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Monos co-founders, CEO Victor Tam, left, and Hubert Chan, Chief Creative Officer, pose for a photograph, in Richmond, B.C., on Thursday, November 12, 2020.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

When Victor Tam and Hubert Chan became friends on the playground of their elementary school in Vancouver, B.C., the then-second graders never could have guessed they’d go from playing with each other after school to one day launching a company together. But over 30 years later, the duo—alongside high school friend Daniel Shin—did just that, using their separately honed skills in design and entrepreneurship to launch Monos in 2019.

The direct-to-consumer luggage brand, whose name comes from the Japanese concept of “mono no aware,” the appreciation for the beauty of fleeting moments, aims to provide customers simple, high quality luggage at an affordable price point. Their focus is on design, quality and value over gimmicks, something Tam and Chan say travellers are unable to get from both luxury luggage options and Monos’s competitors.

The idea for Monos was prompted in part by Tam’s decision to leave his previous company in 2018 to travel abroad with his family.

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“We started to think about how we liked to travel ourselves,” Chan says, “and we realized the common thread was that [it] was not about ticking off destinations from a bucket list or taking the same pictures as everyone else. It was really about the moments in between [where we could] really immerse ourselves in whatever moment we were in.”

That feeling of immersion gave birth to the philosophy that underpins the brand: travelling, living in a mindful way and being fully in the present.

How luggage company Monos used innovation to weather a turbulent year

The strength of this ethos is one the founders have had to personally put to the test amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. With the company coming off of an immense growth trajectory at the end of 2019, Tam says they weren’t initially too worried when the first rumblings of the pandemic began overseas and in North America.

“In March, when things were starting to pick up [with COVID], we were still growing,” Tam says. Then, on March 11 came the announcement of a global pandemic, with the world going into lockdown.

“That’s when it really hit us,” he says. “Before that, it was really misleading because we just kept selling. And then once they announced it, we essentially went from positive revenue to no revenue and on most days, actually, negative [revenue] because we had to start cancelling and refunding a lot of orders.”

In the first two weeks of the pandemic, Tam says the company began preparing, cutting back on ad expenditure by 90 per cent and cancelling their shared office space in order to cut down their costs. They also began forecasting extreme scenarios—and calculating how long they could last with no revenue (they gave themselves 12 months).

But, in true entrepreneurial style, that kind of thinking didn’t last long. Tam says he and his team started thinking “if that’s the worst-case scenario, what can we do from there?” “We were still a very capable team, we had really great people [and] a ton of experience,” he continues. “So, it went from, ‘let’s [think about] the worst-case scenario’ to ‘let’s get excited about what we can do next.”

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The result: within four weeks’ time, Monos released their CleanPod UVC Sterilizer, a portable wand that emits high-energy beams of ultraviolet C, sanitizing surfaces and killing 99.9 per cent of germs without the use of chemicals.

Despite the fast turnaround time, it wasn’t easy to produce an entirely new product amidst a pandemic. “The challenge was working with the factory designer to implement what we needed without physically seeing it,” Tam says. At the time, air shipments were also backlogged, meaning the company experienced delays in receiving the product.

But ultimately, the stress and hassle were worth it. “That product alone has really kind of saved us financially and as a team as well,” Tam says. “It really boosted our confidence and morale and gave our team a new sense of purpose during this time.”

The company’s response is not unusual; according to a recent Amex survey*, small businesses are surviving by focusing on new revenue streams and pivoting their business models.

This was something the people behind Monos understood—and took a financial risk on by hiring one of the top tech-focused PR agencies in the United States to market their new product. The creative direction positioned the CleanPod Sterilizer as an everyday at-home product like a vacuum, as opposed to something from a sterile medical catalogue, helping Monos stand out against competitors. It focused on social media and pushed to the brand’s e-commerce site and, as a result, the CleanPod Sterilizer has been featured in numerous publications since its debut. The campaign was clearly worth it. It was a six-figure expense that Tam says has paid back tenfold, something many other small businesses have found during the pandemic. According to the survey, most SMEs—67 per cent—say e-commerce will be crucial this year, and 52 per cent say social media will be important for customer engagement.

Innovation isn’t the only thing that is helping Monos survive. The company’s relationship with Amex has also been extremely valuable—especially as a small business that was struggling with cash flow.

“I think Amex is definitely one of the companies that understands the cash flow needs of small businesses,” Tam says. “This has been especially helpful during these times of COVID where we’ve needed that extra flexibility to free up cash for important expenses.”

It’s a challenge that many businesses are dealing with during this time: 64 per cent of small businesses say they are facing cash flow and financing problems due to the pandemic, and 51 per cent of the respondents report cash flow and financing problems have been the most pressing issue, according to the recent Amex survey.

In many ways, the pandemic has actually allowed Monos to grow, forcing the company to expedite their long-term goals in a shorter time frame. They’re launching a new line of backpacks and weekender bags in early November, much sooner than their planned release date of summer or even fall 2021. But they’re moving things up to meet the current needs and wants of their consumers.

It’s a testament to the company’s resilience that they’ve been able to embrace uncertainty and pivot their business model to not only make it through the pandemic, but to actually increase their product offerings. “COVID [has] actually let us be more creative and focus on things that we thought we wouldn’t be doing this soon,” Tam says.

*The American Express Business Resilience Survey was conducted by The Nielsen Company on behalf of American Express from September 16 to October 2, 2020, among 500 Canadian business owners or partners in small or medium enterprises. More details can be found here.


Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.

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