2020: Reflections on the Year of the Sneeze Guard
Elements by Invictus
Like most of you, we at Invictus Steelworks had amazing plans for 2020. Most exciting was supposed to be a late summer launch of Elements by Invictus, a groundbreaking and long awaited collection of luxury statement tables. This collection includes four new sculptural table bases: Earth, Fire, Water and Wind. These designs were going to push Robert's work to a new level. If someone had told us this time last year that the worst pandemic in modern history had been unleashed on the world, that most of the country was about to be shut down, and as a result, Invictus would be launching a line of custom sneeze guards instead the Elements collection, we never would have believed you.
As it turns out, 2020 was the year of the sneeze guard, and Elements by Invictus wasn't launched as planned, simply because there was no time to build the tables. If 2020 taught us anything, it was the importance of being able to adapt to unforeseen circumstances both personally and professional, and having the fortitude and strength to focus on what could be done instead of what couldn't.
We now on plan launching the new collection in late Summer / early fall of 2021. Stay tuned for more on that.
But about those sneeze guards...
In March of 2020, a long time client asked us if we could make plexiglass sneeze guards for his restaurant. He was completely ahead of the plexiglass curve. Acrylic barriers aren't exactly statement furniture, but we had been working with this client on various projects of his for over five years, so Robert agreed to design and build his sneeze shields.
We built them and shipped them off to New Jersey. We didn't think about sneeze guards or plexiglass for the next two weeks. Without a doubt, they were the best and least stressful two weeks of 2020.
Sea of Plexiglass
Almost overnight, it seemed as though we found ourselves staring at people through a sea of plexiglass, almost all of which were unattractive, cheaply made, unstable, flimsy and worst of all, gray and cloudy from not being properly cleaned. You've probably seen them so often that you don't even notice them anymore. (Yes, there is a secret to keeping your plexiglass clear, more on that below.)
That's when we made the pivotal decision to list our sneeze barriers in our Etsy shop and give them a page on our website. Since this was not a product that had been needed prior to the pandemic, we took our best shot at figuring out what sizes people would want. We offered pretty standard sizes, 36x30, 48x30, plus a U shape and L shape option for desks. We figured our design would appeal to those interested in aesthetics as well as function, and that we would sell a handful of panels. We did not expect them to take off like wildfire, but they did. Hundreds of panels were purchased in a two week period.
We learned quickly that in addition to the standard size options we already offered, our clientele really wanted to be able to adapt the sneeze barrier to their space, rather than adapting their space to their sneeze barrier. Now this was our specialty. One of the most popular reasons, aside from superior craftsmanship, for purchasing custom made furniture is that you don't have to settle for something too big or too small for your space. This concept carried over to sneeze guards. It made a lot of sense. We began offering custom configurations, and were soon covering spans of 200" or more. We made sneeze guards for counters, sneeze guards for desks, custom acrylic barriers for restaurants, for offices and hotel lobbies, and too many other applications to list.
Robert developed special connectors that allowed us to cover unique spaces and maintain the sturdiness of our design. Using the straight and corner brackets, we were able to customize L shapes, U shapes, funky angled custom shapes with unique pass throughs for sushi bar counters and horseshoe shaped bars. We modified the design to make permanent fixtures for the front desks of schools, and learned how to determine the best configuration for each individual application. Suddenly, we found ourselves being well versed in the language of sneeze guards, when a month earlier, they weren't even part of our vocabulary.
Woman Made Sneeze Guards
Less than 2 weeks after officially launching our sneeze guard line, it became abundantly clear that one man, even one as talented as Robert, wouldn't be able to build them all himself and build our furniture orders. People weren't buying single panels, they were buying them in multiples. We weren't prepared for the massive onslaught of sneeze guard orders, and certainly hadn't expected them to be purchased in multiples more often than single panel purchases.
Because the pandemic raged on, we couldn't hire anyone to help Robert, but we knew we needed a solution. Plan A was to outsource to a freelance fabricator. We made some calls, found a local welder interested in doing the work and invited him to come in. When he showed up, he wearing his welding jacket, almost as if it were a fashion statement, because he hadn't brought his welding hood. Immediately, we saw the red flags. Nobody wears a welding jacket in 90 degree weather unless they are welding. We discussed the project requirements with him and sent him home with material to build a couple of bases. We gave him a finished base Robert had already built to use as his model. His job was to make two samples, and if they were up to par, we would figure out a price per piece. He was supposed to be back the next morning with two 15" metal sneeze guard bases ready for paint.
The results were dismal. He wasn't able to complete two bases on time, it took two full days, and what he did do wasn't useable. The weren't level, and the feet were haphazardly placed, not even or centered on the base. We were back to the drawing board. On to Plan B.
Plan B was not our favorite option. Outsourcing to a local steel fabrication shop has its risks. We would be providing our design, and there is always a chance someone will try to copy it. Heck, they wouldn't have to try, we'd be giving them the blueprints! As it turned out, they were all too busy to do build the bases in time to meet our deadlines, which at that time was something along the lines of yesterday or last week. With no other options, Robert taught his wife, Beth, how to weld. She ended up taking over the line of sneeze guards herself, allowing Robert to build furniture. It was never the plan, but we all know what happened to plans in 2020. They went out the window. You can read more about that in our press release.
Reflections on 2020
Writing this post was a good opportunity for us to reflect on the last year. While it wasn't what we had planned, we were able to achieve things in spite of the unique challenges the year presented. As a small husband and wife team, we are proud to have been able to help other businesses open safely with our sneeze guards, and we sure did learn a lot doing it.
In 2020, it was important to celebrate even small successes. What did we achieve? We made by hand and shipped hundreds and hundreds of sneeze guards across the US. Robert was able to come up with unique and cost effective solutions to help clients with their plexiglass needs so they could open their businesses, and was able to turn his concepts into real products that helped real people. Beth learned to weld and run a band saw. We played a small role in helping people keep their businesses running, keeping their employees on the payroll, and everyone just a little bit safer during this pandemic. We impacted thousands of people across the country from our little shop in Utah. That's an amazing feeling.
We spoke with our clients but more importantly, we learned to listen. We problem solved to help people decide what was best for their business. By listening carefully, we were able to identify common themes and adjust our product offerings in a way that would help many. One of the main themes we picked up on almost immediately was that nobody, absolutely nobody, wanted to spend money on a sneeze guard. That we understood. We couldn't fix that particular problem. What we could do, however, was lessen the financial burden by making a quality product that would be more cost effective in the long run, and that would be aesthetically pleasing to boot. With what we learned, we were able to make the process less stressful. Like us, nobody really thought about sneeze guards before 2020, and few really knew how to go about buying them. Helping people is always a good feeling.
As for cost savings, we think we did a good job. While the up front investment in a quality product is always more, we were able to save businesses money by providing a sturdy, stable product. The stability of design would prolong the life of the plexiglass by mitigating accidental damage. The bases last forever, and it takes just minutes to swap out a panel, they never have to replace the entire sneeze guard like they would with many of the options currently available. Finally, we taught people how to clean their plexiglass to prevent unsightly clouding, which also means fewer replacements are necessary.
We heard horror stories from our clients about their experiences. People were relying on the makers of the sneeze guards to help them, but instead, they were being taken advantage of. Not all, but we heard enough stories to know these bad actors were out there, preying on innocent people.
I'm sure they learned early on, like we did, that people didn't know much about the product other than that they needed them. We learned that companies were pushing inexpensive, inferior products, promising their customers that what they were buying was stable and long lasting when it was neither, and capitalizing on the opportunity to turn 2021 into the year of plexiglass replacement. We produced a product that we could stand behind, that would be a real cost savings over other less expensive options, and helped our customers solve what had become a very real challenge. We consider this to be an achievement.
In preparing this post, it occurred to us that we never named our sneeze guard collection. To honor everyone that has pulled together to make the best of 2020 in spite of unprecedented challenges and unexpected hardships, we'll name our sneeze guard collection Resilience.
By the way, to keep your plexiglass from clouding, never use Windex or any ammonia based cleaning product. Dilute a mild dish soap in water, spray and wipe gently with a clean cloth.
With more states beginning to open in early 2021, we anticipate that we will making sneeze guards for the foreseeable future. The pandemic hasn't let up, but neither have we, and we don't intend to. If you have any questions about our sneeze guards or any of our luxury statement furniture designs, email firstname.lastname@example.org.