For companies based in the Boulder Valley that not only survived but thrived during a year of pandemic-related restrictions, the watchwords were pluck, pivoting, positioning, preparation, partnership and perseverance.
Their eye-popping two-year revenue growth, which landed them on BizWest’s 2021 list of Mercury 100 fastest-growing private companies, would be reason enough to take notice. The fact that their achievements came during a period that included shutdowns related to COVID-19 made them all the more remarkable.
For example, Boulder-based 1908 Brands posted 262% revenue growth from 2018 to 2020, by being at the right place at the right time, cleaning up with the launch of plant-powered Boulder Clean Household Disinfectant Cleaner.
Steve Savage, 1908 Brands’ CEO, said during a virtual Mercury 100 event that the disinfectant couldn’t have been introduced at a more opportune moment for his company.
“It took about a year to develop that product and get government registrations, and then we kind of timed it with COVID-19” when Boulder Clean hit stores at the beginning of 2020, he said. “We were pretty lucky. Everybody was caught flat-footed. Demand for disinfectants went up exponentially. Clorox ran out of product, and that gave us a chance to get shelf space.
“Once we got that registration” as a virus-killing disinfectant, he said, “the brand went nationwide — Whole Foods, Costco, Walmart, Sam’s Club, Kroger. That was the main driver.
“Some of those retailers, their shelves were empty,” Savage said. “Fortunately our supply-chain team found the spray triggers in China. We found bottles. Fortunately, we had the wherewithal to invest pretty quickly. So really, from about June until October, we were the only disinfectant on most retailers’ shelves.”
Its focus on the Boulder Clean product line as well as Schultz’s Gourmet and Pasta Jay’s sauces led to a big revenue boost that enabled 1908 Brands to more than double its staff, even as it put three of its other brands — Thrive Tribe paleo snacks, Bump Brands juices and Three Bear Oats — on hold during the pandemic.
By fall, Savage said, demand often outstripped supply. “Yes, we did run out of some product,” he added. “I couldn’t fill Costco nationwide until, like, October or November.”
Eventually, however, the marketplace caught up.
“We’re seeing the opposite in 2021,” he said. “Everyone is overstocked. If you go into a Walmart, a Lowe’s, a Home Depot now, you’re going to see pallets and pallets of disinfectants. We are a much bigger and better company because of the pandemic, but unfortunately for my business, it is slowing down.”
Shifting to online sales also was key to 194% two-year growth for Longmont-based Colorado Crafted LLC. Founded in 2012 by former food bloggers Sarah Welle and Dulcie Wilcox, the Longmont-based company creates gift baskets containing Colorado-produced artisanal products that generally couldn’t be found online. Business gifts make up half the company’s orders, with personal purchases accounting for the other half.
Despite the pandemic — or, maybe, partly because of it — 2020 was Colorado Crafted’s best year. While so many companies were forced to shift from in-person sales to online purchases, Colorado Crafted already was there.
“Luckily, we did quite well,” Welle said in an interview conducted at the Mercury 100 event, “because people couldn’t shop in brick-and-mortar stores but still wanted to support local businesses. One of the biggest factors for us is, because of the pandemic, there was a huge shift from retail sales to online sales, and we’re an online company. So we just had a huge influx of new customers wanting to send gifts to people who maybe they couldn’t see because of the pandemic.
“Additionally,” she added, “people really cared about supporting businesses during the pandemic, and we provide an easy way to support all kinds of local businesses in one gift box.”
The future looks bright for Colorado Crafted, Welle said. Fueled by their success, she and Wilcox have replicated the formula in another state with California Crafted.
“We’re not seeing people going back to traditional retail,” Welle said.
Awakened Foods LLC boomed with the merger of Boulder-based Ka-Pop Snacks and Loveland-based Bubba’s Fine Foods, said chief marketing officer Christina Finkel, adding that “the pandemic was super impactful.” In fact, said Awakened CEO and Ka-Pop founder Dustin Finkel, “the pandemic led to the merger.”
A year ago in January, he said during the Mercury 100 event, “I thought 2020 was going to be the greatest year ever. A few months later, we had this pandemic, and the unfortunate part for us was that we’d just gotten into national acceptance, gotten our snacks into the Google headquarters — and then they stopped coming to work. We got into multiple retailers, and we all know what happened to the retail channel. That was a huge disruption for us. Further, one of our biggest marketing campaigns was demoing. So getting our product into people’s mouths was a huge marketing potential,” and Ka-Pop lost that opportunity, too.
What to do?
“A group out of Naturally Boulder, which is a great natural-foods organization in the Boulder area, launched a CEO Founder Forum that was really, basically, a mental-health group for us CEO founders to figure out what we needed to do to go through this pandemic, to learn from it, to grow from it,” he said.
At the mentoring circle, he met former CrossFit trainer and health coach Jeff Schmidgall and his brother-in-law, gourmet chef Jared Menzel, the founders of Bubba’s.
“We realized that there was so much power between what I could bring to the table with my business-growth background, my food background, and their incredible R&D, their incredible leadership in manufacturing.”
Christina Finkel recalled that the trio “found that they had great chemistry and quickly recognized that each had the solution to the other person’s problems. Bubba’s had the private-label manufacturing but didn’t have experience in brand marketing,” she said “Ka-Pop didn’t have the facility. Now we’re under one roof and have hired dozens of employees, and have really been able to grow.”
“We took the two weaknesses that we had — or, I should say, the opportunities that we had — and brought them together,” Dustin Finkel said. “While COVID was a challenge for every business out there, it really did help us understand the weaknesses that we needed to uncover to be a strong founding approach for the future.
“Cash flow was paramount, profitability was paramount, really strict management of costs was incredibly important,” he said, “and so we came together, and ultimately it’s worked out, we’ve seen tremendous growth, and the company has grown from a few people to more than 50 people.
“What we did was pivot quickly, and we realized the power of e-commerce,” he said. “The escalation and adoption of food on e-commerce through COVID has been absolutely incredible. We took that as an opportunity to grow our business.
Learning the new normal as they went, Bubba’s launched a keto platform as an experiment. “It really was out of necessity to figure out what trends are growing, how do we get it online quickly and leverage our internal R&D and manufacturing prowess,” Dustin Finkel said. “Those two products, our keto granola and keto nut mix, were the No. 1 selling products in their category on Amazon in 2020, which was phenomenal.
“Further, we took all the funds that we had been promoting into shopper marketing, put them behind marketing awareness on Amazon, on our website and other wholesale dot-com sites,” he said. “That really transfixed the growth for Awakened Foods and really has set the foundation for our growth going forward.”
The pandemic prompted a pivot to online sales of nine products in the snack and cereal space and seven new Ka-Pop flavors, Christina Finkel said.
Dustin Finkel added that this year will bring more experiments. “In 2021, for instance, we’re launching dozens of products as ‘throw it on the wall to see what sticks’ to leverage the power of e-commerce,” he said. “It’s not a yearlong track to get into retail. It’s quick. It enables us to learn. We can change packaging. We can change formulation, and we do that very quickly.”
It was a huge transition for the business to go from a retail-centric organization to an online organization, he said, “but the team behind me did a phenomenal job of launching new products, transitioning to the new world of e-commerce and helping us continue to drive that significant growth in 2020.”
Being in the right place at the right time also propelled pandemic-year growth for Niwot-based Tool Studios, which specializes in consulting, web development and branding.
“We do a lot of work in the cannabis space around the country, in Canada and the world,” CEO Charles Bell at Mercury 100. “The cannabis business in general, with a lot of people staying home, especially with the medical-marijuana side of things and being able to use delivery systems for that, it allowed us to rapidly grow. It was a ride, for sure.”
The demands created by the shutdowns meant “the technology for online became incredibly, rapidly needed,” Bell said. “We had a very large-scale client out of Florida that really asked us to put the pedal to the metal and gave us six months to try to build something. We did a site that was typically doing $5,000, $6,000 a day; we took it in six months to $1.7 million a day in online sales and technologies.
“That had a lot to do with it, and we were converting our sites that we build into this new delivery system, pickup systems and all that.”
COVID-19 meant new ways to work for his employees as well, Bell said.
“People got a lot more comfortable with remote teams,” he said. “My developers and design team are not only here in my office in Niwot, but they’re around the globe. People started to realize that it’s OK to get on a Zoom call or Microsoft Teams and do what we need to do.”
Blue Spruce Construction Services in Niwot posted 185% two-year revenue growth by deftly pivoting from work on homes to work on businesses.
“We do both residential and commercial construction and remodeling, so we were really positioned well,” Blue Spruce president Sandra Weeks said in an interview conducted during the Mercury 100 event. “Early on in 2020, we did have several home remodels that went on pause or canceled completely, so we were able to shift our focus to commercial. We had a very large commercial project — for Charlotte’s Web in Louisville — that really was the primary project we’ve ever done.
“We were very careful about respecting and following all (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines to keep everybody safe and healthy, on the jobsite as well as in the office where everybody had their own space. Employees could still come to the office if they were comfortable doing so.”
By fall 2020, Weeks said, “residential started picking up again, so then we were able to shift again and take care of our residential customers.”
The key, she said, was having the flexibility, talent and skill sets to go from residential to commercial work and back again.
Operating both coffee shops and drive-through locations, Longmont-based Ziggi’s Coffee posted 189% two-year growth, and co-founder Brandon Knudsen said no slowdown is in sight.
“We’re opening 20 more stores this year. It’s insane,” he said. “We have 28 franchise deals so far this year, and I’m not surprised if we sell 60. People can’t buy drive-throughs fast enough.”
Government-mandated shutdowns and capacity limits put his cafes in “survival mode,” Knudsen said, “so a lot of our business had to pivot to takeout and delivery — but we were already good at drive-through, so we were positioned so well.
“And what if this happens again? Who’s already good at it and been doing it 15 years? Us!”
Knudsen chortled at the fact that he often sees more cars at his drive-through location on the northwest corner of 17th Avenue and Hover Street in Longmont than at the Starbucks café and drive-through across the street.
“The pandemic was tough on our cafes,” he admitted, but added that Payroll Protection Program loans helped them survive. “Between the PPP money and the drive-throughs, our cafes were able to tread water,” he said. Ziggi’s didn’t have to lay off any workers from the shops because they simply were shifted to handle the burgeoning business at the drive-throughs. Meanwhile, the company took the opportunity to remodel two Longmont cafes — at Fourth Avenue and Main Street downtown and on Francis Street on the city’s northwest side.
It could have been worse, Knudsen said. Ziggi’s two cafes in California — in Chula Vista and Mission Viejo — survived thanks to Restaurant Revitalization Grants, he said, but “that was one of the most locked-down places in the country. Those poor folks couldn’t even have coffee on their patios for a while.”
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