Editor’s note: The following is part of Startland News’ ongoing coverage of the impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) on Kansas City’s entrepreneur community, as well as how innovation is helping to drive a new normal in the ecosystem. Click here to follow related stories as they develop.
Startups might be innovative, but they aren’t immune to the challenges of disrupted communication and a physically disconnected workforce, said Chris Thowe, noting teams with a foundation of trust are best built to withstand the pressures of COVID-19.
“I think this is the time where you can either start fraying as a company and as a founding group or you can pull together and move more focused and in a determined manner,” said Thowe, co-founder of Life Equals, the maker of Balance The Superfood Shot.
While turning to virtual meetings and other remote communication strategies amid social distancing restrictions, Life Equals has relied on an underlying faith in the people behind the Zoom galleries, instant messages, and emails, Thowe continued — especially as the brand sees a surge in demand for its signature products during the pandemic.
“The amount of trust and respect we have [in the founding team] sets a really nice tone for the other directors and how they manage their team remotely in this period of time,” he said. “Because without that, everybody’s kind of wondering, ‘Are you not doing what you’re supposed to be doing?’ and ‘Are we really all in it together?’”
Click here to learn more about Balance The Superfood Shot, an organic immunity-boosting drink with such retail partnerships as Hy-Vee, Whole Foods and Natural Grocers.
Losing the immediacy and sureness of in-person collaboration without much forewarning thanks to COVID-19 restrictions was a blow for the tight-knit leadership team, added co-founder Kyle Fitzgerald.
“Chris and I are best friends and founders in this, so we’ve really developed an amazing relationship over these years… and it’s not the thing you take for granted, but you don’t realize how important that is to your every day and not to have that constant source of connection is tough,” he said.
Health awareness draws eyeballs
A solid team — plus a business model already built for multiple distribution verticals — has helped Life Equals keep pushing forward while other businesses are whalloped by COVID-19 complications, Fitzgerald said.
“We were fortunate that Balance the Superfood Shot is really focused on health and wellness and supporting yourself, specifically in terms of immunity because that’s what fruits and vegetables do. We just happened to be on the right side of that and have a product that was really timely,” he said. “We’re kind of the counterpoint to what a lot of businesses are seeing — we’re actually seeing a big surge in demand and that’s been really humbling for us.”
Increased sales via Amazon and Life Equals’ monthly subscription models are boosting home delivery, as opposed to traditional, in-store purchasing, Fitzgerald said, noting the company has been avoiding delivery to stores for fear of putting employees in danger.
“The direct-to-consumer experience has been really fantastic for us — it’s been really nice to allow those consumers, when they’re not able to go into stores on a regular shopping sequence, to purchase either from Amazon.com or from our own website,” Thowe added. “The awareness is really the most expensive start of launching a new brand. So this has solved a big problem for us as an emerging brand to get a lot of eyeballs looking in the right direction.”
“Our goal for the rest of the year really needs to be capitalizing on that and sharing our message and showing that we are an American-made product that’s organic and really good for you,” he said. “The rest of the year, we really want to focus on beating that drum, and that challenge of how we continue to share our message.”
Expansion beyond survival
In addition to effectively putting investors’ money to work, Fitzgerald said, Life Equals can’t just ride the wave of current demand without thinking about what comes next.
The team is slowly rolling out a new CBD-infused formula throughout 2020, with plans for a larger launch later in the year, said Thowe, noting the consumer testing and plans have not been “thrown off trajectory at this point.”
Partnerships with other organizations are experiencing slower lead times with the scattered nature of remote work and restricted travel, as well as retailers who are in survival mode, he said.
“Those new conversations are tough, because the retailers are focused on restocking and keeping up business and their doors open — they’re not worried about growing their business and expanding it,” he added. “So that pipeline we had put together to launch new doors — it just may look different than we thought it did. We have new partners that are interested because of the immunity-focused products and other partners that are delaying those conversations because they’re too busy working on what’s on hand, with the emergency.”
“We believe there’s going to be even more interest in this product in the future and that’s really exciting for us in the midterm,” Thowe said. “It’s hard to get your everyday functions like putting new accounts and stuff on their priority list, but we’re really, really excited about the potential partnerships that are coming later this year.”
Perspective amid pandemic
The team’s positivity brews an overwhelming gratitude for continued work amid uncertain times — giving the Life Equals crew a richer outlook, said Fitzgerald.
“I know a lot of people don’t have job security right now, which is scary. We have talked about how this has been a nerve-wracking process for a lot of people,” he said. “We are secure and [have been able to] keep all of our team in place. This has given me a real gratitude for not just having a job, but having a place that you really belong and feel a culture fit. We have the ability to connect with humans and do good in the world and drive a mission forward and I definitely feel that more now.”
Such appreciation also stretches to the overall privilege of living in a first-world country with “every resource at its fingers,” despite the feeling of disconnect to one’s community amid the shutdowns, added Thowe.
“I can’t go to Chicken and Pickle and play pickleball and I can’t go to KC Bier Co. and sit out there and watch our community be together and enjoy a beer right now. … I can’t go to a Royals spring game,” he said. “It really makes me feel appreciative of what we do have and what it means to be an American and have an unlimited amount of choices for the purchaser and an unlimited amount of freedom for the individual to do what it is what the individual wants to do — that’s incredible. Most people in this world don’t have that.”
“A lot of people don’t have access to the very basic needs, whether that’s a safe place to live or fresh water or clean streets. … We really do have it good in the United States, and I definitely have a greater gratitude for that,” Thowe added. “I hope that stays true once things turn back on, as it were.”