A young girl holding up a bar of soap

COVID-19 pushes startups to new ways of serving customers

Elaine Smith

Across Canada, businesses are changing their approaches and offerings to meet customers’ shifting needs during the COVID-19 pandemic, and ICUBE and its affiliated startups and alumni are among them.

For ICUBE, U of T Mississauga’s hub for early-stage business development companies, and startups such as Sitti Soap, Just Vertical and LCI Movement, it’s no longer business as usual. During the past month, each of them has made alterations to meet the needs of the times.

“ICUBE is like a startup, too,” says Kasey Dunn, ICUBE’s liaison with the companies. We’re always adapting to changing situations and looking to see where we can do more and offer support.”

For example, the innovation hub has been running webinars for members to provide information they may need during social isolation. The first featured a lawyer and an accountant who could discuss issues such as cash flow, letting employees go and dealing with intellectual property. A second webinar focused on wellness and how to stay healthy and sane while staying at home 24/7. Next up are intensive sales seminars for small groups, focusing on how to approach sales during the pandemic.

“We try to be very proactive about creating opportunities for startups,” says Ignacio Mongrell, ICUBE’s assistant director.

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Maya Saggar, founder of LCI Movement, has started a free Youtube channel to teach dance movements. (Photo supplied by Maya Saggar)

Agility and Tech Savvy

At LCI Movement, a Mississauga-based startup that brings dance and movement programs to schools, founder Maya Saggar was in the midst of her most productive quarter to date when schools closed and programs were cancelled.

“This has pushed me to think differently and I’ve engaged some co-op students for a digital push,” Saggar says.

Next week, LCI Movement will be launching a free YouTube channel showcasing videos that teach dance movements for families at home to follow.

“It’s our gift to the community for the time being,” Saggar says. “The more interest the channel gets, the more content we’ll create, and we’ll base it on what people’s interests are.”

In addition, she and her team will be creating more online parent-driven products that are tailored to working with small numbers of children at once.

Girl washing hands with text #safehands and #flattenthecurve
Sitti Soap released a video promoting proper handwashing. (Photo supplied by Sitti Soap)

Lending a Helping Hand

Noora Sharrab and her partner, Jackie Sofia, run the Mississauga-based company, Sitti Soap, which sells olive oil soap made by hand at the Jerash Refugee Camp in Jordan. Since their business provides employment to impoverished refugee women, the owners were worried about the employees’ well-being during the pandemic.

“We immediately donated 500 bars of soap to the camp and locally disseminated a video featuring a young girl demonstrating proper handwashing technique with a campaign for #safehands to help emphasize flattening of the curve,” says Sharrab.

Sharrab and Sofia also began a GoFundMe campaign in partnership with the women-owned local company KUVRD, to raise money to furnish relief kits to the women and their families, filled with food and hygiene products. They met their $10,000 target within a week and raised enough for 170 kits within two weeks. They are planning another fundraising campaign in May on the iFundWomen platform to help pay salaries.

“The well-being of the people in the camp is front and centre,” she said. “We made the decision that no one would be laid off and everyone will be paid regardless.”

Fortunately, Ramadan is just beginning and many employers give gifts to their staff during the month-long Muslim holiday. Soap as an employee gift item constitutes a large percentage of their sales, so the women have begun focusing their sales efforts on the corporate sector. Sharrab is hopeful.

“We don’t know how long the pandemic will go on, so we want to be there for our community,” she says.

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Just Vertical founders Kevin Jakiela (right) and Conner Tidd are giving away free lettuce seeds for those interested in learning to grow vegetables at home. (Photo supplied by Just Vertical)

Booming Business

At Just Vertical, a Toronto-based startup that creates and furnishes home hydroponic garden systems for growing food indoors, business is booming during the pandemic. In fact, the company is poised to introduce a system tailored for condominium life.

“There has been a huge surge in demand,” says Kevin Jakiela, co-founder of the three-year-old venture. “People are interested in this program as they may be bored at home or they may be concerned about food insecurity.”

However, Jakiela and business partner, Conner Tidd, graduates of UTM’s master’s program in sustainability management, wanted to provide restless children with something educational and fun to do during self-isolation, so they are offering free lettuce seeds to all comers to grow in egg cartons at home.

“We expected about 50 inquiries and we’ve had 500 so far,” Jakiela says. “It’s not only kids, but everyone from four to 94. A lot of people want to learn about growing things.”

As all of these businesses demonstrate, agility is critical during times of change. Luckily, says Mongrell of ICUBE, “Startups are flexible, unlike large bureaucracies. They can change their business models to adjust.”

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