Business as Unusual: Pivoting from services to products

Natalie Clarkson
by Natalie Clarkson
18 June 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has been impacting business in different ways, and founders have had to pivot to adapt and survive in an ever-changing environment. 

In our Business as Unusual series, we’ve been speaking to companies supported by Virgin StartUp to explore the impact of coronavirus on small businesses and entrepreneurs. 

We spoke to Alice Vaughan and Scarlet Crawley, co-founders of massage brand MASAJ, to find out more about how the pandemic has affected the business.

Why did you start MASAJ?

Scarlet originally trained as a massage therapist and built up a loyal customer base, learning a great deal about the industry and what customers need and want. She spotted a gap in the market for a massage and bodywork brand, which really helped busy city-dwellers escape the urban grind; a place where anyone felt able to receive regular top-quality bodywork, at prices that were comfortable for the average Londoner.

Our company motto is 'Come As You Are' and we work hard to create and maintain a space where everyone can feel that they belong. We've aimed to flip the traditional massage business on its head and work hard to change many of the challenges and misconceptions about this industry.

We do this by offering a fantastic experience for our diverse customer base  – keeping prices affordable, our treatment information clear, accessible and jargon-free, and paying extra attention to the small details that make time spent with us feel totally relaxing and worry-free. 

A bike outside the MASAJ studio

We've also worked hard to make MASAJ the very best place to be a therapist – we offer all our team members the chance to be a payroll employee, meaning they have access to a pension plan, sick and holiday pay and a high level of job security. These are all things which are unfortunately rare in our industry. We strongly believe that happy therapists equals happy clients, and while some have questioned the effectiveness of this business model within our industry, we wouldn't have it any other way.

How was the business going before COVID-19?

We had originally expanded the business back in May 2019 on the back of receiving a Virgin StartUp Loan, opening new studios and diversifying our retail offering too. Ironically, after a tough year of really hard work and making a few adaptations to our business model, a few months before COVID-19 hit we had settled into a really nice rhythm and MASAJ was doing better than ever. We had pegged 2020 as 'the year of events' and had a number of exciting collaborations, festivals and other pop-ups planned for this year, which have now all sadly but understandably been cancelled.

How has COVID-19 affected your business?

As a service-based business, prior to COVID-19, approximately 95% of our income was generated through offering massage services, both at our studios and at events. Obviously we have really felt the impact of the current situation. It's been a real challenge in many ways, as not only have we seen our finances take a massive hit, but it's been a very difficult time for our team of therapists too – like so many in the service industries, ours is not a profession that can be practised remotely or virtually, so we can't just ask our therapists to work from home. 

We're both very used to remote working so the reliance on video calls isn't too much of an issue for us, however in the past few months my flat has become a product-testing lab, and Scarlet's home our packing and distribution centre. It's safe to say that our respective partners are saints for allowing MASAJ to invade their homes so extensively!

What have you done differently as a result?

Since closing our studios in mid-March, we've been focusing pretty much all of our efforts into the product side of our business. We'd always had a modest line of own-brand products which were designed to complement our studio treatments, and since lockdown we've been amazed by our community's appetite for these products, and their desire to support a small business like MASAJ during these uncertain times. 

A sign outside the MASAJ studio

For the last month or so, we've been busy working to develop and test new own-brand lines and have been preparing to re-launch our brand at the start of July, with a new look, new website and extensive range of new own-brand products. We're lucky that we've been able to adapt in this way, and we're both really grateful to have the chance to focus on creating something beautiful out of such a difficult situation.

How do you expect business to be different in future?

Although restrictions may be lifting across the UK, we're not yet in a place where we can imagine reopening our studios in a way that's both financially viable and ethically sound. 

One of our company mottos is 'The Power of Touch' – and realistically we know that for a business like MASAJ that relies almost entirely on touch, coming back from this situation to a place where we are able to get close to 'business as usual' is likely to be a tough and uncertain journey. 

To be able to ‘expect the unexpected’ is a skill we're all still learning. But we think that in order to future-proof our business as much as possible we've got to continue to be agile and willing to adapt as much as possible. We've been absolutely overwhelmed by the support from our community of clients, and daily messages from people asking when we'll reopen. We know that the appetite for massage treatments is absolutely still there, despite the lingering fears of some. 

For now, we'll continue to pour our energies into the elements of the business that we can keep alive and grow while our studios remain dormant, and do as much as we can to remind our community that when the time is right, we'll be here to welcome them.