Best New Ideas in Money: How the biggest companies in America are helping the smallest ones get onto their shelves
Take a trip to your local Lowe’s or head to the home improvement retailer’s e-commerce site and one of the many products you’ll find is SoilKit, which aims to provide users with an easy way to test and diagnose soil problems.
Unlike the Craftsman power tools (a Stanley Back & Decker Inc.
product) or Sherwin-Williams
paint on the home retailer’s vast shelves, SoilKit is the flagship product of a small business run by a mom of four. Christina Woerner-McInnis, who is chief executive officer of AgriTech Corp. and also a fifth-generation Alabama farmer, was one of three suppliers selected as part of “Making It … With Lowe’s.”
Launched in 2020, “Making It … With Lowe’s” is one of many programs designed to help entrepreneurs take the ideas they’re passionate about and turn them into moneymaking businesses.
As one of the selected entrepreneurs, Woerner-McInnis received a $5,000 grant as well as mentoring from Daymond John, “Shark Tank” star, investor and founder of the fashion label Fubu. She also got advice about packaging, business practices and other topics to help grow her business.
“I needed a lot of mentorship in a time when we were going through shelter in place with Covid — also had Hurricane Sally, home schooling and other challenges,” she told MarketWatch.
“I know grass and garden. I didn’t know how to put the perfect packaging on the shelves for a national retailer.”
When she was younger, Woerner-McInnis said she was surrounded by male farmers who “to a degree tried to kick me out of the decision making.” She always thought her company would be a small operation, but now she looks forward to listening to customers to see what more lies ahead.
The “Making it … with Lowe’s”
program is part of the company’s commitment to small, diverse businesses. Many large businesses across the retail and consumer space have their own initiatives with similar goals of helping entrepreneurs grow their companies.
Macy’s Inc., for example, offers a retail incubator for women and diverse-owned small businesses, The Workshop at Macy’s. Launched in 2011, 170 companies have gone through the program, and applications for the latest round are being accepted through Nov. 15.
In addition to the Target Accelerators, a Target Corp. program that helps startups “learn the ins and outs of retail,” the retailer announced in April that it would spend more than $2 billion with Black-owned businesses by 2025. This includes spending more with Black-owned marketing agencies, construction companies and other businesses, as well as bringing the number of products made by Black-owned businesses on the retailer’s shelves to more than 500.
Amazon.com Inc., the largest internet retailer, announced in October that it will introduce new tools to help small businesses sell their goods internationally. Among the tools is Customer Service by Amazon, which offers third-party sellers that fulfill their own orders with the option to have Amazon
manage refunds and other customer service inquiries.
Amazon says it invested more than $18 billion in 2020 to help sellers start their businesses and scale them up. The company highlighted small businesses in its Prime Day wrap up this year, saying small-business purchases more than doubled during its two-day event.
Business owners and those who work with them see the value in programs like these, which give small companies a chance to leverage the size and resources of some of the largest businesses in the world. But there are other challenges to overcome if small businesses are going to thrive.
Small businesses form the backbone of the U.S. economy. There are 31.7 million small businesses in the U.S., compared with 20,139 large businesses, according to October 2020 data provided by the U.S. Small Business Administration. Between 1994 and 2018, about two-thirds (67.6%) of small businesses lasted only two years, nearly half (48.8%) lasted five years, and one-third (33.6%) made it to the 10-year mark.
“The entrepreneurship journey can be a lonely road,” said Arpan Podduturi, director of product for retail at Shopify Inc., which counts small businesses and entrepreneurs as a key portion of its client base.
“While people believe that shopping local is an important thing, they don’t want to trade off on convenience and cost,” he said. Services for inventory management, fulfillment and other areas of a business, particularly a retailer, are critical for being competitive.
And while the cost of entry into the market has been lowered through technologies like social media, standing out has become more difficult. For instance, Shopify says it makes it possible for small businesses to engage on Instagram, Facebook and wherever customers are online. And the company provides tools that can help a business “spend time being creative rather than on tedious tasks.”
Innovating during Covid
Prior to Covid-19, Hairbrella simply intended to be a fresh take on the rain hat: a stylish product that would protect hair from the elements.
With the onset of Covid, founder Tracey Pickett added the Hairbrella Pro to the lineup: a rain hat/face shield combination that doubles as PPE.
“She had the access to capital to be creative in that moment,” Arian Simone, chief executive officer of $25 million VC firm Fearless Fund, told MarketWatch. Fearless Fund is founded by women of color and is focused on Black women entrepreneurs. Fearless Fund typically invests a range of $50,000 to $500,000 in businesses seeking pre-seed, seed level or series A financing.
“The bigger overarching issue is the lack of access to capital,” Simone said.
About one million businesses, or 17.7%, of those operating in 2017 were minority owned, according to the SBA. African-American-owned businesses accounted for 2.2%.
The murder of George Floyd and the protests and discussions since have put the spotlight on racial inequality in our everyday lives. Many businesses announced new initiatives to improve representation among the ranks of their own workers, reach potential partners with diverse leadership, and build bridges with diverse communities where these companies make money.
There was also greater attention paid to the added, unique pressures that small, diverse business owners face. Launching a new initiative focused on mentorship isn’t enough to address those challenges.
“Having these programs, don’t get me wrong, they’re impactful. But if you leave the money issue out, you’re still dealing with the same issues. We get to equality through equity,” Simone said.
But a program focused on mentorship is also not going to make a bad business plan or skittish business owner better. A wide range of skills and savvy, including marketing, budgeting and market-product fit, are essential.
“What made us so big was taking a risk in old-school marketing,” said Chris Riccobono, founder of UnTuckIt, the men’s shirt line that was created to be worn untucked.
Riccobono kept his full-time job while getting the company off the ground. UNTUCKIt didn’t get VC funding until its sixth year.
Today, UNTUCKIt is no longer a small company, with 88 stores around the world, 81 of which opened between 2017 and 2019. After Covid presented a setback in 2020, the company is on track to surpass pre-pandemic levels, heading north of $200 million in sales. The company has a revenue goal of more than $300 million in 2022.
“You need a major marketing hook. Then you can start to scale the business,” he says.
“Instead of waiting around five years, take the risk early on, raise money and then go to market, spend the money. And don’t be depressed if it doesn’t work. It was never going to work.”
Even with money and a barrel of good ideas, the unexpected, like a global pandemic, can happen.
When Covid hit, Clayton Ruebensaal, chief marketing officer of global B2B marketing at American Express, said the organization determined that working with entrepreneurs to navigate the confusing web of aid programs and helping companies take steps to pivot to e-commerce and other business strategies was a good way to lend a hand.
“If you’re a small-business owner, the question is ‘What’s the best use of my time?’” he said.
When American Express launched Small Business Saturday in 2010, consumers had shifted away from shopping on Main St., so the program sought to encourage shoppers to spend with small and local businesses.
Since the launch, American Express estimates that Small Business Saturday has helped to drive more than $140 billion in local business spending on that day. Over the last 11 years, the initiative has also evolved into a year-round effort.
There are three challenges that small businesses often identify when asked what they need, according to Ruebensaal: getting new customers, keeping current customers and managing their money.
The key is aiming the effort at the problems small businesses face.
“Small-business owners are super smart with so much passion,” Ruebensaal said. “What they tend to need help with is funding, leading a team, how do I start a website or do search marketing?”
But besides being helpful, Ruebensaal says Amex is clear about how it benefits from establishing a relationship with a small business.
“It’s reciprocal – there’s a give and take. Small business benefits but so do the big companies,” he said. “It’s good for our bottom line and good for our long-term relationship.”