Business Unusual: Seattle Company’s Pivot is Helping Other Businesses Stay Afloat

The SnapBar had to put their photo booth services on hold due to COVID-19. Now, they’re selling curated gift boxes with products from local vendors and supporting small businesses across the U.S.

The SnapBar Workest
How The SnapBar made a creative pivot to help their team and other small businesses

Seattle was an early hotspot in the COVID-19 pandemic, so for Sam Eitzen, who cofounded Seattle-based photo booth company The SnapBar with his brother Joe Eitzen in 2012, early March was a dark time.

Sam Eitzen, cofounder of The SnapBar
Sam Eitzen, cofounder of The SnapBar

“We realized how bleak and difficult the months ahead would be because in about the span of 2 to 3 weeks, all of our revenue for the next 3 months vanished,” Eitzen says. With live events cancelled and no money coming in, the brothers wondered how they’d continue paying their 18 full-time employees.

Around March 11 or 12, Eitzen stayed up until 2 a.m. brainstorming 50 ideas for things they could do differently. Some of it he describes as “crazy … stuff that wasn’t in our wheelhouse.” But he culled the list to 18 ideas to run by Joe. The idea they ultimately chose was a gift box with curated, high-quality products from local small businesses. “[Here in Seattle] people became very worried and stopped going out,” he says. “What if we could try to help these small businesses?”

The team had to get scrappy to minimize startup costs for the boxes. They repurposed SnapBar’s warehouse for assembling gift boxes (which a team of 3 does while wearing masks and gloves). “The big printers that would allow us to put graphic wraps on our selfie stand product are now printing labels and stickers on the boxes,” he adds.

Keep-Your-City-Smiling-1 (1)

Keep Your City Smiling

On March 19, they launched the first version of the Keep Your City Smiling website and started taking preorders for the Keep Seattle Smiling gift box. They presold a few hundred boxes, which allowed them to place orders with local vendors for things like artisan tea, coffee, snacks, and skincare products to help those vendors move inventory.

“Some of these companies had ecommerce solutions and some didn’t,” Eitzen says. “Some are reliant on food traffic. On our website and in our social, we’re telling their story and hoping that based on someone finding this cool company, they’re going to purchase more soap and lotions from them directly.”

“We went from bleeding $140,000 a month in cash to closing that gap pretty quickly as the idea spread.”
In addition to the Seattle-themed box, they assembled a limited-edition Mother’s Day box and expanded into other cities including San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Portland, Oregon. There’s also a nationwide box and a box for healthcare workers. “We went from bleeding $140,000 a month in cash to closing that gap pretty quickly as the idea spread,” Eitzen says.

For Eitzen, it was a pleasant surprise to have companies place large corporate orders to support their remote workers. “We’re able to brand the boxes and getting an order of 400 boxes in one day is really nice,” he says. “If we hadn’t had all these corporate orders, I don’t think we’d be able to justify a full-time team.”

However, sourcing larger quantities of craft products from their vendors can be challenging. “These small businesses are not used to getting corporate orders,” Eitzen says. Three full-time employees from the photo booth support team focus on sourcing and ordering products, so they might cycle through multiple coffee or tea vendors to fulfill a large order.

Etta + Billie

Etta + Billie

Alana Rivera is CEO of Etta + Billie, a natural body care company based in California. Prior to COVID-19, she mainly sold products to boutiques, but her wholesale business dried up this spring as those shops temporarily closed.

“It was a huge relief and a moment of really feeling supported by another business.”

She got the email about inclusion in the gift boxes soon after her local shelter-in-place order went into effect. “It was a huge relief and a moment of really feeling supported by another business,” she says. “I was really excited to be a part of what they were trying to create.” Customers have discovered her through the gift boxes, then ordered products from her directly.

ChocolateSpiel

Angi Pfleiderer is owner and founder of ChocolateSpiel, a Seattle-based chocolatier that’s included in the Keep Seattle Smiling box and gift boxes with a few other companies. She’s a solopreneur who launched her business in February 2019 and primarily sold at live events such as classes and pop-ups. Now her business has shifted to online sales and gift boxes, and Pfleiderer says it’s going better than ever. “People are just focusing so much more on supporting local businesses,” she says.

“People are just focusing so much more on supporting local businesses.”

PPP loan, pay cuts, new revenue streams

Despite these successes, revenue from gift boxes hasn’t been enough to cover The SnapBar’s expenses, so they also applied for a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program. They received a loan during the second round of funding. “My cofounder and I took 50% pay cuts before the PPP,” Eitzen says. “We cut hours to 50% just to conserve cash. Decisions were made week to week so we didn’t have to make mass layoffs.”

They’ve also added new revenue streams, including a virtual photo booth product that the TED conference and other clients use. “Now it’s full steam ahead in that sense, trying to at least break even by the end of June,” Eitzen says.

Pfleiderer admires that can-do attitude. “They are 2 ways you can go with COVID: you can go down or you can fight,” she says. “SnapBar is fighting, and that’s something that really inspires me.”

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