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What It’s Like To Start A Product-Based Business During A Pandemic

Photo: @caylagrayco

Who could be crazy enough to start a product-based business during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Kelly Kussman was – and she thinks that’s what made her business, Cayla Gray.

After deciding to start her luxury fragrance line as a way to honor several years of personal struggles, the launch timing – which was less than ideal – forced her to step out of her comfort zone and firmly commit to sharing her brand and the pathos behind it.

“Having worked in retail for over 17 years, it’s typically to see delays in launch timing due to a variety of factors. But 2020 was a monumental year for people both personally and professionally; it became a completely different ball game to navigate. While I had the fundamental framework and knowledge I needed to launch my brand thanks to my background in retail, attempting to put a timeline together for launch is an especially tricky feat for a product-based business during any normal year.

Many factors have to align just right for a brand to pull off an on-time launch – and that’s without a worldwide lockdown in effect – so it was truly my passion for this company that pushed me forward regardless of the challenges in my path.”

Throughout the planning and development stage, Kelly knew the retail concepts of the future were to focus on direct-to-consumer online relationships. 2020 seemed to push a lot of retailers into a realization that the way customers were shopping was going to be dramatically different from here-on-out.

It was not only this increasing push toward digitally-based e-commerce but also the reprioritization of customer values beyond ‘traditional’ retail needs. From production and delivery to sales and marketing, it caused a difficult, (but much-needed transformation) in the way that companies conduct business.

“With all of the raw material and packaging delays due to the pandemic, it was not easy to even estimate an approximate date to start taking pre-sale orders. I remember receiving the best phone call in mid-October of 2020, It was my packaging company telling me that my order was actually AHEAD of schedule. Cayla Gray’s launch timing was accelerated from there to make the holiday timeframe and I officially launched our website on Black Friday of 2020! This was a huge win for us.”

While pandemic-spawned material shortages, transportation delays, and other logistical difficulties became increasingly difficult for even the biggest corporations to manage –– much less a start-up trying to get off the ground –– the original plan to launch Cayla Gray in January 2021, quickly shifted to accommodate the evolving retail climate. Kelly knew from her previous retail career that people were shifting to the convenience of online shopping versus regular brick-and-mortar shops, which could be a challenge in the fragrance space.

Customers need to experience the scent, they want to smell the options before investing in such a personal product.

She decided to create the Cayla Gray Discovery Kit as an easy way for customers to conveniently sample all of our core scents in their own home to discover which full-sized perfume they love and want to purchase. People wanted more than ever to connect with a product – and with each other – in meaningful ways that would ultimately help make unexpected room at the table for new businesses to have a seat.

“It was really intimidating at first to take a new brand to market during a time when so many others were struggling. I quickly realized during my journey to officially open, that I could support not only Cayla Gray – but also my fellow makers – by hiring other small businesses to support various launch efforts.

Over the past few months, I joined several women’s networking groups and connected with entrepreneurs who were genuinely excited to take on my projects. This community truly helped me bring my dream business firmly into reality.”

With the advent of remote working/networking, the desire for collaboration ultimately called for better technology, allowing people to work together while not in the same environment Kelly credits these digital ‘meet-ups’ with making valuable business contacts that she might not have had the same opportunity to engage within a different setting.

From this group of like-minded creators, Kelly has been inspired to create more than just a business – she’s creating her own community with Cayla Gray.

“This journey has become about so much more than just creating a product. It’s a way for people to stop and take a pause; to slow down a bit and savor a forgotten memory, while looking forward to creating a new one. It’s celebrating what is actually most important in life – the moments big and small, vibrant and quiet. Who would have thought during a global pandemic, when we were so far apart, that Cayla Gray was the perfect way to bring people together?”