Entrepreneur and brand maker Yulia Kushnir had developed an online course for small businesses even before the online education market boom during the coronavirus lockdown. The branding course, Turnkey Creative Small Business Concept, brought the three founders RUR 20 mio ($270K) in one year. The business idea appears to meet the new crisis-generated demand. In March and April, when most Russians were ordered to self-isolate, small business owners left a record number of applications on Yulia’s website.
Offline head start
The idea of starting an online business emerged from an offline project. Yulia Kushnir started her career in real estate. After some time, she got married and decided to travel to Asia for six months. Back in St Petersburg, Yulia became enthusiastic about starting her own business. She and her husband sold their car and took one of the online courses for aspiring entrepreneurs.
“Two men were just sitting in the kitchen and talking. Later I realized that basically, they just read a few books and made money by retelling them. But that was enough for us. We did benefit from the training. I think we did not even complete the course. But we just needed that mental kick from a community of people who say that anything is possible,” Yulia says.
As their first business projects, Yulia Kushnir opened a wedding dress showroom, and her husband, a coffee shop. The coffee shop began making a profit after four months, but they sold it due to low profitability.
The showroom appeared a more promising and successful business. The place offered exclusive dresses and featured a truly beautiful designer interior, which was still a rarity in St Petersburg in 2012. What is also important, it relied on carefully considered branding.
“I approached branding agencies a couple of times but nobody really offered any branding for small businesses,” the entrepreneur recalls. “I mean, these services existed but for a price of RUR 2 to 3 mio ($20K to $40K), which is an impossible amount for a small company.
After a while, the showroom moved from a not-so-centrally located business center to a location with a view of the Hermitage. Yulia launched a full-cycle production of women’s clothes. This is how YOO STUDIO came about. The entrepreneur created the brand of wedding dresses and evening gowns all by herself and took full charge of its marketing. When a child came along, Yulia had much less time to develop the project and she had to sell the functioning business with annual revenue of RUR 16 mio ($216.5K). She had to choose between managing a business and raising a child as both demanded time.
Once Yulia sold the business, her former competitors became her colleagues of sorts. She charged them for advice and they invited her to business meetings in other cities.
Another business project was launched during that time. Shoe production was the biggest success, according to Yulia. For her, the project was in fact an experiment that was supposed to either prove or discredit her branding and marketing theories. A small workshop in Sochi produced a thousand pairs of shoes over six months making it an unexpected outcome considering the investment (only RUR 400K or $5.4K). The brand was named JK.
Yulia promoted the brand on social media and through collaboration with bloggers. Yulia’s Instagram followers from among shop owners became her first customers.
“I promoted my personal brand on my Instagram account. People trust me, I have never hid anything and spoke a lot about my project,” Yulia said. “Actually, we had pre-orders even before we released an entire batch.”
When the enterprise closed due to a low profitability and difficulties with importing footwear components, Yulia came up with another plan: to open a production facility in Italy or Portugal, thus abandoning the imports, and deliver footwear directly to the Russian market.
However, the pandemic and the following lockdown have stricken a blow at the global economy and at Italy in particular. The signed agreements were no longer valid due to force majeure, and Yulia had to abandon the idea of foreign production.
Not an armchair expert
Yulia Kushnir owes much of her reputation of an entrepreneur and branding consultant to her own projects and client cases. For the years of practice, she has developed her own branding solutions for small businesses on the Russian market.
“It is very important to never stop practicing. I always worry about it, I do not want to turn into an armchair expert,” Yulia says.
In 2019, Yulia opened her own agency of creative concepts for small businesses, St. Martin Agency. The company takes two clients per month, for whom they develop a creative concept and marketing strategy.
“Strategic planning for small businesses differs from the one for large companies. This format is somehow dangerous, for each month can be the last for a small business, and small businesses risk the most. Large companies can afford to survive the crisis with their financial cushion; an entire department is involved in this work, with everyone there anticipating possible events and taking efforts to get ready for them beforehand. This is not the case with small businesses. Our team includes only three people, who think in the moment,” Yulia says.
According to Yulia and her partners, the lockdown has affected small businesses and divided its owners into two groups: some are striving to learn and develop their project from the scratch, while others order rebranding to solve various issues, including development of anti-crisis strategies.
Develop or die
Posts with insights in the blog, paid consultations and corporate training in other cities showed that different companies face problems that have much in common. This inspired Yulia to create a standardized training course developed with account of small business realities in Russia.
The first group who took Yulia’s course had only 20 people; the number then soared to 100. The team’s profit last year was RUR 20 mio ($270.2K), the amount the three people received from selling an online course. The key to the small company’s profitability is the fact that each team member has cross competencies, she says.
Yulia believes that it is important to speak to audience in their own language and train small business representatives by citing a three-seat cafe as an example rather than speaking of marketing strategies used by such giants as Coca-Cola.
The crisis buildup has led to increasing demand for the online course for small business owners. The crisis, which was caused by the pandemic and the lockdown, has paradoxically become the finest hour for agencies operating in such format. Today, clients are aware that they will not be able to enter the changing market without rebranding and upgrading their approaches, Yulia says. Amidst the crisis, small businesses have to remember one of the fundamental rules of competitive business: develop or die.
By Ekaterina Marchuk