UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.
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ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, HOST:
One day last week, the PLANET MONEY team started off its day just like a ton of businesses around the country, with an early morning GoToMeeting video call.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2, BYLINE: Just waiting to take attendance. It doesn't look like we have enough squares.
AMANDA ARONCZYK, HOST:
There was all of the usual video meeting high jinks that have become pretty familiar by now. One guy was on mute.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3, BYLINE: I can't hear you.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: There were baby sightings and newly adopted puppies running around in the background, some light breakfast banter.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Malone, what are you - are you eating chocolate ice cream for breakfast, because I hope you are?
KENNY MALONE, BYLINE: No, it's much more loathsome than that. This is some homemade chia seed pudding with chocolate almond milk.
ARONCZYK: But about halfway through the meeting, Greg Rosalsky, who writes our newsletter, noticed something strange.
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ARONCZYK: There was a new attendee at our meeting.
GREG ROSALSKY, BYLINE: Is there a goat? What is the goat? Am I hallucinating or is there a goat in our meeting right now?
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Greg was not hallucinating. There was, in fact, a real-life grown-ass goat with gnarly horns and a stringy goatee standing inside his own little box in the corner of our GoToMeeting.
NATE SALPETER: This is Nate with Goat-2-Meeting.
SALPETER: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely. Here, I'm going to turn my camera around if that's possible.
ARONCZYK: Nate Salpeter popped into our meeting.
SALPETER: Can y'all see me all right?
ARONCZYK: He's the executive director of the nonprofit Sweet Farm Foundation, which is an animal sanctuary in Northern California.
SALPETER: Amazing, amazing.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And just to describe what we're seeing here, Nate is standing in a, like, beautiful open green pasture, introducing us to this cast of animals that might better be described these days as the talent.
SALPETER: This is Magnolia. She's a dwarf cow.
ROSALSKY: Is that a llama?
SALPETER: This is a llama. This is Paco.
ARONCZYK: So as of a couple months ago, Sweet Farm was making its money by hosting corporate groups at the farm. So, like, these Silicon Valley tech executives would show up and volunteer and spend the day getting their hands dirty.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But as the pandemic put those bookings on indefinite hold, Nate and his fellow Sweet Farm workers had to figure out a new way to make things work. One of their board members suggested that companies now suffering through all these increasingly monotonous Zoom calls might pay the farm to spice things up a bit, maybe offer a few animal cameos.
SALPETER: So we all kind of laughed. And we were like, OK, like, there's no reason why we shouldn't try this.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And the next day, Goat-2-Meeting had its first booking. And Nate says things just kind of blew up after that.
ARONCZYK: How many goats are going to meetings these days?
SALPETER: We've done well over a hundred meetings at this point. We have several hundred on the books moving into June. And it's become so popular that we've actually opened up bookings to other sanctuaries because we alone couldn't scale the demand.
ARONCZYK: Prices range from $60 for small groups all the way up to 750 for a VIP tour. And Nate says that at this point, Sweet Farm is actually making slightly more money than they did last year at this time.
SALPETER: But we do expect, you know, the natural spike and then tail of demand. So what we'll be seeing is just how long that tail lasts and whether or not that will carry us through the entire season.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4, BYLINE: Can you make him make the goat noise?
SALPETER: If they want to make the goat noise, they will definitely make the goat noise.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5, BYLINE: What if everyone on the GoToMeeting call makes the goat noise and we can try to encourage?
SALPETER: Oh, that's a great idea.
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SALPETER: I think I'm going to start asking, like, the school groups to do that. That's great.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6, BYLINE: Cheap radio tricks - you're welcome.
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HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi.
ARONCZYK: And I'm Amanda Aronczyk. It's been a rough month, to say the very least. We have all become part of this weird, massive social experiment where a fraction of the workforce leaves their home and goes to do their job. Thank you, by the way. And the rest of us, we work from home or are unemployed.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: This lockdown has completely changed the way people spend money and upended the economy. There are, of course, some obvious winners - the Cloroxes and Zooms and Amazons and Domino's of the world. And, sure, those make sense.
ARONCZYK: But today on the show, we are going to look at the scrappy underdogs, the MacGyvers of the coronavirus, duct taping their way to at least a little bit of success in a world blown apart by a global pandemic.
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HOROWITZ-GHAZI: OK, on today's show, we are going to set aside global economics for a moment and peer into the cracks, where, against all odds, business finds a way - three tiny stories about people improvising their way through this weird new world, three tiny victories.
ARONCZYK: First up, Tom Foster. He owns a company in Eugene, Ore., called Strapworks.
TOM FOSTER: We make straps. And when I say straps, literally every person on the planet uses straps.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And Tom, he sees straps pretty much everywhere. He's kind of obsessed.
FOSTER: A belt is a strap. A purse - a shoulder strap is another example. We actually have a significant number of straps up on the International Space Station holding cargo from floating around.
ARONCZYK: No kidding.
FOSTER: Oh, yeah.
ARONCZYK: That's amazing.
FOSTER: I can't tell you outright who we're working with.
ARONCZYK: But he did hint that it starts with N and ends with ASA.
Do you need special straps for space?
FOSTER: Oh, yes. Oh, it's very, very special materials and very special manufacturing.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Another thing Tom really cares about is being a great boss. He promises all of his employees a stress-free job.
FOSTER: I never hold a stopwatch on anybody here. I mean, we have a hot tub here at the factory, and we have two gyms. We have a piano up on one of our mezzanines that a couple of the people here go up and play on their breaks.
ARONCZYK: And for the past 20 years, Tom's basically been living his dream, making straps for outer space, soaking in the hot tub.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And then there was that week in March where everything changed. Strapworks was deemed an essential manufacturer, but for two weeks, there was a big drop in sales. And so Tom said, I don't like this, but we have to start thinking about making some cutbacks.
FOSTER: Our executive group got together with the managers. And we said, well, here's the deal. I mean, we have to keep it alive. So we cut back on hours 20%.
ARONCZYK: It was a hard call. All 62 employees would work 20% less and get paid 20% less.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But then...
FOSTER: Then all hell broke loose.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: You may remember that after weeks of waffling, where the CDC was like, it's OK, you don't need to wear a face mask, they then said, actually, never mind. Yes, please do wear one. But don't buy the fancy N95s. Save those for people who need them. How about you make your own mask? This could be fun - maybe a new hobby.
FOSTER: Everybody on the planet who has a sewing machine is currently making face masks.
ARONCZYK: To make a DIY face mask, you need two things. You need fabric, and then you need something to attach that fabric to your face, like elastic, which Strapworks has always sold.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Tom's passion for elastic doesn't burn quite as hot as it does for some of those cooler straps that they get to customize - you know, throw on things like bumblebees or flames. For him, elastic has always been sort of meh.
FOSTER: It's not a high-use item. Elastic is a novelty item. It's a notion. It's not stocked by anybody in large quantities anticipating anything remotely close to this.
ARONCZYK: And for Tom, it's been nearly impossible to keep up with the demand for elastic.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: He sold more elastic in the past 20 days than he did in the previous 20 years - in the entire history of his company. And that's meant having to buy out every supplier he can find.
FOSTER: We did get one supplier - one of our very best suppliers - he called us at, say, 10 a.m. and said, look; I've got this. We have elastic. And it took 17 minutes for my inventory manager to get back to him, and he'd sold it to somebody else already.
ARONCZYK: Oh, no.
FOSTER: Oh, no.
ARONCZYK: Seventeen minutes.
FOSTER: In 17 minutes. And this was a substantial amount of elastic. So I told him - I said, we're one of your best customers. Could you give us, say, a half an hour before you put it...
FOSTER: ...Out on the regular market? And he said, OK, I'm sorry.
ARONCZYK: You never know when your market will change. Elastic is now Tom's No. 1 product. This lowly, stretchy strap usually relegated to our waistbands and our underpants is out there saving lives.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Which also means that almost all of Tom's employees are back to work full-time - sometimes more than full-time.
FOSTER: Oh, my God. I don't think I've ever seen my shipping manager more stressed out. I had to apologize to her pretty profusely.
ARONCZYK: But everyone does still have a job.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Unfortunately, it's virtually impossible to socially distance in a company hot tub, so Tom has switched to handing out brownies and chocolates to boost morale - at least until the pandemic's over.
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ARONCZYK: All right - story No. 2. For this one, you're going to need to know the plot of the classic mid-career Clint Eastwood movie "Space Cowboys."
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: It's sometime in the late '90s, and NASA has found itself in a tricky pickle. A Cold War Soviet-era satellite is about to fall out of orbit, careen back to Earth in a fiery blaze, unless NASA can stop it. The problem - none of their engineers can speak the satellite's archaic programming language.
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JAMES CROMWELL: (As Bob Gerson) You have the code. Why don't you just override the guidance system?
LOREN DEAN: (As Ethan Glance) You want to figure that mess out? Bob, the guidance system on this thing is a dinosaur. It's pre-microprocessor. It's pre-everything. Whoever designed this Byzantine piece of [expletive] is probably chopping rocks in Siberia.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So NASA decides to call in the only people who could possibly solve the problem - a crack team of geriatric astronauts, the titular space cowboys - out of retirement and into orbit. There are trials. There are tribulations.
ARONCZYK: And we tell you all of this because the same thing is kind of happening right now, but with unemployment insurance. Here's real-life mid-career New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy to explain.
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PHIL MURPHY: Not only do we need health care workers, but given the legacy systems, we should add a page for Cobalt (ph) computer skills because that's what we're dealing with.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: This was him at a press conference a few weeks ago, making a sort of urgent plea for a very particular kind of program.
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MURPHY: We have systems that are 40-plus years old. And there'll be lots of postmortems, and one of them on our list will be, how the heck did we get here where we literally needed COBOL programmers.
ARONCZYK: COBOL programmers - C-O-B-O-L. COBOL is a computer language developed back in the late '50s. It's short for common business-oriented language. And for decades, it was one of the most popular programming languages for businesses. So some state governments used it to build their unemployment systems.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And it was those same systems that were still in place when record numbers of people started filing for unemployment about a month ago. In New Jersey, the system was lagging under this huge volume of claims, and that triggered the governor's call for COBOL programmers.
ARONCZYK: To figure out what was happening, we made our own call to North Texas.
BILL HINSHAW: Cobol Cowboys. This is Bill.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Hey there, Bill. Good morning. How are you?
HINSHAW: Just fine.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Bill Hinshaw is the co-founder and owner of Cobol Cowboys, named after the movie.
Do you see yourself as more of a, like, a Donald Sutherland-type space cowboy or maybe like a Tommy Lee Jones?
HINSHAW: Oh, God. Well, no. I would be Clint Eastwood. Oh, I'm a cowboy. I would got to be...
HINSHAW: ...Clint Eastwood.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Can't beat Clint.
HINSHAW: Yeah. I don't know. Oh, God. I love that guy.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Bill started programming with COBOL back in the early 1960s.
HINSHAW: It was exciting. It was new. I mean, you could go out and talk to people - say, hey, we're in this new technology. We're working for IBM. I mean, it's what the young people do today with their Java and all that kind of stuff. It was the ego (ph) deal.
ARONCZYK: But as the world eventually turned to personal computers, the Internet and new coding languages, COBOL just kind of went out of fashion. Many of the people who set up those original unemployment and banking systems retired, and they pretty much stopped teaching COBOL in universities.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Meanwhile, many companies and state agencies never switched their systems over from COBOL. It's still just quietly humming in the background, running all kinds of critical infrastructure.
HINSHAW: If you go on to cash a check, I mean, if you go on to hospitals, if you're going to get a driver's license, I mean, you - what people see is these graphic screens, pretty front-end stuff. They don't understand that in the background, all of the grunt work is being done on COBOL.
ARONCZYK: Bill says that the wider world just kind of forgot about it, except every few years when something breaks and they have to call in the cowboys.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And with Cobol Cowboys, Bill has rounded up the biggest posse in town, several hundred private COBOL contractors from across the land.
You guys are standing ready for one last ride.
HINSHAW: Well, it's going to be a never-ending ride for me, you know?
HINSHAW: In fact, I'll be running my last line of COBOL code on the day before I die.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: That's dedication.
HINSHAW: Yeah, it's love (laughter).
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Yeah, yeah.
HINSHAW: It's love, really, 'cause I believe in COBOL.
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ARONCZYK: After the break, desperate times call for desperate impulse buys.
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ARONCZYK: So far in this show, we've been talking about companies that have had unexpected surges. This last story flips that around. It's from the perspective of a buyer.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Last month, as Seattle was shutting down, Lindsay Strickland (ph) started considering a purchase that her family had wanted for a long time. But it had always seemed a little bit too dangerous.
LINDSAY STRICKLAND: You know, one of our kids is just going to end up in the hospital (laughter) if we get this thing, so let's not.
ARONCZYK: Lindsay has four kids, ages 7 to 12. And on the very day when the city closed the schools, she was like, yeah, the time for that big purchase is now.
STRICKLAND: When my husband was finished up with work that evening, we measured the backyard (laughter) and ordered our 12-foot trampoline.
ARONCZYK: A 12-foot COVID trampoline - every kid's dream.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And if you don't have kids, you may not have noticed, but there's been a run on trampolines. If you don't believe us, go online and see if you can find a trampoline in stock.
ARONCZYK: Trampoline sales have never been higher, at least that's according to one of the leading trampoline brands. They said they're selling more trampolines now than ever - more than at Christmas, more than at whatever other holiday people buy trampolines on.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Anyway, Lindsay jumped on the trampoline bandwagon before the shortage.
STRICKLAND: I knew we weren't going to spend top dollar for some, you know, boutique trampoline (laughter).
ARONCZYK: Is that a thing that exists - boutique trampolines?
STRICKLAND: (Laughter) Oh, I don't know. I mean, I know we have a neighbor behind us who - theirs is a spring-free trampoline, which is definitely much more expensive.
ARONCZYK: They order a $300 trampoline online. Four days later, big Amazon Prime truck shows up, drops off this enormous box, and the family spends the afternoon assembling their brand-new trampoline.
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ARONCZYK: Lindsay is aware of how dangerous this sounds, but as all of us stuck at home with kids know, what's really dangerous is children - children trapped inside for months on end. My 9-year-old is free climbing our walls. On Day 10 of the quarantine, he demolished an old picnic table with a crowbar. I promise you 110% of kids would love to have a trampoline right now.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Yeah, I don't know. I mean, I don't have a bunch of kids trapped in here with me, but it still seems pretty risky.
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HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And, I mean, take what happened to Lindsay.
STRICKLAND: Less than 24 hours after we got it, my 9-year-old broke her ankle on it.
ARONCZYK: Oh, no. Less than 24 hours?
STRICKLAND: Yes. I could not (laughter) - could not believe we had ended up at the hospital 24 hours after getting our trampoline.
ARONCZYK: Were they like, lady, we told you to be careful at this time and not come to the hospital?
STRICKLAND: (Laughter) I felt so sheepish and so embarrassed telling them why we were there (laughter).
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Plus, she bought this trampoline to help her kids stay busy at home, away from people who might be sick. And you know where there are lots of sick people - the hospital. It's a very risky place to go these days. And when we spoke with Lindsay, she was on Day 7 of isolation.
STRICKLAND: So, yes, but while I've had a fever, I have been isolated in my bedroom, still have a view of the trampoline right outside my bedroom window (laughter).
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Lindsay had a flu-like illness for two weeks. She did take a home test for COVID, and it came back negative.
ARONCZYK: Look; these are really weird times. We're all just trying to get by. Sometimes that means got to buy a trampoline.
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HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Good news. On Monday, Lindsay's 9-year-old daughter got her cast taken off.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: You can't keep saying you have a broken ankle forever...
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Come on.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: ...'Cause you don't.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And she's already back on the trampoline.
STRICKLAND: They were actually playing "Tiger King" on it this afternoon (laughter). And so they were out there jumping on the trampoline with their tiger stuffed animals.
ARONCZYK: Lindsay, this is, like, literally the most pandemic story I've ever heard.
STRICKLAND: It really is. I'm typically a very careful parent (laughter), but here we are.
ARONCZYK: Hey, man.
ARONCZYK: If it works.
ARONCZYK: We're all just trying to keep it together.
STRICKLAND: (Laughter) Yeah.
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HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Are you making strange COVID-related impulse buys? Tell us about it. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We're also on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We're generally @planetmoney.
ARONCZYK: Today's show was produced by Nick Fountain, James Sneed and Liza Yeager. Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer. And Bryant Urstadt edits the show.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Special thanks to Hoover (ph) the goat, Argyle the steer and Magnolia the dwarf cow, all of whom spoke to us for this episode but didn't make it into the show. If you liked this episode, please share it with a friend. I'm Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi.
ARONCZYK: And I'm Amanda Aronczyk. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.
Oh, and one more thing. GoToMeeting is a sponsor of NPR. Goat-2-Meeting is not.
SALPETER: We let these animals do what they want. If they don't want to be on camera, we're not going to make them be on camera.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Are any of them getting kind of, like, big egos?
SALPETER: I think Paco's head is getting a little bit large. Everyone wants Paco the llama.
MALONE: Llamas definitely looks like they think they're better than everyone else.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: They literally look down on all the other animals.
SALPETER: Oh, man.
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