Interior of a space showing a Windmill air conditioning unit.
Three startups explain how the pandemic led them to realize their abilities to turn challenges into opportunities, which turned into additional sales and business growth. — Windmill

Why it matters:

  • Three startups that managed to grow during the pandemic said investing in their teams during turbulent times proved critical to success.
  • Finding new revenue streams, such as adding stores as a sales channel for a DTC business, can also help counter macro headwinds.
  • Tracking both historical and real-time market trends amid a crisis to make data-informed decisions can help businesses weather the storm, startup founders said.

The pandemic provided a valuable learning opportunity for many business leaders across categories. For three startup founders, it also provided a pivotal moment to turn challenges into opportunities — and newfound sales.

Windmill, a startup reimagining the design and functionality of air conditioning units, scored $3 million in seed capital and big retail partnerships including Home Depot; bookkeeping tech disruptor Xendoo boosted revenues as more SMBs adopted cost- and time-efficient digital solutions; and influencer-focused talent agency G&B Digital Management achieved 100% compound annual growth revenue (CAGR), logging revenue gains while expanding its client roster.

The founders of these very different businesses all highlight the importance of investing in the team around them, particularly through times of turbulence. Supporting talent is a strategic move to having the right team in place once market conditions shift back to “normal,” they told CO—.

Here in their own words, the founders of Windmill, Xendoo and G&B Digital Management share the strategies they employed to drive growth and offer guidance on how other small businesses can prepare for future disruption.

 Headshot of Mike Mayer, co-founder and CEO of Windmill.
Mike Mayer, co-founder and CEO of Windmill. — Windmill

Prioritize great product – and kindness

Mike Mayer, co-founder and CEO, Windmill

Last August, Windmill launched its first-run innovative design to the [air conditioning] market with rapid-fire success, selling through all 2020 inventory in the first 48 hours and amassing a waitlist of more than 10,000 customers by the following spring.

Windmill was born out of hundreds of conversations [with consumers] about the pain points of the air conditioning experience. We took the time to understand what people are looking for — and not looking for — in this market, and it's a big reason why we're winning over companies who have been in the game for 60-plus years. We waited until we were 100% sure that our product was as close to perfection as possible before going to market. Of course, this delayed some of our plans, as it was challenging to communicate with factories overseas during the pandemic, but launching with a near-perfect product made us able to grow so much more quickly in year one because we could focus on other facets of the business.

The DTC, online-only experience is losing its luster. Customers want products to be accessible, and sometimes that means shopping in-store. To really get your products out there, you need to have range and a varied distribution strategy. Having retail partnerships locked in before peak season allowed us to plan inventory in a more reliable way, and ultimately scale much more quickly.

The pandemic presented challenges for every single facet of our business and all of our partners. It felt like everything went wrong that could — but I never lost sight of the value of a great, long-term partnership. Prioritizing kindness and relationship-building over the obvious frustration of something like a delay made our partners work harder for us in the end. We're grateful to have weathered the storm with incredible people in every corner of the business — from manufacturing to packaging and beyond.

[Read: 3 Pandemic-Fueled Commerce Trends Poised to Yield Long-Term Growth for Businesses]

We put every available [employee] hand on finding new clients and helping existing clients regain their balance and win market share by partnering with our talent.

Kyle Hjelmeseth, founder and president, G&B Digital Management

 Headshot of Lil Roberts, founder and CEO of Xendoo.
Lil Roberts, founder and CEO of Xendoo. — Xendoo

Get the basics right, but be ready for change

Lil Roberts, founder and CEO, Xendoo

During the height of the pandemic in 2020, [small business bookkeeping platform] Xendoo did not have a single layoff and revenue grew by 30%. Our strategy is to be sure that we focus on the basics and deliver a high-quality product for a fair price: The right product, the right team, the right customers —and we love our customers.

We plan to continue our growth by ensuring that our technology continues to be what customers need and want, while adapting to the constantly changing digital environment that all small business owners are experiencing in their business. As the speed of business continues to accelerate, the demands for an integrated digital solution have increased. We’ll continue to [deliver] this with a company culture and team that truly cares about our customers and the product we deliver.

[To succeed, it’s critical to] stay positive, be nimble and continuously look for ways to be more efficient in your business while adapting to the new world.

[Read: 3 Unexpected Business Opportunities Spurred by the Pandemic]

 Headshot of Kyle Hjelmeseth, founder and president of G&B Digital Management.
Kyle Hjelmeseth, founder and president of G&B Digital Management. — G&B Digital Management

Study market trends and learn from competitors’ mistakes

Kyle Hjelmeseth, founder and president, G&B Digital Management

Weathering the pandemic was all about keeping the team in place and doing research to figure out what potential impacts there would be [on the influencer talent management firm]. We decided early on to keep every staff member and contractor in place, and not mess with compensation. People needed to eat, have security, and we had a sense that shifting budgets would [ultimately] benefit the digital marketing space, which it did. After a few rocky months when budgets really started to open up, especially before holiday 2020, we had the full team in place ready to pounce [on opportunities].

We also went into the pandemic doing as much research about market trends and historical reference points as possible. We learned that advertising dipped about 30% in the days after Sept. 11, and honestly that was the only reference point to what we were facing. So, we acted as though 30% of revenue would be wiped out and plotted accordingly. Our team also researched the safest at-home mandates, what products and industries were least likely to be affected by supply chain or shipping issues, etc. We put every available [employee] hand on finding new clients and helping existing clients regain their balance and win market share by partnering with our talent.

I had zero experience in the world of talent management when I started, so all I could do was use my own business acumen and strength in genuinely loving to help people solve problems and move forward, and learn from the mistakes of others. I had plenty of phone calls when I first started in which brands and agencies would tell me what they hated about other influencer managers out there, so that kept me from making the same mistakes.

Now that we’re a much bigger firm than just me, everyone works together to build what even our top competitive managers call a 'culture of winning,’ based on the idea of shared success.

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