Written by Joleen Small
In the Beginning
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown everyone for a loop. Small businesses were especially hit hard. Brick-and-mortar stores had to shutter for one year, affecting both profits and morale. Weathering the storm proved difficult, but some businesses managed to stay afloat. Take for instance Lynne Lambert, owner of not one, but two brands; NYC Subway Line, a transit themed apparel and accessory brand under license from New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, and her new brand MAP’T GEAR, a promotional products line that creates custom map products for companies with their locations depicted on them.
Lynne’s NYC Subway Line business has been in operation since 1995 and has shipped to museum stores, boutiques, and large retailers such as Macy’s, FAO Schwartz, and Top of the Rock. Her use of subway line symbols on T-shirts, hats, mugs, and other novelties made this an iconic brand that has been on TV, film, and magazines, and worn all over the US and the world. Adweek dubbed MAP’T GEAR “the anti-swag swag bag.” Other industry publications were also fans of the idea of making promotional products that were both informational and appealing. MAP’T GEAR was starting to gain traction and take off. Then COVID-19 hit, and everything stopped. The conferences and meetings who ordered gift bags filled with her items were cancelled. All the stores that sold her products closed, except for one specialty food store that was considered an essential business.
Sales plummeted and navigating this new landscape proved challenging. Lynne had to lay off employees and figure out how to stay financially solvent. “For small companies like mine that may have been in business and made sales, but never made a ton of money from it, we don’t have the reserves to be able to say, ‘whatever, we’ll be fine next year.’ We’re just trying to figure out how to get through,” Lynne says. She and her SCORE mentor, Fred Krawchick, put their heads together to come up with a plan to keep her business above water.
Planning and Pivoting
Fred has experience in the apparel industry as he owned 120 women’s retail clothing stores and knew the ups and downs. However, figuring out the guidelines for businesses seeking government assistance was another story. “It was very, very hard to navigate the governmental help - the PPP loan, the EIDL grant. I must have spent well over 100 hours in various webinars trying to get educated about what the best thing was to do, how it was going to work,” says Lynne.
Both Fred and Lynne attended webinars on PPP loans and EIDL grants. Fred would also send Lynne information he thought would help her with business-related needs. Together, they decided it would be best to take actions such as cancelling services that weren’t needed during this time period, selling slow-moving inventory at a discount to free up space in the warehouse, and putting more of an emphasis on the MAP’T GEAR line since its clientele wasn’t limited to New York City. One crucial piece of advice Fred gave Lynne was to always know where she stood financially. “It was critical that we know everything, everything that was going out and that was coming in and just be completely on top of our financials,” Lynne recalls.
The belt-tightening and reorganizing paid off. Lynne was approved for the first two rounds of PPP loans and will be able to bring back one of her employees, albeit on a part-time basis. She has also expanded her promotional product offerings to include items for virtual conference attendees and those working from home. Stores are beginning to reopen and some conferences and in-person meetings are reconvening. Lynne credits Fred, whom she calls her “ally,” with the progress she made. “He’s just the nicest and most caring person. I can’t believe how generous he has been with his time and knowledge. I can’t be thankful enough because you just get so isolated. Everybody’s in their own little office or in their home. Everyone’s cut off and it makes it harder to figure things out, but with SCORE, I have someone I can collaborate with."