What small business owners learned about engaging their customers online that will spur success in the future
As a result of COVID-19, many small businesses have made the difficult transition from in-person customer interaction to online engagement only. For some small business owners who teach (like a fitness or cooking class), online distribution wasn’t the focus of their work, pre-pandemic, but they had to make the shift to online to keep their staff and customers safe.
In this roundtable discussion, entrepreneurs Zach Sass, Executive Chef, ChefZachSass.com, Maria Ure, Founder and Director of Spanish in Action, and Olivia Young, Founder of boutique boxing and yoga studio, Box + Flow discuss how they transitioned their instruction and engagement online, what they’ve learned throughout the process, and how it will impact their businesses in the future.
Olivia Young, Owner, Box + Flow
Olivia Young is the founder and owner of boutique hybrid studio Box + Flow, which combines boxing and yoga. After COVID-19 hit, she closed down her studios and had to lay off 30 employees. She moved down to Miami Beach, FL to be with her parents just as the pandemic started to cause more and more businesses and cities to shut down.
She needed a way to keep the business going, so she started to teach Box + Flow classes online. It’s something she’d never done before, but she says she felt a need to “keep the community alive” so that when she does reopen, she’ll have created a conversation with her customers through all of this.
For the first class she taught from her parents’ home, she balanced her iPad on a high chair while her mom cheered her on. So, there she was, she says, “dancing in a leotard in their living room.” But, that was just the beginning. She’s taught over 60 classes since then and her social media following is booming.
We talked about the process of offering classes online and how to actually drive revenue from it, as well as customer engagement. At first, Olivia was providing classes for free on Instagram, more specifically IGTV (live streaming on Instagram), to demonstrate that she could instruct a high-quality Box + Flow class online. Then, she moved to creating a revenue stream with these streaming classes. She started out charging $7 a class drop in, then $20 for a weekly unlimited membership. This allowed her to bring her instructors back on remotely since she had revenue coming in.
Not only did taking her business online help her bring her team back, but it also shifted her thinking as a business owner. Instead of solely focusing on expanding in NYC, she says she’s now exploring opportunities to expand her business nationally. And, she says she’s now considering selling branded equipment, which facilitates more online workouts, and the possibility of licensing instructors who would be able to teach from anywhere.
What COVID has brought, if anything, is clarity, Olivia says.
“It’s become really clear what I need and what I don’t. What has stayed the same throughout is my mission to remain honest in what I am providing, even if it looks completely different.”
Zach Sass, Executive Chef and Entrepreneur
Like millions in the restaurant industry, Executive Chef, Zach Sass lost his job during COVID-19. He worked as an executive chef for a big restaurant in Nashville, TN, but the pandemic caused a hit in sales which brought layoffs.
This also brought opportunity for Zach. Ultimately, he chose a career change in order to provide for his family. He decided to use his passion and knowledge for food and share it with others via online teaching.
He came up with ChefZachSass.com to provide virtual cooking classes.
Here’s how it works. Zach asks people for the ingredients they have in their home, creates a custom recipe, and then virtually teaches them how to cook the meal step-by-step. It’s a pay-what-you-can model, which can be risky for small business owners, but he says that customers have so far been generous.
“I was nervous when this COVID-19 struck with losing my job,” he says. “I didn’t have the financial stability to start a business with a ton of funding.”
But, the nice thing about bootstrapping a business online is that the upfront costs are much lower than starting a brick-and-mortar from the ground up. Zach already had a computer and was leveraging social media to find clients, so he was able to get things going fairly quickly. The most surprising outcome? He’s been able to reach people far beyond Nashville.
“The great thing about this is that if I do a dinner with somebody in Canada, California, and then Texas, I can fit almost three calls into one day,” he says. “I’ve done a class in Mumbai, India—a guy saw me on the internet and he said that he wanted to learn, so we made pizza and hamburgers.”
And, Zach won’t be done teaching classes when the pandemic is over. He plans to take this idea into the future.
This is something I can practice now forever, he says.
“This is not something that just ends once COVID-19 is gone. This is something I want to pursue.”
Maria Ure, Spanish in Action
Originally from Argentina, Maria Ure lives in Manhattan Beach, CA, where she teaches language classes to children as Founder and Director of Spanish in Action. “We teach kids ages 1-10,” she says. When COVID-19 happened and schools shut down, she had to quickly pivot from teaching in-person to teaching online.
Transitioning her instruction online presented its own set of challenges.
“It was very stressful because when you’re teaching a class, you’ve got to give your best,” she says, “and behind the screen, it’s like double the energy and double the show.”
Maria says shifting all of their instruction to online meant that they had to learn new ways of communicating, establish a new way of teaching, and find new ways of conducting everything — from using their website in new ways to implementing new systems to registration and team training.
For her, this whole new process has been hard in some ways and really exciting in others. Mostly, she misses being around the kids. “They bring so much good energy and new ideas,” she says.
But, there are benefits, too. Since the classes are virtual, Maria has been able to bring in teachers from as far as Argentina, and she says that benefits the kids who get to learn in a true cross-cultural exchange.
“It’s like opening their eyes to a brand new world,” Maria says. “It’s not just the language they’re learning, it’s also about the world view, too.”
Since COVID-19 caused this major shift in her business, she’s been constantly iterating and refining based on feedback, and is expanding her teaching class and schedule.
This is teaching me a new way of doing things, she says.
For her, it’s about building a more inclusive business while diversifying and expanding her customer base.
“We are reaching kids who are in Japan, for example,” she said. “It was an amazing feeling, like this goes beyond what I thought. The opportunity of bringing new services that are really good and needed for everybody.”
“I think that going virtual is going to stay,” she says. “This quarantine has changed the way forever.”
Don’t miss more conversations with GoDaddy’s entrepreneur-in-residence, Scott Shigeoka. Through genuine discussions with industry experts and small businesses, he’s been shedding light on the issues that matter most during these challenging times.
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