Linh Truong is the innovative founder of The Soap Dispensary, Vancouver’s first dedicated refill shop specializing in premium soaps, household cleaners, personal care products, DIY ingredients and grocery supplies. Considered an essential service, she has been able to keep doors open over the last few months but has had to drastically adjust operations to adapt to a new environment. She’s sharing how she’s successfully incorporating new virtual and delivery solutions and most importantly, continuing to service her customers with the products they need most.
What area of your business is getting your most energy and focus?
My shop has remained open throughout this pandemic but our normal operations have been thrown out the window. Adaptation and new systems development and implementation (and doing it safely) have consumed all my attention. We have had to transform into another business in a way and join the ranks of many brick and mortar shops to adapt to an online market.
What is the most important problem you are trying to solve?
In a broad sense, I am trying to maintain the essence of what we did well before COVID; what made us unique and important in our customer’s lives and translating that in our new operations. My business tries to resolve the issue of how to help our community reduce waste in the simplest and most impactful way. So as my shop works around the restrictions and guidelines set by our local authorities, we are trying to uphold an important message in our community that even in a pandemic, we can still minimize waste and support our customers in the long term vision of the future we want.
What has been your most successful solution so far?
Like many businesses around us, pivoting to an online platform has been a win for us and our customers. Our foot traffic has been reduced to a trickle but once we opened online, sales recovered quickly and allowed us to retain our team and maintain support for our suppliers. Our customers were grateful to be able to stay at home while still being able to explore our offerings online.
How have you been staying connected with your customers and employees?
I hope that by remaining open, we are not only a place to get essentials but we are also a little sanctuary for our customers to stay in touch with things that they care about beyond the fears and lockdown. I also feel that mine and all the little independent shops that have been able to stay open on otherwise deserted streets early in the pandemic keep our neighbourhood colourful and interactive and independent. We are available to our customers physically and virtually. Social media is also a great point of connection with customers
As for my team, we have a morning meeting every day to stay in touch with what’s going on. I am very involved in my shop and I am in the shop every day. I make myself available to my staff if they need me. I think it has also been nice for those who choose to work during COVID to have a place to feel productive and see their coworkers and friends. With social distancing, the team has become the only other social circle they can share space with.
What financial resources are you tapping into?
I must admit I have not had time to look into if I qualify for financial support. I am grateful to my accountant for sending me info and I have plans to apply for the emergency loan from the Federal govt and cement some of our changes into permanent facets of the shop, such as a webstore upgrade. There are also lots to upgrade in our shop and delivery vehicle. A business can always improve.
“I never see a problem as a problem. I see them as challenges; as an opportunity to tap into creative thinking; as a learning experience.”
What has surprised you?
The resilience of my team. They came to work during the scariest and darkest hours during the pandemic. They were scared but they still showed up – to serve customers, to help me, to support each other. I am eternally grateful to them.
How far ahead are you planning?
I am a nose-to-the-ground kind of entrepreneur. I am very involved in the day-to-day operations which allows me to tweak and improve what we do all the time. My bigger plans are usually 3 – 6 months ahead but in actuality, I set small goals every few days or weeks to get to the bigger ones.
What keeps you positive?
I never see a problem as a problem. I see them as challenges; as an opportunity to tap into creative thinking; as a learning experience. I do get thrown off by mistakes or HR issues and financial worries like everyone else but I know things change all the time, and things almost always get better. Entrepreneurs are generally a positive bunch. You need some can-do attitude to want to go off on your own and take a risk!
What message do you want to share with entrepreneurs right now?
For someone starting out, work hard to learn all about your industry and yourself within it. Then at some point, dive and take some risks. You can’t know how things will go otherwise. This is an advice I admit I am trying to practice myself. Do what you love and get others to help with what you don’t. You don’t have to be an expert at everything. You may worry that getting help is an expense you can’t afford or asking for help is embarrassing but your time is the most valuable asset you have.