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1-Year In: Female Founders Reflect on the Impact COVID Has Had on Their Businesses

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March 30, 2021

It’s not always easy to steer away from what feels comfortable. During the past year, COVID-19 has glaringly amplified the importance of flexibility. In many instances, doing a complete 180 from the status quo wasn’t just an option—it was an absolute necessity. 

Specifically, the following 16 female founders have beautifully managed to take something as destructive as the COVID pandemic and use it as fuel to create something positive. Each day these trailblazers are crafting our new normal. They have tackled adversity head on and come out even stronger. 

While many are still in the rebuilding phase and nobody quite knows what the future holds, it’s exciting to think about what will come in the next five or 10 years and beyond. The negative impacts of COVID-19 will always be present, but they are not without purpose. They are an important reminder that good can ultimately come from tragedy.

Cecilia Razak

Co-Founder of Slides With Friends, a platform that brings remote teams together with customizable interactive online events.

We were elbow-deep in growing a startup when the pandemic hit. We went from a big team in multiple cities and growing, to doing one-tenth of our revenue. We dropped our growth plans and moved everything we could remote. We started building SlidesWith as a side project that was part wishful thinking, part wish-fulfillment. We wanted to make being far from all of our people easier. We wanted to make meetings with our remote team smoother and more fun. We wanted to have video calls with our friends without talking over each other or getting Zoom fatigue. We wanted my mom’s birthday to still be special. And we wanted to help everyone going through this to have those things as well. So this is a presentation tool with a bigger goal—keeping people connected while apart. In all honesty, I love my new project so much more than I ever did the $60,000 monthly recurring revenue startup that I had to abandon due to COVID-19. It’s smaller currently, but I believe so strongly in the mission of helping people connect that I don’t think I’ll ever go back. 

Brooke Markevicius

Founder and CEO of Allobee Inc, a managed marketplace that connects overwhelmed entrepreneurs with an underutilized workforce of fully vetted caregivers who have left the traditional 9 to 5.

A year ago, we were a two-person team trying to navigate a beta with our users. A year later, we are a full-time team working internally and a large workforce of vetted experts. Our supply and demand both increased with the pandemic due to small businesses and entrepreneurs needing a sustainable approach to outsourcing, as well as experts needing work due to layoffs. We have also successfully raised a round of $500,000 in funding and are beginning to scale our startup. Pivoting and building a fully remote team was essential to allowing for our team of mothers to keep building this company. I think COVID-19 truly has changed the way companies will operate in the future and I feel our situation is no different.

Ko Im

Founder of konakafe, a wellness and hosting brand. 

A year ago, I was teaching at gyms and in offices. I was also traveling and hosting panels. Some of that turned virtual, and eventually it panned out. Instead of fighting and pivoting, I chose to lean back and take care of myself as a wellpreneur—practicing what I preach. I’m letting opportunities come to me instead of hustling, as I also have a day job. I don’t think I’ll head back to the gym, as I’ve also moved cities. I definitely would love for community events to come back but wouldn’t feel the pull to attend them as I did previously. 

Stacie Sussman

Vice President of Operations for Iceberg RevOps, which helps growing SaaS companies eliminate uncertainty in their operations so they can make confident decisions for their business and generate more revenue. 

Before COVID-19 hit, I was looking to scale my company at a great speed. I was on track to hit high benchmarks for revenue. I decided I’d use the time to network efficiently to meet other folks in the revenue operations space. I am proud to say that I’ve found my business partner through COVID-19 networking and we’re already on track to grow in 2021. We’re never going back to the “way it used to be.” However, I think the pandemic  gave us a silver lining called “the great pause” to reflect on what was working and what wasn’t. Because we’re always moving at lightning speed, we’ve had more than enough months to reflect on how to do things better. 

Cynthia Hellen

Founder of SMPLCT Lab, an innovation lab creating sustainable solutions for people and the planet.

SMPLCT Lab works across the globe tackling some of the biggest challenges facing businesses, citizens, and communities. Before COVID-19, we would be on the ground, working alongside talented community leaders to understand, learn through exploring, test, and pivot projects as we built them out. Today, however, we have had to do the initial work—the “understanding”—through digital tools. The challenges have been many, from length of projects being longer than expected to using new tools that are low tech and adaptable. We have learned that no matter what tool we currently use or end up using, it is imperative for us to continue to have that connection one only gets when they are in person. 

Haley S Lieberman

Founder and CEO of Shop Tomorrows, a social recommerce site for the modern parent.

One year ago, Shop Tomorrows had closed our first round of angel and VC funding. We were feverishly developing the backend technology that would be the backbone to our community-driven network of parents trading up their kidswear in a first-of-its-kind, circular economy marketplace. The problem? Our business model hinged on in-person hyperlocal connectivity. A core pillar of Shop Tomorrows was to create communities and forge connections through exchanges of goods directly in response to the solitary consumer behavior that other resale apps were fostering. When the pandemic hit, the entire model for customer interactivity had to shift dramatically. Hyperlocal connectivity was out of the picture, so we quickly had to scale our technology to forge those relationships online. We had to integrate shipping immediately because people didn’t want to meet one another in person, which brought the shopping experience back to a solitary one. Integrating and relying on shipping is now a welcome pivot since we used it as an opportunity to scale geographically more quickly. In the pre-pandemic planning of our rollout, if you had told me that Shop Tomorrows would reach customers in 50 states across the U.S. in our first quarter, I would have been shocked. Social connectivity and community building continue to be a pillar of our mission, and we are raising our next round of funding to strengthen the technological features that create the online network.

Jessica Kelly

Founder and CEO of THR3EFOLD, a SaaS platform providing apparel brands with access to an ethical supply chain and training to grow their business for people, planet, and profit. 

My business doubled in 2020 as we pivoted to adjust to our new normal. We were in a key sales cycle when the shutdown happened and got zero signups. We paused to readjust, shortened our program, added more value, and delayed the start date. We got double the members when we launched again. We grew again in the fall and are on a similar track in our current sales cycle now. The growth from our coaching gave us the capital we needed to go back into development on our platform, which we are launching into a public beta next month. We realized we could deliver even more value for our customers with less time constraint on our team.

Dina Kaplan

Founder and CEO of The Path, mediation brand for the modern mind.

COVID-19 forced us to completely rework our company—and it is now the most successful it has ever been. We were running only in-person meditation events and trainings, so last March we had to think quickly and pivot. For years, we knew we had to rework our Meditation Teacher Training program, but I hadn’t thought seriously about bringing it online. During COVID-19, I had time to think about how this could look and also time to study the dharma and write an entire curriculum myself. Now we are running the most successful product in our company history—an online Meditation Teacher Training program. Best of all, because it is online, we have people joining us from literally around the world, including a woman in South Sudan who is helping to bring together warlords as part of the UN peacekeeping force. We will definitely go back to hosting in-person events, but we have found our online Meditation Teacher Training to be even more fun and powerful than the in-person training. And we have found you really can create community online—far more powerfully than I ever could have imagined pre-COVID.

Lauren Tanaka Fortune

Co-Owner of Goods & Services, a modern shoe repair shop specializing in sneaker resoling, and handmade shoes.

Pre-COVID, we had just opened our brick and mortar shop located in downtown Los Angeles and were getting regular foot traffic. During the lockdowns, we had to close our shop to the public and do by-appointment only. When we first started, we imagined our shop would be mainly shoe repair with a niche focus on sneakers and custom shoes. Ultimately, we decided to invest more into e-commerce, which has paid off. We learned that our customer is more interested in custom sneaker re-soling and it’s been a huge part of our business. We also found that people are willing to send in their shoes across the country despite high shipping costs. We do hope that things will “go back to normal” so we can begin hosting in-person events in the shop, but we now know that the potential for online orders is limitless. 

Katherine Sprung

Founder and owner of Squish Marshmallows, a small batch, hand-crafted marshmallow company focusing on unique flavors and confections.

Pre-COVID, my shop and cafe were open to the public every day. We also did lots of pop-ups and in-person activations and catering. Once the shutdown happened, and since then, the shop has been closed to the public and I’ve only focused on e-commerce and shipping. Creating a few at-home kits and gift items was very helpful too, especially since people were ordering things online so much more. Realizing that there can be so much strength and success with e-commerce really solidifies that model as a more sustainable one, regardless if and when things open up more. While I do enjoy the in-person experiences, from a business perspective it’s just hard to forecast when that will be as lucrative as it was. To reduce it to a small scale just doesn’t make the same kind of financial sense. And, if gatherings increase, there’s always room for pop-ups, and storefronts might not be as necessary. 

Rachel Sanders

Co-Founder and CEO of Rootine, a mission-driven company focused on improving health by optimizing cellular nutrition.

In the last year, we have launched additional products and solutions to enable more individuals to leverage their personal health data to improve their health. We sped up the launch of our at-home nutrition health test and added additional DNA-reports that can make a real difference in people’s lives from the convenience of their own home. The pivots and additions helped us manage our cash flow during uncertain times and scale significantly in the last 12 months. These adjustments have had a positive impact for us and we will use the lessons we learned to scale even further.

Alexandra Hoffmann

CEO of Alexandra Hoffmann Consulting, a company that helps leaders go the extra mile by looking where others don’t, so they can anticipate the crises that others won’t.

When I launched my business in 2018, business was done in person, always. It is almost a rule of thumb in our industry. When COVID-19 hit, I realized I had to overcome my resistance and dive all into the virtual world. Today, my company operates entirely virtually. My prospects and clients now come to me for workshops and keynotes, which was a drastic change that took me way out of my comfort zone. I took on the challenge and I love it. This is what my company officially does now. To celebrate this pivot, I will even be changing my company’s name next month! I don’t know what the future holds, but I know I love my new setup, and I love how I serve my clients today. In any case, there will always be room for innovation and learning new ways of doing things. Being curious and willing to learn is a great recipe for building resilience.

Katharine McKee

Founder of Morphology Consulting, a digital commerce consultancy company focused on increasing clients’ long term profitability.

My business used to be 100 percent in person. I did work for enterprise companies and offered enterprise solutions, so it was very meeting heavy. In the shift to online, I had to build out tools and processes that could still be offered, but at a distance. I started offering more ways to get information, including a podcast, courses, and e-books, as well as virtual meetings. COVID-19 allowed me to offer pro bono hours to underprivileged leaders of companies and get a better idea of how to create value for them that wasn’t an enterprise solution. Post-COVID, we will go back to full days with entire teams but will still offer options to get information for free. I am looking to go from 100 percent enterprise to 70/30.

Lexi Aiassa

Founder and CEO of The Confidence Co, a digestive wellness company whose mission is to help educate the consumer on the importance of gut health and provide tactful supplementation.

We designed our product packaging for consumers who are on the go. Our choice in packaging also forced us to price our product at more of a premium relative to competitors that sell large volumes in bottles. With everyone at home, we really needed to drive home the fact that the product itself was premium. While it is, we lost the added value proposition of being super portable. In the supplement space, it can be hard to differentiate. We started to become hyper-focused on proving why our specific blend is superior and providing content to help with gut health outside of taking our products. We absolutely believe in the value of our product being available when you need it most. So when people are back on the move, we’ll be sure to make sure our customers know we’re made with them in mind. However, we believe that COVID-19 has accelerated the gut health movement and we truly want people to think of us as not only a company that sells products, but a trusted advisor in the journey toward optimal digestion. We have every intention of doubling down on our content and free resources to help members of our community on their gut health journey. 

Xochitl de Groot Ivory

Founder and CEO of SoChill.io, a digital wellness platform that provides executive mindfulness coaching to individuals and teams. 

The pandemic pushed me to take the leap and launch my business. I had worked on my business plan for many years but kept holding off for the “right” time. When the pandemic hit, I felt that it was now or never and I’m so glad I launched at such a crucial time. The need for mental health and mindfulness is bigger than ever. Our company is able to help leaders navigate through these tough times with our virtual services. The pandemic forced me to take the final step to bet on myself and to focus on my business full time—concretely realizing my mission to bring mindfulness to the business world and C-suite to help leaders change their work culture inside out, ultimately impacting the entire organization.

Lindsay Tabas

Lady Engineer of Lady Engineer®, a company that helps founders design and sell the right product before investing in building the wrong one.

Pre-pandemic, we supported mostly non-technical female founders via individual consulting. Amid the pandemic, we launched a group program, Labs*, for pre-seed startups looking for product-market fit, putting it at a lower, more accessible price. We started with three startups, and our second cohort has 14! While women have been exiting the full-time workforce in droves, it’s astounding how many are ready to invest in leveraging technology to solve real problems. This pivot toward group programming is a permanent pivot because I am passionate about lowering the barrier-to-entry for non-technical founders. For at least the next decade, most women will not be coming to the startup and tech innovation industry with a STEM background. There are too many big, important problems that our world needs to solve, so it’s a personal imperative, pandemic or not, to make founding a tech or tech-enabled company a simpler journey.

All individuals featured in this article are members of Dreamers & Doers, a private collective that amplifies the entrepreneurial pursuits of extraordinary women through thought leadership opportunities, authentic connection, and access. Learn more about Dreamers & Doers and subscribe to their monthly The Digest for top entrepreneurial and career resources.​

NOTE: GESCHE HAAS IS A GUEST POSTER AND ANY VIEWS OR OPINIONS REPRESENTED IN THE ABOVE POST ARE PERSONAL AND DO NOT REPRESENT THOSE OF 500 STARTUPS OR ANY OF ITS STAFF OR AFFILIATES UNLESS EXPLICITLY STATED. ALL CONTENT REPRESENTED ABOVE IS PROVIDED FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY. 500 STARTUPS MAKES NO REPRESENTATIONS AS TO THE ACCURACY OR COMPLETENESS OF ANY INFORMATION CONTAINED IN THE ABOVE POST. NO LIABILITY CAN BE ACCEPTED FOR ANY ERROR OR OMISSIONS.  UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD ANY OF THE ABOVE CONTENT BE CONSTRUED AS LEGAL, TAX OR INVESTMENT ADVICE FROM 500 STARTUPS OR ANY OF ITS AFFILIATES. 500 STARTUPS DOES NOT GUARANTEE ANY FUTURE RESULTS FOR ANY DECISIONS MADE BASED IN WHOLE OR IN PART ON THE CONTENT OR INFORMATION CONTAINED IN THIS POST.

UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD ANY INFORMATION OR CONTENT IN THIS POST, BE CONSIDERED AS AN OFFER TO SELL OR SOLICITATION OF INTEREST TO PURCHASE ANY SECURITIES ADVISED BY 500 STARTUPS OR ANY OF ITS AFFILIATES OR REPRESENTATIVES. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD ANYTHING HEREIN BE CONSTRUED AS FUND MARKETING MATERIALS BY PROSPECTIVE INVESTORS CONSIDERING AN INVESTMENT INTO ANY 500 STARTUPS INVESTMENT FUND.

Photo credit: Businesswoman using tablet computer while sitting at a cafe by Jacob Lund from Noun Project

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