BUSINESS JOURNAL REPORTS: SMALL BUSINESS
4 Entrepreneurs Who Found Big Money in Face Masks During Covid
For some companies, shifting to a new line of business was the key to their survival
“I pretty much became a full-time mask maker overnight,” says textile maker Abby Meadow.
PHOTO: ABBY MEADOW
By Elizabeth Garone
June 2, 2021 11:00 am ET
The humble face mask has proved to be a lifesaver not just by slowing Covid-19—but by helping small businesses.
Countless companies in dire straits during the lockdown have turned to masks to generate revenue. A lot of them have gotten into the niche from very diverse backgrounds. And, for some, mask sales haven’t only helped them survive but also driven their earnings higher than they were before Covid.
Here’s a look at some businesses that took a big gamble on masks—and saw it pay off.
It started with charity
In early March of 2020, Kalle Simpson opened the new Manhattan headquarters of her sleep-accessory company, Discover Night, which sells things like luxury pillows and pillowcases.
Two days later, the city moved into lockdown.
Suddenly, many of Ms. Simpson’s clients put their orders on hold or renegotiated their payment terms. “Retailers panicked and canceled orders, leaving us stuck with inventory,” she says. “It was very, very intense.”
Sleep-accessory company Discover Night got into mask making after hearing about shortages in the healthcare industry.
PHOTO: DISCOVER NIGHT
Ms. Simpson didn’t look to masks as a business sideline immediately. She heard from friends in the healthcare industry about shortages of personal protective equipment, and her first thought was to produce masks to donate. She soon won a lot of attention for giving 10,000 masks to New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
Requests for donations began flooding in, adding up to hundreds of thousands of masks. Ms. Simpson couldn’t afford to give away that many, so she came up with a new plan: She would offer reusable masks for sale online, and for every one that customers bought, she would donate five disposable ones. Eventually, she sold reusable masks only—starting at $20 and made of silk, satin and bamboo-derived rayon—and donated disposable ones. Discover Night has donated 120,000 masks since the pandemic began, she says.
Discover Night gained attention for donating masks. Here, David Mize, a sales manager for the company, works at a donation event.
PHOTO: DISCOVER NIGHT
Last May, the company got a huge boost when it became the official mask supplier for the U.S. Postal Service, producing gear with the USPS logo on them, and later won even more cachet when pop icon Adele wore a Discover Night mask for her appearance on “Saturday Night Live” in October.
For 2020, Discover Night’s revenue grew 320%—Ms. Simpson won’t give specific numbers—with roughly half of it from mask sales, she says. And she intends to keep selling them as long as the need is there.
The company—which has tripled its staff to 15—also recently relocated to Ms. Simpson’s home state of North Carolina. “We’ve had a lot of employees who have not wanted to be [in New York] anymore,” she says. “What’s great about being a small business is we adapt very quickly, just as we did going into masks.”
Making safety fashionable
What happens when you make custom shirts, but tons of potential customers are suddenly stuck working from home, where they can’t come in for fittings and are starting to get used to a permanent Casual Friday?
Custom-shirt company Proper Cloth went into the mask business when its New York showroom was closed during the lockdown.
PHOTO: PROPER CLOTH
That is the situation Proper Cloth faced. In March of last year, its New York-based showroom was forced to close due to the lockdown. So, last April, the company decided to supplement its sales by leaping into the hottest niche it could find. “We were seeing a lot of brands putting out masks, but they all looked the same,” says Daniel Zisman, Proper Cloth’s public-relations manager. “From that moment, we knew there was a place in the market for a tailored mask” with a better fit.
The company differentiates its masks, which start at $25 for single orders, with different sizes and styles of loops to hold them in place. It also offers a range of fabrics and styles, such as high-thread-count cotton and silks, with plaids and floral prints.
“In a time when we saw business clothing sales drop by over 50%, masks have been a surprising bright spot, accounting for over 20% of our total revenue in 2020,” says Chief Executive Seph Skerritt. The company plans to continue making masks for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, virtual fittings of its custom shirts have turned out to be popular, and the business hopes to reopen its showroom in mid- to late summer, along with a second location in Midtown Manhattan.
An Etsy sensation
Abby Meadow, a textile artist in Florence, Ore., used to focus her Etsy business on making items like backpacks and leather pencil cases. Then, just after the pandemic started, her mail carrier asked her if she was making masks.
As it turned out, the carrier had only one mask—and was concerned about finding a replacement when that one wore out.
“The look of concern on her face really touched me,” Ms. Meadow says. “I told her I’d make sure to get some made for her right away. It was that day that I started looking into how to make a mask.”
Within the next few days, she got another question about masks—this time from a good friend—and decided to put her designs up on her Etsy shop.
“The response was immediate,” she says. “I pretty much became a full-time mask maker overnight.”
For about six months, she says, masks made up almost 100% of her sales, and she made a typical year’s income in that time.
At its peak, Ms. Meadow’s business, Infusion was daily selling hundreds of masks, which run from $15 to $25 and are made with at least three layers of fabric and lined with undyed, organic cotton. Now that people are “better equipped,” she says the need has tapered back significantly, and the masks are evenly distributed with her other work.
“At some point, I may remove masks from my shop if other work demands more of my focus,” she says. “But for now, I will continue to sell masks as the need is there, and I am able and have the time available.”
Ms. Meadow wasn’t the only seller on Etsy who benefited from masks. In 2020, gross sales of masks exceeded $740 million on the marketplace, according to the company. Of the three million buyers who came to the site just to buy masks during 2020’s third quarter, roughly half returned the next quarter for nonmask purchases.
“I now work with fabric rather than wood,” says custom-furniture maker David Halbout.
PHOTO: FRENCH FIX
From furniture to masks
Before the pandemic, custom-furniture maker David Halbout had a small but stable income and a waiting list stretching about four months. Within a week of the lockdown, though, his business came to a halt because he couldn’t meet customers to discuss the job or go to their home to work on projects. Almost all of his orders were canceled within days.
What’s more, his wife, textile artist Nathalie d’Iris, was shut out of the art shows, galleries and boutiques she relied on to sell her products.
Facing that situation—and seeing the need that medical workers faced for protective equipment—the couple decided to turn their Red Bank, N.J., business to making masks. “We wanted to use our talents to help, so we started making fabric face masks with ties and elastic around the head,” says Mr. Halbout.
It turns out that the design was a hit for an unexpected niche. Because his products don’t interfere with hearing aids like traditional straps do, people who use the medical devices flocked to the masks, says Mr. Halbout. He estimates that his business, French Fix LLC, has sold 20,000 masks and donated another 3,000. Mr. Halbout says that he is making substantially more money from the masks, which start at $10.99 for children and $17.99 for adults, than he did from furniture.
“My furniture business was mostly local, and with the masks, we went global. We sell in North America and in Europe,” he says. His expenses also increased—and profit margins fell—as he had to hire seamstresses and purchase machinery. But once the company ironed out the problems of scaling up, margins rose to about 30% to 35% from 10% to 15%.
As far as Mr. Halbout is concerned, the masks aren’t going away soon. “It is quite unclear how the vaccine will slow the spread with the new variants, and I think masks will still be a part of our lives for some time,” he says.
Even so, “the core of my business stayed the same: I am still a creative person,” says Mr. Halbout. “I still design and I still work with my hands. I now work with fabric rather than wood.”
Ms. Garone is a writer in Alameda, Calif. She can be reached at email@example.com.