When I moved back to my hometown of Indianapolis in 2018, my wife Emma and I planned to open five ZIPS Dry Cleaners locations in five years. We were ahead of schedule – we had just opened our third store in 18 months – and then COVID hit. Events were canceled and business trips were postponed. People were working from their home offices wearing sweatpants and t-shirts rather than business suits and ties. Our customers’ need to dry clean their clothes became nonexistent and our sales plummeted as a result.
ZIPS Dry Cleaners has more than 50 locations across the country. Our eco-friendly technology and same-day one-price business model distinguishes us from our competitors. We believe dry cleaning should be affordable; everyone should feel good putting on clean clothes, regardless of their income level. As franchise owners, Emma and I also believe in offering gainful employment opportunities to our staff. So, when sales dropped dramatically, we were concerned how we’d avoid layoffs. That’s when we learned the power of pivoting.
Overnight, we turned all three of our ZIPS locations into mask-making factories. We purchased as much fabric and elastic as we could find and began producing and selling masks. The masks sold quickly, but we needed to do more. We then rolled out laundry delivery service. I personally began driving a ZIPS van throughout Indianapolis picking up and dropping off clothes to our customers’ homes and businesses. We also added a wash and fold laundry service for $.99/lb., which especially helped the busy parents who were juggling work, e-learning and household chores.
Our efforts paid off and business has started to pick back up, albeit slowly. Customers still aren’t dry cleaning clothes like they were pre-pandemic, but they are taking advantage of our other services. Most importantly, we’ve been able to retain all of our staff. Some staff members have had their hours reduced, but no one has lost his or her job.
The pandemic is forcing all of us to look at life differently and create a new normal. For entrepreneurs, this means experimenting and taking chances that entail risk. But to turn away from a new idea for fear it will fail could be even riskier.
Changing your business model does not mean changing your business. It does mean being flexible and realistic. Survey the environment, be in tune with customers’ needs and pivot quickly when necessary. If Emma and I held out hope customers would suddenly need to dry clean business clothes or fancy ball gowns, we’d still be waiting and, in the meantime, laying off staff and closing locations.
During these uncertain times, I challenge entrepreneurs and business owners to consider changed business models as improved ones. Disrupt the market and maybe it will respond. Time will tell, but some changes may be successful enough to last well beyond the pandemic.