The COVID-19 Pivot Diaries Part 1: Tales of Leadership And Management During The 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic

COVID-19 business pivot

During this challenging time, the Birthing of Giants community has pulled together to share their strategies for responding to the coronavirus pandemic, and pivot their business plans to survive and thrive through the crisis. We’d like to share some of those conversations with you.

These are actual conversations with business owners during this time of global upheaval due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve edited for brevity, but you can listen to the full recording below.

DATE: April 1, 2020

INSTRUCTOR: Doug Tatum, founder of Newport LLC, author of No Man’s Land, Birthing of Giants Board of Experts member

INTERVIEWING: Eric Griffin and Dennis O’Donnell, co-founders of Mobile Outfitters


HEADQUARTERS: Philadelphia, PA

2019 REVENUE: $12 million

BUSINESS SNAPSHOT: 800 outlets in 53 countries

Doug Tatum: If you had come to me with this business idea before you started it, I would have said you guys are absolutely nuts. But you have built an incredible business. Highly profitable, no debt on the balance sheet and extraordinarily well-run. Until you got a curve ball.

Dennis O’Donnell: Thanks Doug. You always say innovation happens on a cliff’s edge and you’re right. When we look back, every big innovation that we had came because it had to, not because we were thinking a whole lot. Eric and I had a different company before this. We were selling cell phones online. And long story short, the iPhone came out and just completely obliterated our entire industry about as quick as this virus has obliterated our revenue now.

LockDown Webinar #3 from Lewis Schiff on Vimeo.

The Birth of Mobile Outfitters

Eric Griffin: Mobile Outfitters was birthed out of that failing phone business. Today, we manufacture screen protectors and skins to personalize mobile devices and we sell them through a network of franchise kiosk stores around the world. Had it not been for that mobile phone business failing, I think we would have been okay with the status quo because if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But when we were forced to do something to survive, it led to this much larger company.

Mobile Outfitters Today

Dennis: Today, we sell our products through a proprietary network of resellers, our master licensees. They are truly our partners in business. And what we’re really doing is leveraging the natural ability of entrepreneurs in 53 countries. They’re helping us build our network around the world at a speed that just wouldn’t otherwise be possible. Almost everything we do seems to be proprietary, which has been a blessing and a curse. We’re a very vertically integrated company. Even our sales channel is proprietary. We’re not working through other people’s distribution networks. We kind of built our own.

Doug: So, what does Mobile Outfitters do today? 

Dennis: Whether it’s a watch or a phone or a tablet, you name it, we can personalize and protect it. And we can do that because we are real claim to fame is we invented this machine we call “Rapid Cut.” It’s a little machine that sits at every one of our retail locations and it can produce on-demand at the time of sale, any screen protector for any type of mobile device. Then we back that up with our lifetime guarantee at any of our 800 locations around the world.

Eric: In general, we would see north of 50,000-75,000 sales transactions a month.

“Innovation happens on a cliff’s edge. It’s really hard for anybody to innovate until they have to, and I think that this crisis is going to require that.” – Doug Tatum, Founder of Newport LLC

Business Snapshot After Coronavirus

Doug: What are you projecting next month? 

Eric: A couple hundred. So over a 97% decrease.

Doug: You had a thriving, innovative, growing business with revenues coming from places like Italy, Spain, the Middle East, all the way from Turkey to Iraq. It was very profitable and extremely well managed. And when this happened, you sat down and asked, what is the game changer in this industry?

Dennis: I think it’s important to separate what you might call the fog of war to what then becomes a more focused and refined idea. When we first called you, Doug, our revenue essentially went to zero. And you can come up with some crazy ideas to reach out into markets that are completely outside of what you know. It wouldn’t be so much a pivot as simply abandoning what you’re doing to do something else.

We took a week to talk to Doug and our other advisers, and then we got down to what our solution would be, which I think still ties into the core business.

Eric: At first we thought maybe we’ll sell online, because people can shop online even in the middle of the pandemic. But if we’re brutally honest with ourselves, we don’t know how to sell online. We’re not experts in eCommerce, and we’re not going to pretend like that’s an easy thing to do. That’s a whole other business. 

Innovating at a Cliff’s Edge

Eric: And so when you do innovate. If you wanted it to get traction quickly, you want to make sure you leverage as much of your customer base or sales channel, your vendors and your core competencies as possible. Because if you don’t, you’re just running another inefficient startup. Whatever we did had to run on our Rapid Cut machine because we have 800 of them in the field. It’s going to cover phones and tablets cause that’s what everybody knows us for. And that’s how we’re going to innovate our way out of this loss. 

Doug: One of the assets you have is a huge number of resellers around the country. Tell me how they reacted to all this. 

Eric: Doug, it’s as if the virus went into our “store locator” and attacked our biggest markets, Italy and France. And so while our master licensees were discouraged because there’s no business to be had right now, they’re all pretty positive. And I think it’s because we were really transparent as a company. We weren’t pretending like things are fine out there. We got them all together and we said, okay, this is happening. So what are we going to do to get through this together? And that’s been really fruitful.

Their COVID-19 Business Pivot Plan

Doug: Dennis, when you and Eric laid out the impossible objective of creating something that’s never been done before, which is an antiviral screen cover, it was from ground zero. We don’t even know if it’s possible.

Dennis: It was actually around two months ago that we identified this as a market opportunity, before the COVID-19 outbreak. I’ll be candid. We didn’t have a really compelling reason to make that the number one project that the company but now it certainly is. We really moved this to the top of the list around three or four weeks ago.

We leveraged our existing relationships, our existing vendors, and rallied the troops and said, “Look guys, there’s a huge opportunity for us if we can crack this.” And we’re actually getting our first commercial samples next week of a product that seems to have a really high efficacy, and we’re really positive about that.

We’ve been able to get six months of progress inside of six weeks. When everything else goes quiet, and you can get down to what your core mission is, you are able to get there a lot faster.

In part two of our COVID-19 business pivot talks, you’ll hear from Rob Hrabe, CEO of VRC Metal Sysems. Stay tuned!

Catch all of our Locked-Down-Lunch-And-Learn Webinars on our Vimeo channel by clicking here.

Execute your COVID-19 Business Pivot Plan in five days with the help of our SWAT team of peer entrepreneurs who have successfully responded to this unprecedented crisis. Learn more

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