persevering through diversification
Rondel Holder, BBA ’06, has been canceling and postponing his customer’s trips. Global Royalty is a “trip planning concierge” with a focus on travel to Africa. The three-year-old business arranges trips for families, honeymooners, couples and singles. But the pandemic has strongly impacted the tourism business.
Holder said business was booming late last year, but his customers are putting their trips on hold or outright canceling. Fortunately, he has a well-defined refund/non-refund policy. Shortly before the pandemic spread from China, the tourism and travel industry was unsure what to do as airline prices plummeted.
“It is not just me affected,” Holder says. “Tour operators, small business owners in our destinations. A lot of them depend upon the travel industry. I worry about whether they will be there when we come back.”
Holder works from home much of the time, but instead of meeting clients for coffee or drinks, he has had to use Zoom and other video platforms as he puts the tourism business on hold. He has kept his income from dropping too low by keeping his other streams of income open: brand and marketing consulting.
“I learned very early on, you have to have multiple strains of income,” Holder says. “I am a marketing freelancer and I have invested in the stock market. You should always have contingency plans and you should always diversify.”
Making the right investment
Tim Buckman’s Tenaz Capital buys companies and looks to improve them. In 2018, Tenaz bought a laboratory, ASAP Labs, that was struggling. Buckman, BBA ’11, said that after restructuring in 2019, the lab is focused on testing for respiratory illnesses and is now an important player in diagnostic testing for COVID-19.
Buckman is a former president of the William C. Dunkelberg Owl Fund at the Fox School. At Fox, Buckman was an intern with BlackRock. After graduation, he worked as a business valuation associate at Deloitte before joining another investment firm and eventually creating Tenaz. His background is as much in business valuation as it is in investment. Meshing those two skills is the concept behind Buckmnan’s private equity firm. They invest in businesses to help them thrive.
With ASAP Labs, Buckman saw an opportunity to expand into lab services for infectious diseases. They now producing COVID-19 testing services.
Buckman works remotely almost exclusively. He normally does travel more than he can now, but he and Tenaz are moving forward.
“We are not looking for new companies right now as much as we are looking for something that is a smart, safe investment,” Buckman said. “We are asking, ‘during the last economic turmoil, how did this company perform?’”
Buckman said investors are looking for companies that can continue to operate in the conditions created by the pandemic, such as online learning platforms and businesses that are considered essential.