OpEd: COVID, Community, and Holding Companies to a Higher Standard
Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
About a year ago, I thought COVID was going to destroy my business.
I was concerned about losing my job, but as a business owner I was more worried about my team. My failure would ripple through dozens of lives, some with devastating consequences, and I would be left with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.
Scary. But, sadly, not unique.
My team and I make O2, a hydration and recovery drink born in fitness from my roots as a CrossFit coach. This time last year, over fifty percent of our revenue came from sales in CrossFit gyms, and many of those gym owners had become like family.
Then, those gyms started to close. COVID was here, and gym owners faced an even greater threat than we did.
I didn’t know what to do, so I defaulted to what felt right: we’d split our profits from online sales with gym owners 50/50. Right down the middle.
We launched that initiative exactly one year ago today and went on to see the 10x-type growth I had previously only dreamed of — 2020 was our biggest year ever.
Honestly, I didn’t see that coming. Deep down, I believe people really do care about one another, but it was still surprising to see the proof on a balance sheet. It was powerful evidence that putting others first is just good business, and I now firmly believe the businesses that give back to their communities are the ones that will pull ahead in 2021 and beyond.
Everyone can agree this last year has been tough. It’s easier now more than ever to scoff at the power of positivity, or the so-called “socially responsible brand.”
But, you can’t argue with facts: almost 100,000 CrossFitters showed up to support their gym owners through various O2 initiatives last year, and they voted with their dollars to support companies that supported their communities.
“Business” gets a bad rap, and rightfully so when the endgame is purely financial. But, ethical businesses have the power to do more good in the world than any government program or nonprofit. One of my mentors talked me out of joining the Peace Corps after college, saying that if I really wanted to change the world, I should build a company that society would actually want to exist. And I think he was right.
COVID has forever altered the American consumer landscape. Almost overnight, it shined a spotlight on how businesses respond to crisis and tragedy, and in doing so it revealed whether they serve their communities or just their bottom lines. But COVID was only an accelerant — gas on a fire fueled by a growing number of people fed up with leaders choosing to uphold the status quo.
Shopify, which powers the majority of online shopping sites, published this in 2020: “Purpose-driven consumers — approximately 40% of all consumers — want products and brands that align with their beliefs, and are willing to pay a premium. Gen Z, now the largest consumer group, leads the trend.”
If you lead a business (including a gym), read that again.
Deep pockets or being in the right place at the right time no longer guarantees success. People are tired of companies taking more than they give, and it’s no longer acceptable to prioritize a fat bottom line over those you serve.
All companies have an opportunity to affect positive change, and we’re fast approaching a time when our customers will insist upon it; a time when being a “successful business owner” means investing in your community, mitigating harm to the environment, and standing for something more than just the bottom line.
Last year, O2 made a few difficult (but not that difficult) decisions to give back to our community. By the end of 2020, we contributed $177,000 to gym owners, $30,000 to underprivileged youth, and $14 million in incentives to gym members for keeping their memberships active.
My only regret is that I waited for a global pandemic to get my ass in gear.
By Earth Day, O2 will be carbon neutral, and we’re on track to be carbon negative soon. It takes work, but damn — it feels really good. And we’re just getting started.
Are you a business owner? Is your sole concern the bottom line? Have you considered the possibility that giving back may actually improve it? I know it sounds idealistic, but the irony is that putting your community and customers first will probably boost your bottom line even faster.
And, it doesn’t stop there. Employees and coaches are finding the courage to speak up or walk out on businesses that violate their moral compasses, and rightfully so. Who wants to work for a business that mistreats its staff or doesn’t operate with integrity?
But, ultimately, the buck stops with us — literally, as consumers. As CrossFitters, we all take pride in making the tough choices. My friend Tosh, a decorated veteran, likes to say: “hard people do hard shit.” That defines CrossFitters to a T, and the world needs more good, hard people doing more good, hard shit.
So start here: take a minute to evaluate the purpose behind the brand you’re supporting before your next “Buy Now” button click. When done right, it’s rewarding and feels good — just like a tough workout.
We owe it to ourselves and future generations to invest only in the businesses that invest in us. We can buy American and shop at veteran-backed businesses. We can make sure our dollars are working for the world instead of against it. We should do these things, not because they’re easy, but because they’re right.
CrossFitters are leaders, and it’s on us to lead. Your choices matter. Hold a higher standard, and join us in asking businesses to lead by putting community first, starting now.