New DTC toolkit   //   March 12, 2020

‘There is no right answer’: DTC brands ready to go remote, with some hiccups

Jason Stoffer’s phone isn’t exactly ringing off the hook — but it’s certainly being used. “Gen Z and millennial founders text more than they call,” said Stoffer, a partner at Maveron, which invested in companies including Allbirds, Everlane and Keeps.

Founders across his portfolio brands of DTC businesses are all seeking guidance about how to maneuver the ever-evolving business and health landscape. The questions range, from how dire the coronavirus situation is to what the best practices are for ensuring a sanitary office. But the big one right now: should their businesses should go remote now, and how best to go about it.

Currently, companies of all kinds are faced with the decision of how to react to the spread of COVID-19. The answers differ, but most revolve around making clear that if employees want (and are able) to work remotely, they can. Bigger tech companies, like Google, have advised all employees in North America to work from home.

Smaller online brands in the DTC space face a similar conundrum, but have mounting difficulties in terms of implementation. For one, some companies are actively involved with product distribution, meaning daily jobs require as much physical labor as they do virtual. Meanwhile many of these brands are small — having anywhere from 15 to 100 employees — and have built a working culture based on agility and adaptability; much of that is predicated on working together, in a specified office space

Newer founders are now figuring out how best to dictate the changes to employees as well as mitigate risk. In-office measures, like wiping down conference tables and routinely telling employees to wash their hands, are increasingly commonplace. These businesses are taking great pains to tell employees to be extra cautious.

At Innovation Department, a startup studio that houses a number of DTC brands, the decision was made to halt non-essential external meetings. “We’re being very judicious about what we do,” said Colin Darretta, founder of the company’s portfolio wellness supplement brand WellPath. “There’s been a broad mandate across the team to ‘let’s move meetings to telephonically,'” he said. The company has been making sure every employee has both a good headset and a working Zoom account.

The biggest obstacle, according to Darretta, isn’t the upheaval of moving most daily doings online, but changing people’s perception of working remote. “The important thing that is going to happen is de-stigmatizing working from home,” he said. “People are going to be reticent to take organizations at their word, ” he went on. “We’ve gone out of our way [to tell people that] they should not feel the least bit guilty about working from home.”

For other brands, the transition is less clear. Modern Retail reached out to multiple mid-sized DTC companies, all of whom said they are either in the process of figuring out an exact remote working plan or are actively monitoring the situation before they make any sweeping changes. None seemed to have a finalized and concretize plan, nor were they entirely remote.

DTC drink company Iris Nova, for example, has yet to issue any sort of remote working mandate. “We’re not a gigantic company,” said founder and CEO Zak Normandin. “If people are sick, we recommend they don’t come to work — regardless of coronavirus,” he said. But, otherwise, “it’s kind of been business as usual.”

The company has a team of about 15 in New York, as well as another of approximately the same size in Los Angeles. “So much of our work now is hands on — we’re not really running the business behind computers,” Normandin explained. The New York office, in fact, sits alongside its distribution center. Desks are near to forklifts and product crates. “It would be really really hard to have a remote work type of environment,” he said. “When there’s equipment, it gets really challenging.”

Normandin is checking consistently for updates about the spread — especially as it relates to New York. “It’s still not really that close to home for us here in New York yet,” he said. (According to Governor Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday, New York State had 173 cases of coronavirus — 108 of which were in Westchester County.) Iris Nova has a weekly all-hands meeting — while the company hasn’t discussed the coronavirus situation yet, Normandin expects it to be brought up this week, as well as employees’ feelings on future remote work plans.

For Stoffer, there’s no clear cut solution all brands should adopt just yet. “Look, you have a lot of people whose families depend on [the companies’] income.” The leaders have to figure out “the right choice for all constituents.” He added, “there is no right answer.”

For many of his portfolio companies, employees work in warehouses that handle food. Changing operations, thus, would be a behemoth task. He, and other VCs, have become “a central repository for information.” Numerous questions and practices are surfacing; “should you be doing forehead thermometer readings at the beginning and end of shifts? At a minimum, wiping down conference tables. There are just so many issues,” Stoffer said.

While the sickness spreads and news diffuses, more companies realize they need to have some plans in place. VCs, like Maveron, are now creating guides to help founders out. Maveron specifically is producing a video series. It will query CEOs who have handled past economic downturns for lessons and context. “We’re just trying to think through how we can best provide the support to the companies we work with,” Stoffer said.

It’s an omnipresent issue for the venture capitalist, who lives in Seattle; Washington State has over 284 reported cases of the coronavirus. “We’re ground zero for this stuff,” he said. With updates continuing to evolve the narrative, and an ever-increasing number of cases reported, the question of coronavirus response isn’t going anywhere. “It’s occupying the majority of my mindshare,” said Stoffer.