The need for speed: racing to build a business during Covid-1923 June 2020
As a longtime runner, there’s something about starting a business that makes it feel like a marathon and a sprint all rolled into one. The buzz and endorphin rush you feel as you’re pounding the pavement, or when the finish line approaches, is actually pretty close to what it’s like when a business you’ve set up hits a particular milestone or reaches a goal you’d set.
Except that I was never planning to be in the race.
When we started in March, we weren’t thinking of this as a business opportunity. For us, it was just about finding a way to help and to give back during a public health crisis. All of us who founded Stay Safe Masks had families directly affected by Covid-19. We had long-standing manufacturing contacts in the Far East, so it made sense to see if we could source much-needed PPE and medical masks for frontline healthcare workers.
But when sourcing and supply became a problem, we had a decision to make, and fast. Time was against us, and we didn’t have the luxury of waiting around for products. The logistics of sourcing good-quality face masks and getting them back to Ireland was proving to be a nightmare. Even now, the supply line from Asia is still heavily compromised.
So, needing to react quickly, we decided to manufacture here in Ireland. This was all about ensuring speed to market. At the same time, the public health advice was moving towards recommending wearing face masks to cover the nose and mouth in settings like crowded areas, or on public transport. So it was becoming clear that people would need masks in large numbers, without taking away from the supply of PPE into the healthcare system.
Now that we’re in the middle of unlocking a lockdown, businesses are planning to reopen, and they want to make sure they’re protecting people when they return to the workplace.
Within weeks, we had created the lineup and the initial range of masks, and by the middle of May, we were ready to launch. If I stop to think back on what it was like to launch a business 15 or 20 years ago, the difference in pace has been incredible.
The learning curve has been just as rapid. Personally, I enjoy the feeling of being outside my comfort zone. Having worked in consumer electronics for years, and more recently in cycling apparel, which I’m very familiar with, it’s been invigorating to deal with the challenge of pivoting to a completely different industry like face masks.
Improvements in manufacturing technology have played a big part in increasing speed to market. Manufacturing in Ireland has proved to be way more flexible compared to the rigid, and long, supply chain from China. We’re now dealing in days and hours, compared to weeks and months.
What’s unique about producing the face masks in Ireland is that we’ve been able to rapidly customise to cater for the demand from retailers like Fresh, Spar and Maxol, and that’s proved to be a huge selling point. We started with a 50-unit bulk pack, but some of our customers started asking if we could produce individually wrapped masks. So we did.
We can produce bundles of three, five or seven masks, and we can even do dual-branded packaging at much lower numbers than we could if we were ordering and producing out of the Far East. I remember back when we were producing consumer electronics out of China, the minimum order runs were in the tens of thousands. The pace of change has been incredible, and at the same time, there’s an amazing sense of achievement that comes from doing it all here in Ireland.
When I think back to the mid-2000s, we started producing the Leaf, an iPhone case made from a recyclable polymer. We tried to make it completely in Ireland. At the time, there just wasn’t the same manufacturing knowhow that they had in Asia. Since then, there’s been a lot of collaboration and knowledge transfer, and the machinery, tooling and automation have helped to change the game.
What’s more, it feels like we’re tapping into a tremendous amount of goodwill towards local business. One of the trends that emerged out of the pandemic was a sense that we’re in this together, and a willingness to support Irish businesses.
All of us on the Stay Safe Masks team have been feeling that buzz, and that energy. Even though we’ve been working remotely, the enthusiasm still comes through on the video conferences and the calls. And as any runner will tell you, the encouragement of the crowd and your team-mates is a huge motivation to keep the pace going, no matter where you are on the course. Now, we’re starting to think about a UK market launch, so our race still has some way to run.