I’ll never forget March 12th, 2020. Milan closed. In my gut, I knew NYC was next.
For almost 20 years, I built a world that included over 10,000 people, seemingly millions of hours and hundreds of thousands ideas shared. In those 20 years, there are businesses like mine that took measures to build financial firewalls in case there was a revenue dam break or a new customer implosion. Any successful business that scales over time has systems for continuous improvement and also a backbone that is unwavering and unstoppable.
When winter comes, we are already prepared. We have a savings to fall back on and a plan. We all have a bet that things will operate in a certain way even in the worst of times. At worst we can just make it up as we go along, my favorite. But what happens when the unexpected & impossible happens? What happens when you are forced to close your doors by no fault of your own & no notice? What happens when the one thing that you promised (a safe learning room) is challenged and no longer valid? How do you plan for that and pivot?
I own and operate a music school called Real Brave and we have 3 locations in NY/ NJ
In short, you can’t plan for a worldwide pandemic shutdown and no one did, including every government apparently. This is the story of my pandemic pivot and the new economy.
I was driving along the Harlem River Drive late for a meeting. It was March 12th 2020 at 2:45 PM and I was meeting a banker regarding a new cash flow loan for my newest location on the Upper East Side. Like my bank account, I only had a certain amount of time before time ran out for this meeting. I was driving annoyed, in traffic and staring into space. The world was about to change the next day with mandatory shutdowns and I had to get this meeting in. In my 2017 Jeep, a manual transmission no less, traffic isn’t fun to begin with. I leaned on the clutch as we began to move.
2:46 I could still make it, I mused silently. The 96th street exit was 1 mile up. I yawned mightily as I was on my 90th hour worked that week trying to make a business that existed in person to go online in total.
Then something caught my eye. In my rear view, a patrol car zoomed out from an exit and squeezed past oncoming traffic into the hazard lane. I thought, “this should be interesting”. I keep my eyes peeled in my side mirror as the police car “BWEEEEEEPED” loudly 2 times to get people to move and then it raced forward.
Then something crazy happened, a small sedan moved in the opposite direction he was supposed to move in and crashed into the trooper. Everything then happened so quickly I couldn’t think.
In an instant, the beat up sedan crashed into the trooper and I could see the look of fright in my road-stained side mirror as he bounced off the trooper and right into my rear fender. Instinctively, I moved quickly away from the driver and he sped up and bounced off my rear wheel again catching air in the process. Unbelievably, he came back down jumping up and down and the trooper “BWEEEEEEEPED” in a surprisingly mad way, stopping the car to get out.
Meanwhile, I stopped my Jeep to see my fender on the road and everyone moving away from me as if I had car rabies. Time stopped, I was in an accident.
It gets better, the kid in the car didn’t have a license or insurance and I totally missed my meeting. I started making calls to my business locations about the issue saying I’d be offline for a bit as I sorted this out. They obliged and went to work on the issue at hand- getting everyone online for their next appointment. With the shutdown happening the next day, I had to get all 1100+ scheduled appointments online using my staff. Now I am in an accident, had to wait here for God-knows-how-long and let my people do the work. This was foreshadowing for the story to come.
After speaking with the officers, getting in the police car to exchange information, shaking hands and patting backs, I decided to go back home. On my ride, 2 hours delayed, I rescheduled my bank appointment and also spoke to each location. We had a plan to get everyone online and we all crossed our fingers it would work.
That night I got insanely sick and it came on so quick I was petrified. High temperature and a slight trouble breathing. I got up from my sweat soaked sheets the next morning to start work but I just couldn’t. Fatigue, cloudyness… I just needed to sleep. My wife was concerned too- was this the ‘vid? Hearing the news chatter and how it was really contagious, did I get this from my chance accident encounter? I felt absolutely fine before that.
Long story short, the business went on without me while I was sick. When I woke up 3 days later feeling sort of manageable, I logged in to see the damage with one eye open. It was bad.
We lost half our customers.
On one phone I was calling to see if I could get Azithromycin from my doctor (or any) while texting staff, customers and my business coach. I went from reeling despair to unbridled confidence that I had to get through this. It was a roller coaster of intense emotion, anger, gratitude for the success up until now and acceptance that this may work out or may not. In one day I went from successful 2 million dollar a year business to 50% down and dropping. I stopped all transactions from going through in my business accounts, stopped tax transactions, bill payments and stopped all credit card transactions. I left messages for my landlords, spoke to business friends about what they were doing & handling this and while the news chirped on in the background.
Everything I worked for was evaporating.
I had endless meetings with staff via Google Meet while I quarantined (I had no idea if I was sick with COVID) and I wasn’t going to miss any more time in the business while I went to the horror show that was the area hospital. No, my back was against the wall and I was going to survive this.
Thing is, besides all the additional hours I spent on this, half my customers were legitimately not interested in online lessons. No matter what we did, we weren’t getting traction and in our surveys, customers were telling us that they wanted to see how this would all play out. They wanted to wait “a few weeks” until it all calmed down. The other half loved it. We were very successful in keeping them online but as the weeks dragged on, I felt we needed an extra offer in the online lessons to keep them engaged. They even admitted in surveys that it was getting stale using Meet.
To me, it would be months before everything reopened. It’s easy to shut down but opening up would be much harder. And: what would opening back up be like? What sort of regulation and safety nightmare would we be walking into if it was as bad as they said it was? After about week 2 of shut down, I decided to pour all my time and resources into building the online offering. I decided to put everything I could into PracticePad and to never let those lessons be stale.
PracticePad, pre pandemic, was our online homework book, basically. I built it from scratch with my staff and a developer overseas in 2017. We had instructors input notes and link YouTube videos in it and was a great way to illustrate a competitive advantage. If the instructors were savvy enough, we would have them make custom video tutorials for students as well, but it wasn’t a great process for the instructor because of the site’s limitations.
I hired a developer to rebuild PracticePad and add a Zoom-like or Google Meet video room feature into it. I put a rush order on it and we began right away in April. I began announcing the “success” of our online lessons every day in emails to our base and on social. Everyday, I worked with the developers to push out the video feature and from concept to beta launch we were live in the summer.
But by then, the country was burning. The economy and politics were affecting all of us deeply as we were all burrowed in our houses here on the east coast. But in that burrowing, I created a subscription feature in PracticePad that enabled customers to sign up from all over the world. We added gamification features where students could earn points. We recorded hundreds of videos for our curriculum that instructors could share and made a social feature inside of it so one instructor could share his tutorials with other teachers so they could use them.
We now have about 500 students in the platform learning from the comfort of their home. A few hundred students came back to in-person classes when we were allowed to open in August but many hundreds of students either disappeared from our radar, weren’t interested in coming back or worse. I actually was on the phone with one person who was at the hospital with Covid. Worse than worse, many instructors did not want to come back to work. While companies like Salesforce were proudly letting their employees work from home while happily paying their absurd Manhattan rents, us small businesses had to tackle the idea that if it was possible, let your employees work from home if they want. It was a gamble. And a game changer. I still had my own absurd rents though.
Employees, all artists, now have the freedom to work from home. It changes the commute picture. It changes the time off challenges. It changes “who is going to pick up my son from daycare?” issues. I think the future of work from home is bright.
In all, my pandemic period was the darkest and the brightest moment of my life. With my back up against the wall, I wasn’t an owner of an insanely successful private music school with three locations and a non profit organization that helped formerly homeless students get access to music lessons. I was now an Edtech founder with a video room platform to host our lessons to anyone in the world AND that brick and mortar business. Instead of a local economy with a fixed market, we were now able to go into a worldwide economy and share our gifts with millions of people.
Although the final chapter hasn’t been written for Real Brave and we have a long way back to prepandemic profitability, I am not looking back. My whole day is outside of the in-person business and focused on the PracticePad opportunity. The in-person business now runs completely on its own with the changes we made in our systems because of the pandemic. What if I hadn’t gotten into the accident and hadn’t gotten sick? I probably would have found a way to make all the people that quit offers they couldn’t refuse. Alas, that wasn’t meant to be. Because of that car wreck/ business moment: PracticePad is reborn.
I am an accidental Edtech founder now; pushed into the unknown out of our survival instincts hoping to reemerge stronger, with more opportunity and unlimited chances to succeed. In a car wreck of an economy, an accidental founder.
A pandemic that brought me and my business to its knees made me rethink how to run the business and what opportunities lie within the unknown. That’s the beauty of the free market society.
Within our panic, lies the genius of tomorrow in the heaping car accidents of uncertainty.