Here’s why other startups should follow suit now more than ever.

No one was fully prepared for the social and economic ripple effects caused by COVID-19. The effects are deep, and they will likely last longer than what experts are predicting. But within the uncertainty, frenzy, and tragedy brought forth by COVID-19 there lies two fast-track options to startups of all sizes, from every industry: adapt now or fail faster. 

While startups are no strangers to volatility, these unprecedented times require them to closely examine, or even change, their long-term strategies through immediate community action at the hyperlocal level. Serial social entrepreneur Sonny Patel succinctly sums this up in Conscious Company’s December article “Why Founders Should Stay and Become Investors in Their Own Communities: “Startups need to build deep, impactful connections within their communities to succeed long term.” 

This sentiment holds especially true during the time of COVID-19; and this is exactly what companies like Denver-based Handoff did to keep business alive and thriving. Using these three steps, Handoff pivoted its offering and the community rewarded them for it.

See a [New] Need, Fill a Need

In mid-March, Handoff, a chat- and voice-based mobile app that instantly recommends and delivers beer, wine, and spirits, saw the closure breweries across the state to all but carry-out and foresaw the ripple effect on the community. That’s why they announced that they had delisted all non-local beers from their platform in an effort to support local breweries affected by COVID-19 restrictions. Instead of offering cheap domestic brews, they prompted their users to only order beer from Denver-area breweries and simultaneously launched a social media campaign to help spotlight local breweries with canned beer operations. In doing so, they both strengthened their partnerships with local breweries and offered them a tool they needed to more effectively manage delivery orders.

“We’re simply doing our part to help support our immediate community,” said Handoff co-founder Tommy Riley in their public announcement of the new feature. “Folks are staying home, which is the right thing to do. But this has significant ripple effects on our beer economy. By featuring local-only beers, we’re helping Colorado’s breweries continue to stay in business.”

Build Reputation and Goodwill

At the end of the day, helping microbreweries stay in business was Handoff’s way of staying in business as well. It was a win-win; and Handoff, which was in the middle of raising outside funds prior to the pandemic, saw their order volume increase more than 300% the week they launched this initiative. 

Handoff co-founders (left to right): Caden MacKenzie, Miles MacKenzie, Tommy Riley

Then something big happened: The campaign was so successful that breweries without retail presences started asking Handoff about selling direct-to-consumer beer. This was the moment Handoff had been waiting for since launching their company in May 2019: validation of an enterprise strategy. 

Within days, Handoff’s team developed an in-store pickup option that integrated directly into taprooms’ point of sale platform. They even took it a step further by dedicating $1 per order to go to a local fund that supports brewery workers.

“We’re doubling down on doing the right thing. Our hope is that it will continue to pay off. We may not even need to raise outside capital anymore.”

Tommy Riley, co-founder of Handoff

Because it’s the right thing to do

Whether you’re bootstrapped, or flush with VC money, the economic uncertainty of the global pandemic can unlock new opportunities and business models if you approach it with empathy and creativity. 

The Colorado startup scene, like most other states, will undoubtedly take a financial and traction hit. But there is hope. In a recent interview with the regional startup blog Colorado Inno, Natty Zola, partner at Matchstick Ventures, said: “Let’s build meaningful, caring relationships with each other. Let’s keep giving first. And we will get through this together and be stronger on the other side.” 

Call it opportunistic or call it a perfect storm. However anyone chooses to characterize Handoff’s decision, startups across the country should be looking at ways to integrate giving and community into their business models right now, and in a post-COVID-19 world. It’s the only way we’ll get through this together. 

Jonathan Amar

Jon Amar is the founder and principal consultant of onword, a Denver-based public relations and strategic communications consultancy. He is a three-time startup founder and serial entrepreneur with nearly a decade of strategic communications experience across multiple industries and sectors. Jon has been a ghostwriter and advisor to Members of Congress, a spokesman and reputation manager for billion-dollar companies, and an emcee of underground concerts throughout Denver. He has been quoted and featured in Forbes, Fast Company, The Washington Post, American Business Journals, and Technical.ly.
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