As a new month of life under the coronavirus pandemic approaches, small businesses everywhere are barreling towards a very difficult near future. With a major loss of customers, widespread closures, and rising rent, Main Street will become vacant if the curve doesn't flatten soon enough.
One small business, Wyrmwood, a popular Massachusetts-based tabletop gaming company founded in 2012, is poised to offer a rare glimpse inside the new economy practically in real-time.
On March 25, Wyrmwood uploaded the Season 4 premiere of Wyrm Life, the company's YouTube reality series that debuted in 2018. On a normal episode, the show takes viewers behind the scenes of Wyrmwood's warehouse where it manufactures dice trays, game master screens, and other accessories used by players of games like Dungeons & Dragons. The brand is renowned for its exotic wood materials and fine craftsmanship.
Part Pawn Stars and part The Office, Wyrm Life normally stars Wyrmwood's most colorful staffers — like CEO Douglas Costello and creative director Bobby Downey — getting caught up in hijinks while solving day-to-day problems and previewing new products.
But 2020 is not normal. On March 26, the Season 4 premiere uploaded to YouTube with the ominous title: "We Laid Off Everyone." Over eight minutes, the company explains how much their operations have changed in the past few weeks. And with new episodes still scheduled to upload "twice a week," Wyrmwood's YouTube channel may be a front-row seat to the imminent challenges of a small business during an unprecedented pandemic.
"I think there's a very good chance that this is the last day Wyrmwood is operational," says Costello in the show's cold open.
In talking head interviews, Costello and other Wyrmwood employees elaborated on the new skeleton crew status of the company: Wyrmwood has entered a "partial shutdown" due to the coronavirus. After laying off 50 employees, the company is now just 15 full-time staffers (down from 65), "starting today."
"We had to make a hard pivot," says Costello. "Because there is community spread. So we decided to proactively do a pretty hefty, we're going to call it a partial shutdown."
In an email, Wyrmwood clarified it is paying its craftspeople working from home "on a piece-meal basis," and will take place over a two week period.
"Assuming the volume and demand stays high, we'll be bringing them back as full W2 employees, though they'll still work remotely until it's safe for them to come back to the facility," Wyrmwood tells Inverse. "We didn't want to jeopardize our employees' ability to seek unemployment benefits by keeping them on as employees in case this didn't work at all. Once it's clear that it's working (after the two-week trial) we'll bring those individuals back on payroll fully."
In the episode, the company confirmed it will continue to make its products with various health precautions in place, such as mandatory gloves, separate workstations, no shared tools, and the closure of the company's break room. "We are running at our bare minimum to continue," says Christopher Gates, the company's convention manager now handling customer service. "Just really the bare minimum to keep operating."
"We're sort of scrambling," says Ian Costello, company co-founder and designer.
On March 24, Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts issued a stay-at-home order that closed all of the state's non-essential businesses. Though Wyrmwood is a gaming company and doesn't sell food or medicine, Dave Costello confirmed it is allowed to stay open because Wymwood is a website shipping operation, which is deemed essential.
That's the good news for Wyrmwood. The bad news: "You can't make product," Costello says. At least, not in the same building. Thus, Wyrmwood has begun a new process that will see staffers drop off and collect boxes of orders to its craftspeople's homes (and not sharing contact) in order to keep moving product.
Just like that, Wyrmwood's comedy YouTube show has become essential viewing to witness COVID-19's dramatic impact on a small business. Wyrmwood's challenges aren't so different from other mom and pop stores facing closure, but not all small businesses have active YouTube channels with over 44,000 subscribers. And while the true ripple effects of the coronavirus beyond its massive death toll have yet to be felt, an internet-savvy gaming accessories company has become an unlikely window to see them coming.
"We're just making sure that down however long a road this is, there is a Wyrmwood left that we can rebuild," says Costello.
This article was updated on 3/20/2020 to include an emailed statement from Wyrmwood.
Wyrm Life is uploaded twice weekly on Wyrmwood's YouTube channel.
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