Supporting Independents: How Heartbreak Hill Running Co. Is Working Through Another Economic Crisis

Heartbreak Hill Running Co. launched in October 2009 during the Great Recession, so co-founders Dan Fitzgerald and Justin Burdon are familiar with navigating a business through a financial crisis.

However, given the potential the coronavirus has to harm one’s health, the duo has split up duties to keep the business running. Fitzgerald, who has a family member with an autoimmune disease, is working from home, while Burdon mans one of its stores in Boston to pack boxes and ship shoes to consumers.

And because of the uncertainty over when its four brick-and-mortar locations in Boston and Chicago can reopen, which account for a majority of the business, Heartbreak was forced to part ways with much of its staff for the time being.

Despite the changes, the two are hopeful business will be stronger when life returns to normal. Fitzgerald said they have tapped government resources that will help to bring back the staff and are working to revamp the brand’s web presence, with an emphasis on e-commerce and community. He also confirmed that online sales, which have been a minimal part of the business, are up more than 500% since March 13.

In the meantime, the retailer, which has built a following with its education-based programming, has launched Heartbreak Preseason to keep runners engaged. The effort is a series of free workouts and advice delivered daily via Instagram.

“We have a team of over 1,000 runners. Many are training for the Boston [Marathon]; many are training for other spring races. One challenge of coaching a group that large is everybody’s brain wraps around the specificity of their own race and technical needs,” Fitzgerald said. “With everybody’s race being canceled, this is an opportunity to unify our programming, to do something that on a daily basis connects with runners.”

Here, Fitzgerald discusses the actions Heartbreak Hill has taken to keep the business going and shares the bright spot of the business amid the uncertainty.

On keeping cool in crisis: 

Dan Fitzgerald: “It’s incredibly important. Justin and I are pretty steady. We bounce ideas off each other and have been for 10 years. We fill in each other’s gaps. We opened in a financial crisis and the business has yet to make us rich, so we can’t fight about money. There’s a lot of respect and trials that we’ve been through before this point. We get on calls with lots of other retailers through neighborhood associations, various types of businesses. We get on calls with businesses just like ours sometimes and you can hear different ideas. I kind of sit there as a fly on the wall. Justin [is] a former financial professional, [so] I feel like our business is in good hands. Keeping cool is about understanding our expertise and not letting catastrophe stand in the way of what we do well. You know, we think there is an opportunity to elevate.”

On tapping government options:

DF: “We applied for the EIDL, that’s the Economic Injury Disaster Loan. It’s something that’s been around for a long time and it’s a 30-year loan; I think you don’t start payments for a year and the interest rate is locked at 3.75 — that is direct with the Small Business Administration. So we applied for that [and] we’re waiting to hear back. And we applied for the Paycheck Protection Program. So it’s just a lot of waiting but we’re hopeful.”

On communicating with staff:

DF: “We’re checking in with them once in a while but we’re giving them some space. We did have to go through some layoffs, but if we get the paycheck protection plan we’ll hire everybody back and we’ll be sharper than we’ve ever been come opening. Heartbreak is a hard place to work — we don’t have a back office, we don’t have corporate anything, so everyone does everything. You have to take it for what it is; it’s a break right now. Our expectation, unless they go get other jobs, is we are bringing them all back as soon as we can.”

On big plans post the coronavirus:

DF: “We expect to launch a new website during this time. We’re on a pretty fast turnaround on that — that’s our hope. It’s been an aspiration for a long time. As you can imagine, a URL like Heartbreakhillrunningcompany.com, with all the words all the way is pretty rough. We’ve been looking to upgrade that and upgrade the look and feel of our website. One of the things we do exceptionally well is to be a place for runners and community hubs that don’t necessarily feel like we focus on commerce. We’re a business, so certainly commerce is important, but the goal is to make people feel excited and comfortable and feel like they’re coming to a place that has knowledge and care [about] what they do. I don’t think the website conveyed that in the best way. And part of the website will have a blog feature that we’re calling ‘Great Love.’ Essentially, this will feature friends of Heartbreak, people we’ve come across who we look up to or like chatting with.”

On bright spots, despite tough times:

DF: “Justin has been the pulse of the business. My wife has an autoimmune disease, so we’re being extra extra cautious. I’ve been doing everything from home and Justin’s been packing orders; he’s in there every single day. And it’s also the community. He was so inspired by what has been happening. He’s been answering e-mails and handling the phone orders, he’s the one who actually feels that community pulse. He was so moved that he wrote something about the community; he said to me, ‘I’ve been writing this, and I just want to get this out under the Heartbreak brand.’ I said it could be very powerful if it comes from you, from the guy who doesn’t say anything instead of me, the guy who always says everything. We haven’t decided when we will send it out, if it’s next Monday or before the launch of the website or something like that.”

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