Bold business growth: How one small shop owner turned around a tough year
Rachel Hunter wasn’t about to let the pandemic put her out of business.
She had poured too much of her heart, energy, ingenuity, and finances into A Florae, the floral design studio and retail shop she owns and operates in downtown Longmont, Colorado.
But the economic fallout from COVID-19 forced urgent innovation, and she leaned into the challenge with a hard focus on business growth. In the biggest decision of her career, even as the overall economic outlook remained uncertain at best, Hunter not only readjusted her lines of business but expanded both her retail space and employee headcount—seemingly counter-intuitive in the middle of a pandemic with “e-commerce” as the prevailing buzzword.
“That’s a gutsy move in this environment,” says Mark West, national vice president of business solutions for Principal®, who counsels business owners like Hunter. “But she was willing to bet on herself.”
Hunter says the struggles in 2020 helped inform her and define her.
“You learn so much about yourself when you’re knocked down,” she says.
She built on her entrepreneurial experience.
Hunter learned the trade by working with other florists but lacked a formal business management degree. And she didn't follow a detailed plan for how to start a small business when she launched her floral studio in 2010.
She just chased her dream with gumption and tenacity.
“I threw all my time, focus, and energy into the business,” she says. “For the first time in my life I believed not only in myself but also in the value of my talents.”
Turns out she’s part of a regional trend: Colorado in 2021 was named the best state for women-led startups according to data analysis by Merchant Maverick, a news source for business services and software.
5 guiding factors for your business pivot
Mark West, national vice president of business solutions for Principal®, suggests this approach:
- Don’t panic. Rely on your entrepreneurial ingenuity and resilience.
- Lean on the expertise of trusted specialists (a financial professional, CPA, etc.).
- Listen to your customers. Research what your target market wants from your business—and how that may be changing. Conduct customer focus groups. Crunch data to inform your business strategy.
- Don’t give up what makes your business unique. You want to pivot, not flail. You can adjust or diversify lines of business while preserving the core competency or market niche that sustains you through fluctuations.
- Make a firm decision, commit to a timeline, and implement your concept. Don’t hesitate—focus all your energy and resources and don’t look back.
She diversified her business.
Hunter’s initial expansion into other retail (candles, cards, jewelry) was prompted by the annual frustration of living off savings during the lean winter months with fewer weddings and floral arrangements.
In late 2019 she added clothing—what would turn out to be a prescient decision. When the pandemic first hit in early 2020, like so many business owners, she was stunned into a near paralysis.
“I closed for two weeks just to sit with it and wrap my head around what we were going to do,” she says.
By May 2020, she reopened with safeguards in place, investing $6,000 to expand her clothing stock to lure shoppers. It helped her cope with the desperation of watching her lucrative core revenue—one wedding after another—disappear off the calendar.
“What’s my Plan B?” she asked herself at the time. Her answer (along with a little Paycheck Protection Program relief): Focus on retail sales to cover costs. Her plan proved solid: She generated five times the retail sales for Mother’s Day 2020 compared to the previous year. By the end of 2020, Hunter’s retail had surged 114%, helping to partially offset the canceled weddings, which had dwindled to 35% of what she’d done in 2019.
Hunter not only overcame a pandemic but another statistical hurdle: An estimated 70% of businesses fail in their first decade.
She made a well-informed gamble.
Hunter knew that her modest push into the clothing space wasn’t a permanent solution.
With a wary eye cast ahead to 2021, she knew her 400-square-foot retail floor on the fringe of the Longmont business district lacked the capacity to keep her afloat if normalcy didn’t return by spring.
The biggest gamble of her career began with a simple dog walk through downtown Longmont. She spotted a “for rent” sign on a beautifully refurbished two-story brick building along Main Street that had held a kitchen store.
My dream is staring me in the face, she thought to herself.
In November 2020 Hunter signed a two-year lease that swallowed her personal savings plus a $25,000 business loan. The prime location increased foot traffic and expanded her retail floor (to a massive 4,822 square feet). But it also required her to triple her staff (from three to nine) and more than triple her rent.
Hunter posted a video monologue to Instagram on December 27 on the verge of her relocation. She appeared to be feeling a jumble of excitement, anxiety, exhaustion, and gratitude.
“I can’t wait to welcome you into the new space because it’s just a bigger version of my heart,” she said through tears. “It’s so neat to be able to watch a business grow with the participation of the community, because I don’t have a savings to do this. Every time you have shopped you have funded the business to be able to move and grow and carry more products and feel very proud when you walk into our store—because it’s your store, too.
“And I don’t mean to sound like a sappy emotional weirdo, but it’s the truth.”
Faced with the biggest cliffhanger of her business career, Hunter was riddled with doubt.
Had she done justice for her business and employees?
Was expansion the right move?
Should she have played it safe and stayed small?
She listened to her customers.
But Hunter’s gamble was informed by deep customer research plus regular guidance from her CPA.
Targeted focus groups filled out 30 questions with her then discussed their answers. When it came time for Hunter to stock her larger store, she harvested the accumulated input—including an average product mix calculated from the data. (Shoppers tend to spend the most money on blue jeans. They like solid colors.)
“Clearly she was doing her homework to understand her customers and cash flow,” West says. “Expansion wouldn’t have helped if it wasn’t going to boost her revenue.”
Hunter closed during January to make the move but faced a crucial deadline as Valentine’s Day loomed.
Meanwhile, her pivot included adding an entirely new business to the mix: With the basement ceiling too low to accommodate events, Hunter opened a new vintage thrift shop, Archives. Her customer focus groups had identified a niche: well-curated local secondhand clothing as an alternative to big-box stores. That in turn exposed her A Florae ware to clientele who’d never considered setting foot inside a florist.
By the time of A Florae’s grand reopening on February 2, Hunter held $102 in cash and a wallet full of maxed-out credit cards, with $2,900 still owed on her new storefront sign.
She had to earn at least $2,150 to pay rent the next day.
She rang up $8,000 in sales that first night and hasn’t looked back since.
She’s ready to keep growing.
Hunter today runs a diversified, stable, and lucrative business and will soon offer employee benefits as A Florae continues to flourish.
She’s booked solid for weddings and events every weekend through November 2021.
The last year has been nothing short of monumental: As Hunter turns 40, she’s also pregnant with her first child, due October 12.
“For the business owners who really make it,” she says, “I like to believe we all have a really strong survivor mindset.”
A Florea and Archives are not affiliates of any company of the Principal Financial Group.
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