Apurva Batra, 31, built his business, Flexible Pouches, within a a very specialized, millionaire-next-door kind of niche: making attractive, retail-ready packaging for consumer goods at a price that small and midsize brands can afford. He makes the bags that might hold boxed pharmaceuticals or artisanal kale chips, for instance, targeting B2B clients in small and midsized businesses looking for attractive pricing. After founding Flexible Pouches in 2016, he grew it to $1 million in annualized revenue its first year.
By early 2020, with revenue at $3-3.5 million annually, Batra, a former engineer at Chevron in Houston, expanded what was originally a one-man business to three employees—transitioning into a category I call tiny businesses that make big money.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Costs for shipping containers skyrocketed, with containers that once cost $3,000 to $5,000 each now costing $15,000. Larger customers demanded preferential payment terms. Meanwhile, raw materials costs began to rise, and shipping delays became a fact of life. “If there’s one word that can sum up the busines environment in 2022, it’s shortages,” says Batra.
Determined to protect his margins, Batra went into overdrive to find workarounds for the challenge in front of him. Here’s how he’s keeping his business thriving.
Optimize shipping: Batra was not able to do much about the rising cost of shipping containers, so he switched to air shipments in some cases. The cost of air shipping has doubled during the crisis, but it’s been more manageable than ocean shipping. “It’s been one way we’ve been able to (sort of) pivot,” he says. “In any business, pandemic or not, being adaptable and being able to pivot based on the circumstances is critical not just for surviving but thriving.”
Embrace automation: There aren’t many areas of Flexible Pouches that can be fully automated—“there’s only so much automation I can incorporate into hybrid pouch manufacturing,” he says—but Batra was able to automate invoicing and tracking of packages, saving valuable time.
Stay diversified: Batra’s business has always served a variety of clients, from pharma companies to food manufacturers. That has helped him weather the ups and downs of COVID-19. “We may see shifts in different markets,” says Batra.
Find new ways to communicate with suppliers. Batra has not been able to visit his manufacturing facilities for a year and a half, so he has had to ship films and other materials back and forth to the plant on a constant basis. “We have more Zoom and Facetime interactions,” he says. “It’s a little bit of disruption to the normal process.”
Modify hiring plans. Batra planned to hire more quality control staff in 2020, but that became impractical. “There was uncertainty in what was going to happen,” he says. “I didn’t put all my eggs into the hiring basket. I’m trying to manage cash flow carefully.”
Take the long view. “There are times when, looking back and reflecting on the past couple of years, 2018 would never imagine where 2020 and 2021 are sitting,” says Batra. “Moments like that make me want to pause. Then, at the same time I look at the road ahead. I’m only 31. I don’t want to let things go. In any industry there are people sitting there trying to kick your butt. That’s capitalism. Making sure we’re on the defensive is imperative.”