Coronavirus Diaries From the C-Suite

How to Emergency-Pivot Your Staff During a Pandemic

How Madison Reed quickly shifted its brick-and-mortar workforce to digital

Amy Errett, co-founder and CEO of Madison Reed subscription hair color works from her laptop at home.
Amy Errett, co-founder and CEO of Madison Reed subscription hair color works from her laptop at home.
Photo courtesy of Madison Reed

Coronavirus Diaries From the C-Suite is a new Marker series where leaders share how the pandemic is impacting their businesses.

In early March, Amy Errett appeared on the Today Show in the program’s “She Made It” series, discussing Madison Reed, the hair color business she founded in 2013 that had raised more than $130 million in total VC funding. By the end of the month, it was quite a different picture: Errett had shuttered the company’s 12 brick-and-mortar “color bars” and redirected the 100 employees at her San Francisco headquarters to work from home. Meanwhile, orders for the company’s at-home color and styling products jumped by as much as 1,200%, as women across the country lost access to their hairdressers. While the company has escaped some of the financial devastation that has afflicted other startups, Errett, who now leads the company from her home in Sonoma, where she lives with her wife and their 17-year-old daughter, has dealt with supply chain complexities and retraining her workforce on the fly. Errett — who also moonlights as a partner at True Ventures — spoke with Marker about how her company adapted virtually overnight.

InIn February, it became clear very quickly that Italy was going to be the next region to get hit hard after Wuhan, and our manufacturer is in Lombardy [one of the hardest-hit regions]. We started talking with them daily and ordering a lot more inventory to keep up with any potential outage. Much of the factory is automated, so it’s been able to stay open, but we’re now working with our Italian partners to move part of the manufacturing process here.

We closed our headquarters on March 13, a few days before San Francisco went on lockdown. We were in an open workspace, and it’s a close community; I could tell people were getting nervous. Even though none of our people were sick, we called it early.

We closed down our 12 color bars [in California, Maryland, New York, and Texas] a couple of weeks ago. But our business has seen a significant increase online as hair salons across the country have closed. In March, the number of online orders grew 10 to 12 times in just one week. The friction point of our business for a salon-goer was always the fear of doing it yourself. We’ve always known that hair color is emotional — you don’t feel good if your roots are showing or if your hair doesn’t look great.

We quickly quadrupled the size of the Color Crew from 30 to 115 people to support increased customer demand, and got everyone set up in new jobs within a week.

Because the online sales increased, we were able to transfer colorists who were working in our retail stores to jobs on our Color Crew, answering customer service calls. We quickly quadrupled the size of the Color Crew from 30 to 115 people to support increased customer demand, and got everyone set up in new jobs within a week — sending people Chromebooks, giving them headsets, and training them how to respond to customers via phone, text, and our website’s chat tool.

Most of us were used to working from home occasionally and using Google Hangouts for meetings, so that wasn’t a problem. But there have been some other issues, like having the schools closed. When you have little kids, you can’t just plop them in front of the TV. So we quickly learned that our people can’t work the same kind of hours they did in the office, and we’ve been flexible about that. Also, some employees have a spouse who has lost a job. We’ve had people in the company who didn’t opt for our health care benefits because they were on their spouse’s, but now their spouse got laid off. And we’re past open enrollment. So we’re fighting with our health insurance provider, telling them this is an emergency; we’ve got to cover these people.

We have been trying to keep the virtual relationships going. Every manager is having video one-on-ones and staff meetings. In our office, we have a big grandstand in the middle of the space where I used to talk to the company every Monday at lunch. Now, I’m doing my Monday lunches over Google Hangouts — as well as an optional lunch on Wednesdays and Fridays, and most people are showing up to that, too. My wife is a chef, and she’s doing a Thursday night cooking show for the team. We had about 70 people join us last week. It takes effort, but everyone’s feeling isolated.

The anxiety I see in our team members is palpable. The hardest part is that I can’t make it go away.

A mentor of mine once told me that traditional leadership says people follow you from their head. But, actually, they follow you from the heart. And people’s hearts are scared, and they’re anxious. Last week at one of our lunches, I asked people to share how they were feeling using the chat function in Google Hangouts. And people just started talking about being scared and feeling vulnerable and insecure.

The anxiety I see in our team members is palpable. The hardest part is that I can’t make it go away. Normally, as leaders, we convince ourselves that our actions lead to outcomes. You get used to thinking: If I do these three things, this will happen. But now, it doesn’t matter if I stand on my head and whistle Dixie, I can’t take the coronavirus away. Our job right now is to be thoughtful and caring.

Bylines at Fast Company, Politico, California Sunday, The Guardian (UK), San Francisco magazine. Writing a book about women entrepreneurs. ebboyd.com

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