Why It’s So Important for Small Businesses to Remain Agile

Without small business, we’re nothing. TheLatch— and GoDaddy have teamed up to rally behind local businesses and entrepreneurs during this unprecedented time of change.

We’re speaking to small businesses and entrepreneurs across the country to better understand how they’re adapting to stay open, how they’re keeping their community safe, and how we can support them now during this time, and beyond. We’re focused on keeping Australia open for business, even if doors are closed. #OpenWeStand

In 1987, full-time mum and cake decorator Marla Salakas had a business idea.

The part-time clown (Salakas moonlighted as Patches) wanted to be the first to host fully-catered kids parties and at the time, the idea was progressive.

Together with her father Peter, she bought out an existing business and before long, gigs began to flow in and soon the business was booked solid.

Then, seeing an opportunity to help customers create their own festive magic at home, The Party People opened its first bricks and mortar store in Sydney’s South.

After 20 years, Salakas decided it was time to wind back her presence, so her sons Dean and Peter, set aside their careers and took over the family business.

Cut to 1999, and The Party People launched online with GoDaddy tools and support, and became the first party shop in Australia to establish a digital presence with triple-digit growth in the first year.

“We were pretty early, we were one of Google’s first customers,” Dean said.

“We launched Click and Collect in 1998, so we’ve always been doing things that were considered innovative at the time.”

Not long after, a second Sydney store was opened. 

They may have been founded on fun, but it’s The Party People’s ability to stay agile that has helped them navigate the ups and downs of business.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, The Party People introduced a coronavirus survival guide on its site, which includes ideas and product suggestions for entertaining activities you can do in isolation.

True to the brand mission they started with 30 plus years ago, its Sans Souci store now has a new sign out front that reads: “COVID-19 is very contagious, so is a smile, so keep smiling, we are all in this together.”

TheLatch— sat down with Dean to talk about how to adjust a small business in times of uncertainty, why understanding your customer is key to success and why the coronavirus can be perceived as a hard lesson in good business.

TheLatch— Dean, we love that The Party People is all about spreading joy, something we so desperately need right now. When did your business first feel the effects of coronavirus?

Dean Salakas: In February we started to see early signs. Some people were more cautious when they could see what was happening overseas. We started to feel the full effects at the end of March when more of the serious announcements came out from the government. Sales are down 85% at the moment.

TL: Are you keeping your stores open for now?

DS: Yes we are. Stores are still open and we have a lot of safety measures in place. We’re still selling bits and pieces and odd party supplies. I think the stuff people are buying from us are actually related to coronavirus — arts and crafts to do at home, dress-ups to have at home, and things to do at home with the kids.

TL: Have you had to pivot your business at all in order to survive?

DS: Yes we have. We’ve got a banner at the top of our website that says coronavirus survival, with a few different categories [pictured below]. We’re looking at launching a subscription service where people can have items delivered to their house weekly to keep the kids entertained for the week. 

We’re using customer research to lead what we do. When customers come into the store, we see what they’re buying and why they’re buying it, and that’s helped us figure out what products to offer in those categories we’ve called ‘coronavirus survival guide’.

We’ve also launched hand sanitiser and masks. We’re fortunate to have a close relationship with a supplier so we can get a regular supply. It’s going really, really well and it’s making up some of the sales we would’ve lost otherwise.


TL: How easy was it to launch your new offering on-site? 

DS: It was really easy. It was all done in-house. Our website has the flexibility to make easy edits. We’ve always made our site really easy to edit so we can adapt with different occasions e.g. St Patrick’s Day, or Easter. But, smaller events like St Patrick’s Day just aren’t getting any attention at the moment, so we’ve entirely shifted our focus to coronavirus and how we can help people there. 

“It’s making up for some of the sales we would’ve lost otherwise.”

TL: How has your messaging and the way you speak to your customers shifted?

DS: We’ve very conscious of the fact we’re in the party business, we’re not advocating people have parties. For good reason, the government has said no more parties, and we’re sensitive to that and don’t want to be promoting parties, but what we’re promoting is other things. I’m going to be having my son’s birthday soon and it will just be our household with a few party supplies. It doesn’t mean we don’t celebrate at all, it just means we celebrate differently. 

One of the missions of our business is to make people happy and we want to keep doing that. We’re staying genuine to who we are.

“It doesn’t mean we don’t celebrate at all, it just means we celebrate differently.”

TL: What is your message or advice to other businesses about how they can shift the way they operate in this time?

DS: I speak at events about being agile. It’s one of the topics I speak a lot about. But with coronavirus, I feel like we struggled more than usual to be agile because there’s so much uncertainty. It’s hard to make decisions in times of uncertainty. At the very beginning, we had to cut back staff as there were no government incentives or support. As a company, we were in crisis mode and you’re thinking about how to survive and get by each day. The announcements coming from the government each day were different, so we were trying to understand what that all meant. 

Every day was a battle but now we’re getting a bit more stability which is why we’re able to execute some of these new strategies like the survival kit. 

In terms of advice on being agile, there’s no playbook for what we’re doing right now. Listen to your customers and adapt your business accordingly. We built our survival section based on nothing other than customers coming in and picking stuff up. I didn’t know we were selling baking items until the staff noticed a pattern. We’re talking to customers more than usual and asking them what they’re doing with the products they’re buying and trying to understand their stories and what they’re doing with it and adjusting our business with our customers.

“Listen to your customers and adapt your business accordingly.”

It’s a good story for business in general. You need to listen to your customers. We will probably learn from this with what we take forward — the fact we’re listening to customers, why aren’t we doing this every day in our business?

We’re using their feedback to adjust our business model. 

TL: How can customers support your business in the short term?

DS: Continue to shop with us and shop our coronavirus survival guide! If customers shop with us they can help keep us alive during this difficult time. What we want for our staff more than anything is that we have a viable business at the end of this. We have a great business and the trouble we’re going through at the moment is not to do with anything that the business has done. It’s simply circumstance. The problem right now for businesses isn’t whether you have a good business. It’s if you have enough cash in the bank to bankroll you through this period. But the best businesses that survive should be the best businesses, not the ones with the deepest pockets to weather the storm.

TL: That’s very true Dean! Which is why we’re so focused on helping all of these amazing small businesses survive. Will the way you operate your business be changed for good?

DS: Definitely. I think there are some positives that have come out of it, but on the other hand, we’re still trying to manage day-to-day to make sure that the business is solvent through this process. Before this I would have thought we were very good at understanding our customer, but now looking at the environment we’re in, it’s clear to me that more could be done. 

Shop The Party People’s coronavirus survival kits.

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