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Could The Small Business Response To The Coronavirus Unlock Creativity?

As coronavirus cases continue to spike across America, dreams of a summer reopening or even a semblance of normalcy in 2020 are feeling increasingly far away. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced all of us to get creative, moving meetings to Zoom, switching to takeout and taking up new hobbies we thought we’d only experience in retirement like gardening or baking.

Now that it’s clear this virus isn’t going away anytime soon, many small business owners have been asking ourselves how to carry our businesses forward through 2020 and beyond. According to a recent study of 600 small businesses conducted by OFX, over 71% of small business owners believe that their business has an opportunity to emerge better and stronger after COVID-19. Nearly half said that they are expanding, not cutting, their sales and marketing efforts. Clearly many of these business owners are finding new and creative ways to grow their businesses.

Much of the early creativity coming out of the pandemic was a direct response to a new set of societal needs. Alcohol distilleries switched to producing hand sanitizer, do-it-yourself makers 3D printed face shields and engineers repurposed factories to create ventilators. Thousands of restaurants created new, simplified menus and signed up for takeout services like Doordash, Grubhub, and Caviar. Retail stores quickly created websites, and found innovative ways to conduct curbside delivery.

 A recent paper by Alison Cohen and Johnathan Cromwell argues that in order to carry these innovations forward, a second type of creativity, called “emergent creativity” is needed. They distinguish between “directed creativity”, where people start with a clearly defined problem and navigate through uncertainty to search for a solution, and “emergent creativity,” when people start with a partially developed solution and navigate through uncertainty to search for problems. Though it seems strange to search for problems when the world has so many glaring ones, I’ve found this framework to be helpful as I’ve shifted my startup Kuli Kuli to better address the problems that today’s consumers are facing. 

 One problem we’ve seen in the food industry is that consumers are looking for supplements that can help boost their immune systems during this scary time. However, they’re learning about these supplements in entirely new places from where most food companies have been accustomed to reaching them.

The majority of Kuli Kuli’s business is selling moringa products to grocery stores such as Whole Foods. Our marketing team’s focus and resources have gone into supporting grocery stores through in-store demos, marketing campaigns, and other retail activities. When the pandemic hit, we quickly realized that we wouldn’t be able to pass out samples anymore, and that most retailers were too overwhelmed to execute any marketing campaigns. It became clear to us that consumers would no longer be learning about unique food or supplement products while shopping in retail stores.

At the same time, we knew that moringa, the superfood we sell, can play a role in supporting a healthy immune system. However, most Americans have no idea what moringa is, let alone that it’s helpful to immune systems. The main tool that we’ve used for the past six years to educate consumers, retail marketing, was no longer available. We quickly realized that our marketing team needed to pivot to digital in order to reach consumers looking for immunity-boosting supplements.

We wrote blog articles, put up social media posts and even hosted a webinar panel of doctors, farmers and holistic medicine practitioners discussing how to eat for increased energy and immunity. Our campaign was ultimately successful. Our in-store moringa product sales increased and two celebrities, Naomi Campbell and Martha Stewart, both called out the immunity benefits of moringa. We learned that by using emergent creativity to dive into the problems our consumers are facing, we were able to come up with solutions that grew our business in new ways.

Kuli Kuli’s experience is just one small example among the thousands of small businesses that are rising to the challenge of the pandemic with creativity and innovation. The New York Times recently reported inspiring examples of co-working spaces migrating to online communities overnight, barware companies focusing on helping at-home cocktail makers, spa businesses finding new ways of selling beauty products online, and even gym owners conducting virtual training sessions via Google Hangout.

Although there are many examples of creative and successful small business pivots, it’s worth pointing out that the effects of this pandemic on small businesses overall has been brutal. A recent McKinsey report estimates that thirty million small business jobs are vulnerable, and that businesses with under 100 employees are at the highest risk. Before COVID-19, small businesses accounted for nearly half of all US private-sector jobs. It’s clear that in order for America’s economy to recover, small businesses need to be rebuilt.

Despite the odds, I’m optimistic that the entrepreneurial and creative spirit that led so many small business owners to start their companies in the first place will help us unlock new opportunities. Small businesses have the advantage of freedom and flexibility to rethink business models overnight. Starting by understanding the problems that consumers face and then thinking outside the box will help us create innovative new ways of staying in-business, and ultimately come back from this pandemic even stronger.

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