Small Business Success Story: Viruserv
Responding to a pandemic, a Salt Lake City entrepreneur pivots from chocolate to hypochlorous acid.
“Being a business owner, you gotta try.”
That’s what it took for one Utah entrepreneur impacted by the pandemic shutdowns in Spring 2020: giving something new a shot.
Dan Ray has been a Wasatch Front entrepreneur for nearly two decades. The avid snowboarder entered the confection industry working at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory between powder turns at Snowbird.
He would go on to run a chocolate-focused catering business and other franchise locations before operating his current Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory locations: one at City Creek Center and a Fashion Place Mall location that opened in Fall 2019.
Unable to sell marshmallow Easter eggs as stay-at-home orders temporarily closed malls and later opened to reduced foot traffic, Ray and his businesses were hit hard. “I was in a dark place and my businesses were closed. I was devastated,” he recalls. “So I thought, what I else could I do?”
Pandemic Pivot: From Chocolate to Hypochlorous Acid
Watching news reports showing aggressive efforts in Asia to stave off the spread of COVID-19, he saw service workers using disinfectant guns to spray down streets and surfaces in Taiwan and Singapore. He decided to pivot to a new opportunity. Viruserv was born.
He originally conceived of Viruserv as a scalable service business, using electrostatic sprayers to clean and disinfect local businesses and schools. He landed a contract with Enterprise Rent-A-Car® and even helped disinfect the University of Utah football practice building.
But he quickly saw the opportunity to evolve Viruserv into a distribution business for the cleaning equipment — electrostatic sprayers and atomized foggers that distribute the hypochlorous acid, a safe cousin of chlorine said to be the least toxic and safest disinfectant on the market. His products include the two types of electrostatic sprayers, four sizes of disinfectant foggers that fog that sanitize rooms, disinfectants and PPE.
Now, 80% of his business is through wholesalers, medical and industrial suppliers. He has also sold equipment to Salt Lake City School District, Canyons School District, Nebo School District, Rocky Mountain Care assisted living facilities, as well as agricultural operations and pet boarding businesses. Individuals from across the country wanting to start their own cleaning businesses also buy his products.
Ray believes some fundamental approaches he’s taken over the course of his career helped him take the leap. He shares his five tips for pivoting a business.
Business pandemic pivot tip #1: Channel energy
Ray has always thrown his energy into his work. As a business owner, the effort expended directly correlates to results. “There was a steep mountain to climb, and so many reasons to give up, but I didn’t, and then I started generating revenue,” he says.
Business pandemic pivot tip #2: Pound the pavement
Seeing the demand for cleaning equipment, Ray purchased more sprayers and foggers to sell. He cold-called janitorial companies to find out where they purchased their equipment, then called distributors for two months straight.
“I’d ask, do you have disinfectant sprayers? They’d say, ‘Well, right now we’re all out of them.’ I’d say, well, maybe I can help you,” he says.
Business pandemic pivot tip #3: Use business connections
Ray is a natural networker and built professional relationships by attending corporate networking events. “I definitely leaned on my network of business relationships I’ve had in the past and they turned into clients and advocates for me,” he says.
One professional connection became a business partner. He had experience with imports and introduced Ray to an electrical engineer who served as a liaison to help vet and source electrostatic sprayer factories in China. Now, the factory manufactures Viruserv-branded sprayers and the inventory is warehoused in Los Angeles.
Business pandemic pivot tip #4: Keep innovating
Recognizing that different facilities and spaces had different requirements, Ray expanded his products beyond the initial sprayer option, the VB Guardian. He is now adding a hand-held pistol-like sprayer, the VH Protector.
To help meet PPE shortages across the country, he also commissioned Murray-based Aspen Earth® to manufacture reusable plastic face masks that have replaceable filters and can be sterilized in an autoclave. He offers discounts on PPE for frontline workers.
Business pandemic pivot tip #5: Have a relationship with a banker
Ray has appreciated the service he has received from Zions Bank Business Banking relationship manager Chris Penman over the last three years, and he worked with him to get a U.S. Small Business Administration Paycheck Protection Program loan in April.
When it came time to set up Viruserv’s Zions Bank Business Checking Account, it was easy for Ray to do it physically distanced and over the phone with Penman. As he learned more about Viruserv, Penman was able to recommend Ray set up Zions Bank Online Wire Transfer services to make the international payments to the equipment manufacturer’s bank in China.
As he grows Viruserv, Ray continues to operate his Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory locations and believes uncertainties are a reality for any business owner.
“I started this new business that could be short lived. There’s so much uncertainty on both ends of my businesses,” he says. “But while I’ve been running a business and supporting my family, I’ve also been able to help make a difference to slow the spread during the pandemic.”
Looking to pivot your small business? Zions Bank offers online business tools and our Business Resource Centers in Salt Lake City and Boise provide counseling and training for entrepreneurs. Zions Bank’s team of relationship managers can help you find the right SBA loan* for your business. Apply for a business loan online anytime or visit a local Zions Bank branch to learn more.
*Loans subject to credit approval and SBA approval. Terms and conditions apply. See a banker for details.
Heidi Prokop is senior vice president and Communications manager for Zions Bank.