Three small-business pivots with lessons for big brands

Jackman's Stefan Read and Sarah Phillips on what biz leaders can learn from Greenhouse, Colour Lab and General Assembly.


By Stefan Read and Sarah Phillips

Small businesses have faced enormous and well-documented challenges in the last year. But among the difficulties are also stories of perseverance and big thinking in tough times. No surprise, small businesses have always had to be smart and scrappy to survive.

Jackman has helped many brands and retailers transform to meet the evolving needs of consumers. But we know turning a large ship isn’t easy, so we spoke to the owners of three successful small businesses in Toronto to gain insight on what they learned from their forced reinventions, and how businesses of all sizes can also embrace change.

Innovate out loud

Before the pandemic, many of the customers at Colour Lab, a Toronto salon specializing in colouring services, would come in as often as every two weeks. So when the city shut down, the company had to find another way to help its clients cover up their greys.

Founder Raphael Ness created at-home salon-quality colouring kits by searching the Dollar Store for water bottles and Tupperware for makeshift packaging, adding hand-written instructions, and delivering them personally. This was rapid, scrappy innovation at its best.

Colour Lab has since created more sophisticated, branded packaging with a sleek design that matches the salon’s and has found a way to ensure the product remains shelf-stable. As a result, it has attracted new clients beyond the GTA.

Its success is a reminder that innovation should be a rapid, iterative process – don’t let it get bogged down in existing systems or ways of working.

Instead, take new ideas to market quickly and win points with consumers for being the first to meet their changing needs, and don’t be afraid to keep iterating once the initial solution goes to market. There’s never been a better time to show consumers you’re committed to acting on their feedback to improve.

Break out of your box

Greenhouse, a cold-pressed juice company, had always offered online ordering and delivery. When lockdowns started, it saw other businesses struggling to get products to customers and customers struggling to find groceries. To lend a hand, it partnered with local, like-minded brands, such as Sugo, Broadflour and The Roasted Nut, to create the Plant Pantry and deliver everything from pasta sauces to nuts and prepared food directly to customers’ homes.

This pivot may seem small, but for Greenhouse, it meant retraining staff, reorganizing the warehouse, and rethinking delivery routes. But the company didn’t let these challenges get in the way of quickly embracing change.

Greenhouse can teach us that your brand and business can find opportunities to grow not just up, but sideways. As a brand leader, you need to be clear on the capabilities you have and how consumers – or even competitors – could use them. You then have to turn those capabilities into monetizable assets through partnerships that can also help reduce overhead.

Don’t change what you do, change how you do it

During lockdowns, fast-casual pizza chain General Assembly Pizza had to find new ways to get pies into people’s homes. The Toronto-based brand’s first innovation was pizza-making kits. While it was still perfecting product packaging, it launched on Instagram and sold 500 kits in the first week.

And when frozen pizzas began selling out in grocery stores, the company’s founder and CEO Ali Khan Lalani quickly developed five SKUs (receiving feedback from family, friends and the chef community) and sold 1,000 pizzas in the first week. Today, General Assembly’s frozen pizzas are available at 35 local grocery stores, and nearly 5,000 people have signed up to its new subscription service.

It reminds us that pivots are not just possible, but necessary, and that the steps are the same for companies of all sizes.

As a leader, you should clearly understand the benefits your brand provides – think beyond products and services, and understand the emotional needs they fulfill. You should also identify how your consumers’ channels and shopping behaviours are changing, and then go where they go while carrying those benefits with you.

The real risk is doing nothing

Pivots can be scary, but these businesses are growing because they tried new things: Colour Lab has plans to take on drugstore hair colouring kits, General Assembly Pizza raised the funds to open a 25,000 sq. ft production facility to go nationwide, and Greenhouse will continue to offer way more than just juice.

The real risk is doing nothing at all. Changes in consumer behaviour may seem like threats to business as usual and that’s because they are. But the reality is that consumer behaviour is always changing. So be brave, get out there, and try something new because when shifts happen, there are opportunities to be found.

Stefan Read and Sarah Phillips are SVP engagement advisory and strategy practice lead and manager of brand strategy at Jackman. 

Photo courtesy of Dan Burton via Unsplash. 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct number of subscribers and the correct number of grocery stories carrying General Assembly pizzas.