Most small businesses have encountered forced changes this last year involving commerce, tech, and customer shifts. We sat down with well-known small business advocate and journalist Loren Feldman of 21 Hats, to talk about collaboration, creativity, and resilience among small business owners.
Read the Interview
Thanks, everybody, for joining us. I am Jill McKenna. I’m the campaign marketing manager here at Ruby, and I’m delighted today to be talking to Loren Feldman. Loren is many things, wears many hats—he’s a writer, editor, podcaster, blogger, entrepreneur. And Loren, you’ve been working in the small business sector and industry for a very long time. I know you’ve been an editor and writer for The New York Times, Forbes, Fast Company, Inc.—can you explain to our viewers a little bit more about your background and how I got to speak to you today?
Sure. Well, thank you Jill. It’s a pleasure to be here. I appreciate your having me. I have been doing this a long time—about 20 years now, it pains me to say. Previously, I’d been a general interest journalist with magazines, a little bit of business stuff. I did go to business school, undergraduate. But in 2002, a friend of mine was named editor of Inc. magazine, and he was kind of figuring out what he was going to do with it, and I happened to have been fired from a job as editor of Philadelphia Magazine previously, So I was looking for something to do and he invited me to sort of just hang out, no pressure, see if I could help and get to know it.
I had had some experience with business journalism, but no experience with entrepreneurship, and I kind of fell in love with it. I thought I would be there for a few weeks, and 20 years later I’m doing the same stuff. It’s been great. I spent about six years at Inc. and then I went to The New York Times. They kind of asked me to build their version of an Inc. magazine as a web vertical inside The New York Times. I did that for about six years, and then I went to Forbes and they wanted me to do their version of it. And I spent about five years there.
They’re all great publications with really smart people. At each place, they all wanted something a little bit different, and I learned something really important at each of them. And then ultimately, about two years ago, decided to leave Forbes and try to bring it all together in one place. I found a partner who was kind of my backer and we created something we called 21 Hats, referring to all those hats that an entrepreneur has to wear. The idea was to try to bring together everything I’d learned at Inc. and the Times and at Forbes, and create the platform for business owners. Unfortunately, we ran into this pandemic thing you might’ve heard about, and our plans haven’t quite played out the way we hoped, but we’re still working on it and still trying to do some good stuff.
Are you seeing any industry or business model shifts that are working right now?
The one obvious shift that is really widespread is that people who have been reluctant to adopt e-commerce and really go online have been forced to do it. That’s another difficult transition. That doesn’t work for everybody. But people are being forced to do it now. Some are succeeding at it, some are not. There are a tremendous number of small businesses that are run by people who went into the business not because they wanted to be famous or make a fortune, but because they loved whatever it is they do. Maybe they make a product that they’re passionate about. They create a service that they’re passionate about. Maybe it’s artistic, involves crafting or artwork of some kind. So they focus more on the art and less on the commerce. And they’ve been able to make it work in a brick-and-mortar setting and now that’s more challenging. So, can they translate that to doing something online? I think that’s the big shift right now.
I mean, it’s happening to big companies and small. We’re all buying a lot more groceries online than we ever thought we would. People are adopting that much faster than was expected. I don’t think there’s any going back on that.
But the same thing’s happening to brick-and-mortar stores. I actually have been working on a story I’m writing about the yarn industry. It’s a very small industry, but it’s exactly what I was just describing. It’s made up of wonderful people who care deeply about the craft, are very passionate about it. Most of them have your typical neighborhood yarn store—probably does, if they’re lucky, a few hundred thousand dollars a year in revenue. Maybe there are 10 yarn shops in the entire country that do more than a million dollars a year in revenue. So, it’s small, but you can imagine during the shutdown, if you didn’t have a presence online, you didn’t have a business. And so there have been a lot of people headed to Shopify, and a lot of them, I hear, are very happy with it. I’ve never used it myself. I don’t mean to give them a plug, but I have heard that over and over.
It is a difficult transition. If you go looking for somebody to help you design an e-commerce site, you’ll wind up with a list of gurus who will promise you the world. How do you know which one to trust? It’s so easy to take that leap down the rabbit hole and spend way more money than you expected. Shopify is something you can take off the shelf and use very easily, whether you have any technical skill or not. I’ve been told, it helps to have a consultant who’s got some experience. If you have no experience, you might want to talk to somebody who can help you optimize your site. To me, that’s the big transition that’s happening right now.
Yeah. We’ve seen that a lot. A lot of our customers are attorneys who have just kind of put off their online presence. A lot of people, they don’t even want to pick up a phone right now. So we’ve seen this huge rise in web chat and web chat apps. So that, when somebody goes to a website, it’s not a static experience, it’s like you’re having a staff member there who can actually engage and get people to the right place. But so many questions about: Do you require masks? What time are you open? Do you have special hours? And all of those can get answered so quickly from somebody’s phone with typing instead of them having to call. So we’ve seen a lot of that.
There are also all kinds of social media tools that people are using. Some of those yarn shop owners I’ve talked to, a lot of them basically started running their business on Instagram. With Instagram IGTV, they could basically do a show from their shop. Somebody would be looking at them on their screen and say, “What color is that over your shoulder? No, the one below that.” And just literally on social media, grab a ball of yarn and put it in a bag and ship it to somebody, which is not something that people were doing a lot of before this happened.
Do you find that there’s a rule right now about which small businesses are doing better? Is it by industry, by model, or by attitude? Or do you see any trends kind of popping up that way?
Nothing that isn’t obvious. I think the most important thing… Here’s a great example. I think there’s no set formula, there’s no right answer that works across the board. And it’s important for business owners to understand that and not put that pressure on themselves. For some people, we’ve heard so much talk about pivoting and how important it is to be flexible. I can give you great examples of pivots. I know you could give me probably more examples of pivots that have succeeded and that weren’t obvious, and that are really impressive and inspirational, but that doesn’t mean there’s a pivot for everybody. There’s some businesses, it’s just not going to work right now. The smart thing might be to shut down and keep whatever powder you have dry until the situation changes a little bit.
We had this conversation on the podcast recently. One of our business owners makes high-end conference tables that he sells primarily to other business owners. Somebody who wants to have a statement table in a board room that will impress people, clients, or board members, whatever it is, will buy a table that can easily cost $30,000 or $40,000 from Paul Downs, who’s my podcast regular. Right now, not only is there economic crisis and people aren’t spending money, a lot of people aren’t spending money the way they before, a lot of businesses are struggling. That’s an issue. But we don’t even know who’s going back to work when this thing’s over and who’s going to want that impressive table in an impressive boardroom if everybody’s working from home. So he’s got a really big question mark hanging over his head and he’s had lots of people giving him unsolicited advice saying, “You know, you should start making other pieces of furniture.”
Well, he developed his success 20, 30 years ago because he focused really tightly on doing one thing really well and becoming known for it and doing it right. So what should he make now? People have told him, “You know, you should make some kind of desk that people can use when they set up their work from home office.” The thing is, you can find something for a couple hundred bucks on Wayfair. He sells tables for $30,000. He’s not going to be able to employ his full factory contingent of employees making $200 tables competing with Wayfair, which doesn’t make any money of course. There’s an example. He’s pretty much decided, we have some work to do, we’ll see how much comes in. Sometimes there are government offices or embassies or police departments that need a table, maybe we’ll get enough work to keep going with that.
He’s already had to reduce his staff, some. He’ll reduce it more if he has to. But his goal is to not waste money, not to blow money on marketing a product that he’s not sure he can make money on and live to fight another day. One day, this will stop and his hope is that we won’t all work from home, there will still be offices, and he will go back to making lots of tables someday. He wants to be ready to do that when the time comes, but he’s not going to risk his company by trying to do something he’s not good at doing right now.
Yeah. That makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, a lot of people are in that position of having to make those types of decisions. It’s probably not going to change anytime in the near future. So if folks want to find out more about your podcast, your daily email, where can they go and find out more?
Well, they can find me on LinkedIn if they’d like to connect. I’m always happy to connect with people. It’s a Loren, L-O-R-E-N, Feldman, F-E-L-D-M-A-N. They can go to 21hats.com and find our archive of podcasts there. We’ll be publishing a new one on Tuesday. We always publish on Tuesdays. Or they can go wherever they get podcasts, whether it’s Apple or Google or whatever.
Thank you so, so much for your time and insight. I’m really appreciative.