How an Ann Arbor warming-blanket business scaled up during COVID by reconnecting with customers

This story is part of a series about Washtenaw County businesses' response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Support for this series is provided by Ann Arbor SPARK

Last February, before many Americans even knew the word COVID-19, Warmilu founder Grace Hsia had been following the pandemic and knew it was going to disrupt her business. Her Ann Arbor-based company creates non-electric warming packs used in stadium seat cushions, as well as blankets that are designed to sustain healthy body temperature in premature infants. The latter product is core to Warmilu's revenue and was being used in 30 countries at the time. 

But as the world started to shut down, Hsia battled a gnawing nervousness about whether her customers would be able to continue to do business with Warmilu. After serious thought about how she could keep her business afloat, she decided that it was not the time to give in to her fear. Instead she decided to re-embrace some business basics. 

The result: Warmilu's revenue has grown 172% and is doing better than ever. 

"I decided to go back to the fundamentals," Hsia says. "I began to see the pandemic as a learning opportunity, and I reread the business books and business start-up manuals that first inspired me. That was very powerful."

Revisiting some essential principles — such as understanding market segments and which market factors are driving change in customers — led Hsia to create the Warmilu Partner Feedback survey. She sent the survey to roughly 30 key customers (such as Doctors Without Borders) and asked them to rate Warmilu products, offer advice for improvements, and share stories about how Warmilu infant heating blankets and packs have saved lives. 

"We also inquired if we could ask follow-up questions, and if we could provide more information on how to buy more blankets and packs," Hsia says. "This was huge, because just before the pandemic we were transitioning to a new and larger medical device distributor."

Despite the miserable timing, Hsia powered through the transition with the new distributor and now Warmilu products are in 75 countries. When one survey respondent asked if Warmilu could work with them to make protective medical gurney shields, Hsia says she "adapted and got on board to help."

She also credits her business success to her willingness to reach out and ask for assistance. 

"As I kept reading and researching, I remembered that as a small business owner, you are truly never alone," Hsia says. "I decided not to reinvent the wheel, but rather build on already proven practices and reach out to partners and organizations to see if they could help or collaborate with us."

She contacted Ann Arbor SPARK and secured help through the Washtenaw Small Business Emergency Relief Fund, which she says was "a lifesaver during a major drop in revenue that could have been crushing."

Connecting with Warmilu fans on social media was also critical. Hsia explains that after business started to boom, she was concerned about not being able to fulfill all the orders. Microwaves are important in creating some Warmilu products, and Hsia and her team needed more of them to get their orders out in time. They asked their Facebook supporters if anyone could donate a microwave, and in about a week, Warmilu had six additional microwaves. The support helped them move from making roughly 50 packs a week to up to 200 packs a week.

"It's been a time of resilience, building relationships, a buckle-down mindset, and 360 degrees of learning. But the whole experience has us excited to take on the world," Hsia says. 

Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at jaishreeedit@gmail.com.
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