Doing business in the wake of a pandemic
At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, if you had told Trevor George he would develop and launch a subscription business for face masks in four days, he wouldn’t have believed you. In fact, he was trying to figure out how to keep his primary business, Trevco, going during COVID-19. Trevco makes licensed apparel and accessories and is one of Amazon’s top third-party sellers. By mid-March, in less than a week’s time, Trevco’s sales had dropped 60%, and he was forced to lay off half of his staff.
“It was like a cliff. It was really tough,” Trevor said. “I couldn’t do anything for three weeks but man the ship and keep it afloat, but there’s a happy ending here.”
During that time, Trevor recognized there was a huge need for personal protective equipment, including face masks, for medical personnel and first responders. Using his connections, the savvy entrepreneur helped a local hospital get 250,000 masks. Home with a 10-month-old, Trevor’s wife Morgan was convinced that Trevor could make a difference. When she saw what he could accomplish, she encouraged him to contribute to the pandemic in some way.
“There’s got to be a way you can help,” Morgan told Trevor. “You’re going to do something – make face masks.”
“She wouldn’t give up,” Trevor said.
The call to help
Trevor resisted Morgan’s idea for weeks, but she would not relent. Finally, Trevor agreed to give it a shot. He started with a few phone calls and, four days later, MaskClub, a subscription service for face masks, was born. Customers can purchase a mask outright or subscribe to get a different face mask each month and receive a $4 discount per mask (28.6%). For each mask purchased or subscribed to, MaskClub donates a medical grade mask to medical professionals and first responders.
Launching a subscription business in four days
Getting MaskClub up and running in four days was not easy. Trevor said it took a Herculean effort because everything had to happen simultaneously. Each step was dependent on the others, and a failure at any juncture would have doomed the subscription service before it could launch. The most critical steps included:
- Getting the licensing rights from more than 100 brands for thousands of mask designs
- Development of the entire subscription ecommerce infrastructure
- Launching of a website to sell the face masks
- Securing a supply chain for the donation of medical grade face masks
- Getting his manufacturing facility up to capacity
“The tricky part was that everything had to happen at the same time. We had to have a website to show licensed brands what the concept would look like, and we had to have more than one brand approve the concept at the same, because no brand wanted to be the only one on board. We had to have the donation supply chain ready, the website live, and artwork approved,” Trevor said. “What comes first? You don’t even really know.”
Over the first four days of MaskClub, Trevor got 10 hours of sleep, but he was determined to make MaskClub happen. He was grateful to have the support of loyal colleagues Chris Theisen, art director, who has worked with Trevor for 20 years, and Nick Saroki, chief technology officer, with whom Trevor has worked for 15 years, by his side making this vision a reality.
“We were in the whole thing together,” Trevor said.
Despite the odds, each piece of MaskClub fell into place, and Trevco was able to bring back 95% of the furloughed employees and hire 30 more. A happy ending, indeed.
Getting partners on board
One of the most remarkable aspects of launching MaskClub was the speed with which global brands approved the concept and designs presented to them by Trevor and his team. It wasn’t enough to have previously approved designs. Each time a new product is created, brand approvals are required, Trevor explained. Normally, such approvals take time, but there was no delay in this case. Brands were eager to do their part to support their communities, and they understood that time was of the essence.
“We had days to create this thing. Usually, a contract or deal with a brand takes a long time. It doesn’t happen in four days, but we had to figure out how to move it forward quickly,” Trevor said. “My hat is off to the brands that figured that out in a moment of pressure.”
Trevor was thrilled with the response he received from all of the licensors, but particularly Warner Bros. who gave their approval in 24 hours, setting the stage for others to follow suit.
“We couldn’t have done it without them,” Trevor said.
Removing red tape with the subscription model
Trevor said the subscription model was critical to the success of MaskClub. Using Shopify and their plug-ins, the team was able to create a website with the subscription infrastructure needed to support the business.
“We had to build a site in four days,” Trevor said. “I would never use anything other than Shopify. It is just too easy. They are the uncontested ecommerce site of choice.”
[Editor’s note: Shopify also utilizes the subscription model to support businesses like MaskClub, making it affordable and scalable.]
The subscription model also offered MaskClub options for prospective customers. Customers could buy masks outright to meet their immediate needs or subscribe to get masks of their own choosing on a monthly basis. In both cases, MaskClub agreed to match each purchase with a donation of a medical grade mask.
Being able to offer subscription options to customers was important, because the impression that COVID-19 has left on us is not temporary. Long after the pandemic passes, we will be reminded that health and safety continue to be important, and people will want masks that express their personalities. People want masks to express their mood or where they are going, and there are also the times they need to wash their masks and will need a back-up.
Trevor offered the example of future air travel. Can you imagine a flight where passengers won’t wear masks? At the very least, a few will, even if only as a precaution. MaskClub is ready to meet that need.
Determining the right price point
Each face mask is individually handmade, so MaskClub had to factor in their costs when selecting a price point. For the outright purchase, they saw other face masks selling for around $15. They wanted to be more competitive than that, so they set pricing at $13.99 for individual purchases. The subscription masks are priced at $9.99, a $4.00 discount as an incentive for subscribing. At launch, people wanted masks right away, but as the pandemic continued and the need for masks was less urgent, purchases skewed more toward subscriptions.
Many successes along the way
Having done no marketing except partnering with a PR firm, Trevor is thrilled at the attention MaskClub has gotten and all the customers that have purchased masks as a result. The business has been so successful that MaskClub has donated more than 100,000 masks already. Launching on April 10, within four weeks, the MaskClub site had more than 1 million unique visitors and 2 billion media impressions. As a result, MaskClub was also having conversations with brands that are reaching out to them.
…and a few bumps in the road
Originally, MaskClub received more orders than they could produce. In fact, they had so many orders that the lead time grew to six weeks, which did not provide for a good customer experience. To resolve the issue, they communicated with customers about the delays and, for 10 days in mid-May, the company did not take any new orders. They made a promise to their customers that orders would be shipped by May 25. If they missed their deadline, they would refund the cost and ship the orders for free.
Unfortunately, they didn’t make the deadline, but MaskClub stayed true to their word. They refunded $62,000 in orders, shipped the orders for free, and donated a matching number of masks. Some customers were upset, but others were very understanding. It was an issue of capacity to make the masks but also keeping employees safe in a world where social distancing was now the norm.
“We did what we needed to do to make sure our customers were happy,” Trevor said.
At launch, MaskClub could produce about 25,000 masks a week. They have since increased capacity and can now ship 10,000 masks a day, working seven days a week, 18 hours per day. That’s 70,000 masks compared to 25,000 per week.
What’s next – kids’ masks and MaskClub EU
Kids’ masks – MaskClub has been so successful with adult masks in the United States, they announced kids’ masks earlier this week. The kids’ masks, which are smaller than the adult masks, feature many beloved characters including Warner Bros., Hello Kitty®, Sesame Street, Care Bears and Betty Boop. For each mask purchased, MaskClub will donate a medical grade mask to First Responders Children’s Foundation to be distributed to paramedics, emergency medical technicians, police officers, firefighters and medical personnel treating COVID-19 patients.
MaskClub EU – MaskClub also has a partnership with a manufacturer in the Czech Republic who asked if they could work with MaskClub on a similar club in the European Union. So far, Mask Club has launched in the U.K., and it will be followed by launches in France, Germany and Italy. Rather than donate one mask for each mask purchased, MaskClub EU is donating 10% of its sale proceeds to an organization in the country of origin. It is not identical to the U.S. model, but the mission is the same – providing support and equipment to medical professionals and first responders. Each country will decide which organizations can best meet those needs.
Trevor has been in digital marketing and ecommerce since 2006. Knowing the parts of the ecommerce process and having the connections with brands and licensors helped provide a foundation for success, but making masks was never part of Trevor’s 2020 plan, nor anyone else’s.
“I wish this wasn’t the way the world was. I don’t like pulling up to a restaurant and seeing a waiter wearing a face mask, but that’s the way it is. I am here, and I’m going to do what I can to help,” said Trevor. “I have never been a part of something that helps people like this. Our donation model and reading the stories from the hospital workers, EMT drivers, firefighters and policemen has been very rewarding.”