Whether we like it or not, the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted our lives in more ways than one and while restrictions are being eased and we are slowly going back to normal, some things might never be the same again.
Small business was hit hard and especially retail and hospitality suffered immensely as measures were put in place to restrict the spread of the virus and many businesses were forced into hibernation.
For Pigeonhole founder, Johann Kim, this meant (temporarily) closing down his 10 stores at the end of March/beginning of April and standing down 50 of his staff.
“Going from a team of 65 to a team of 15 has been a pretty huge shift, and everyone essentially working from home on administrative tasks for the business is something that was a huge transition and very stressful on a lot of people,” he says.
“We had already had a very weak Christmas trade and a slow start to the year so it definitely felt like I was getting kicked while on the ground. Our sales dropped by 90 per cent, with some of my stores started having $0 days.”
‘We are all in this together’ was a motto that seemed to resonate with many people during this uncertain time, not everyone felt the same way. In fact, some of Kim’s landlords only made matters worse.
“One Shopping centre hoarded up my store when I suggested that they let us stay on rent free. They told me on the Friday they would consider it and let me know their decision on the Monday. On Monday my staff rocked up to the shift to find that the centre had boarded up the entire shop and padlocked it.
“Another landlord insisted that we defit the entire store within a week right in the middle of the crisis because they would not extend our lease nor freeze the rent. It was pretty gnarly. I was in quarantine at the time and I was saved by some friends of mine who banded together, removed the walls, ceiling, electrical work, got a truck and did tip runs and get everything out the premises without me even being there. I am very fortunate to have incredibly supportive friends.”
However, Kim is not one to give up, on the contrary, where one door (literally) closes, another one opens.
“A bunch of my stores had been selling indoor plants for the last few months,” he explains.
“As things started to shut down, we were in a position where we feared that all our beautiful indoor plants might end up locked down in the stores and die from neglect. We felt compelled to adopt them out as quickly as possible to new homes and this spurred on the idea that perhaps we could deliver them to our customers who were in lockdown.
“I thought that maybe people in isolation in their homes might appreciate having a living thing make their space that little bit happier to be in during this crazy time. So I approached one of my nurseries about the idea, and catalogued their range of plants. I spoke to my team who were on JobKeeper who could potentially deliver the plants and then called in favours from friends all around the world to do graphic design, web design, photography and writing to help get this project of the ground.”
And so Hello Houseplant was born.
It’s a delivery service based initially in Perth, delivering beautiful indoor plants from nursery to your home. The emphasis of this venture has since shifted to being a ‘plants as presents’ concept where people are encouraged to send their loved ones a plant rather than a bunch of flowers―a living breathing gift that gives back by cleaning your air, making your home feel that bit cosier, and giving you something small to look after and care for.
You can add a pot to your plant, a bottle of local WA wine, handmade Margaret River chocolate or a four-pack of beer from a local Perth brewery.
“We want to support local and allow our Perth customers to have an offering that gives back to our local community,” reiterates Kim.
“We’ve also decided to plant a tree for every plant that we sell. We’re partnering with One Tree Planted which is an international reforestation organisation. They have partners on the ground here in Australia who are developing reforestation programs for bushfire ravaged parts of our country. It’s an exciting initiative to be part of and something close to our hearts.”
Kim has started a business from scratch before, even though under very different circumstances, but he felt confident he could do it again and build something out of nothing.
"I basically got to the point where all my bank accounts had hit zero. I didn’t have any money but I had staff that were eligible for JobKeeper. I thought we might be in for six months of lockdown, and because my nursery didn’t have a minimum order for me, I thought I could launch this businesses without having to buy stock and could get orders on the site, place them directly with my nursery, and then send one of my JobKeeper staff to pick up the order and deliver to our customers.”
The past few months have been tough for Kim and there was a period where he thought he may not ever be able to reopen.
“I’ve been working harder than I have ever before. It has been a gruelling period of long days and nights trying to salvage the business―calling the bank, many meetings with my accountants, negotiating with landlords and suppliers and having staff and suppliers have aggressive meltdowns has been pretty intense.
“I guess you have to learn to roll with the punches and keep shifting and being as nimble as possible. But there are definitely some days that you just don’t want to get out of bed, and wish you could spend your time learning how to bake sourdough and learning how to shuffle and doing Tik Toks all day instead of having to run a business during the most challenging circumstances of your life,” he says with a smile
“I think the silver lining has been that there have been many opportunities for people to show solidarity, kindness, generosity and compassion during this time. An outpouring of support from my friends and customers has been something that has given me the courage and strength to keep moving forward despite the challenges.”
So where do Pigeonhole and Kim go from here?
“If only I knew! Look, things were already very tough for retail so it’s not easy to predict what the new world order is going to look like for bricks and mortar. I know that the shift online is only going to continue, so naturally I am putting energy there right now and to seeing how we can reimagine Pigeonhole 2.0 in a digital format. It’s not something that comes naturally for us but it’s a good challenge to see how we can communicate our values of community and friendship and joy in new ways and try and portray that authentically online.”
Kim is also in the process of reopening the stores, and will see how that unfolds over the coming days. It’s been a bit of mixed bag so far, but he says he is grateful for the opportunity to at least give it a go to see if Pigeonhole can maintain relevance for people despite everything else going on.
“For myself personally, I am trying not to hold onto anything too tightly right now. I lost my father to cancer at the end of last year and have felt pretty battered by the rough retail conditions over December/January and the craziness of the past few months.
“I’m excited by the possibilities that my new projects can bring, and also for greater levels of collaboration with other businesses, brands and creatives. It has definitely been a lonely road in many ways, so I’m pretty keen to get together with likeminded people and either bring them into what I’m doing, or get involved in what they are doing.
“But really, I can’t lay claim on anything, but be happy with myself and focus on the things that bring joy and life to me within my company and live day by day showing up that day as the best version of myself that I can.”