This is a stressful time for everyone.
For the little guys in business, it’s a potential disaster.
The SMEs, the sole traders, the freelancers, the micro businesses – they’re all watching in disbelief and despair as the Covid-19 crisis unfolds, trying to get their heads round the unrecognisable new world they’ve been plunged into in a matter of days. Already facing tough times (thanks, Brexit), and lacking the resources and financial resilience of bigger businesses, many will see this as the last straw.
In China, bringing the spread of the virus under control has taken 3 months – so far – and there’s no guarantee that it’s even close to being over. A similar scenario here would take us well into the summer, perhaps beyond – and (particularly for small businesses in tourism and hospitality) that’s a massive worry. The grim reality is that many won’t survive.
We’re only at the start, and already there are countless stories of small businesses – some in unexpected sectors – teetering because of the ill effects…cancellations, indefinite postponements, cutbacks, uncertainty. And where one struggles, others will soon feel the pain as clients and suppliers pull their horns in, or can’t pay the bills.
But here’s the good news: although it might not seem like it right now, this will end. We don’t know when, but it will.
Until then, just as our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents dealt with their unwelcome new lives when global conflict tore the world apart twice in less than a century, we need to do everything we can to get through it.
Another silver lining is starting to appear: while we’re coming to realise what shallow foundations our lives and businesses are built on – and how easily everything we’ve built can be blown apart – we’re also witnessing the very best of human nature – a growing movement of mutual support, a desire to help others survive, and optimism about coming out stronger.
We’re all in it together.
Not only do we need to keep our own businesses in good health, we need to do our bit to look out for others, and to help small businesses in particular to survive (and even – dare we hope – thrive).
It’s extremely serious, but it’s not Armageddon (despite the lack of toilet roll). No-one has pressed the big red button, there’s been no 4 minute warning, and we’re not all about to be vaporised. So disconnect from the live news feeds and stop feeding the fear. Knowing the number of new cases since you last checked – what, 10 minutes ago?- won’t help anyone. If we allow fear to paralyse daily life, there will be no winners (well, maybe Amazon Prime) and small businesses will fail by the minute. So remove the temptation – close any open news feeds, log out, or remove them from your favourites, and get into the habit of checking for updates just a couple of times a day.
Don’t forget, stress not only puts the brakes on rational thought, but is best friends with a raft of illnesses from heart disease to cancer.
· Small hotels (many of them reeling from the UK Government’s recently-announced post-Brexit restrictions on immigrant workers) and guest houses were already facing a struggle – and now, sadly, many risk going under. So how about booking a hotel stay for a few months’ time, or gifting a voucher? Apart from anything else, it’s something to look forward to in the current gloom.
· Likewise, restaurants, cafés and pubs are going to be very badly hit, very quickly. If you can’t visit in person (and the official position on that is changing constantly), find out if you can buy a voucher from a business near you to use later in the year, or gift one to a friend or relative.
· In a similar vein, buy a voucher – for yourself or as a gift – for a pedicure, a golf lesson, a massage, a tour of a local visitor attraction, a driving lesson, a local independent cinema or theatre…in fact, anything that benefits a small business currently looking down the barrel of a cashflow disaster.
Edit 17.3.20 – I didn’t expect to be editing this straight after publishing, but things are evolving fast. I’ve just come across two campaigns promoting the pay-it-forward approach (there will undoubtedly be many others): #putinonmytab and this initiative from Enterprise Nation and Crowdfunder.
· If you’ve received a bill from a small business, pay it quickly (the supermarket chain Morrisons recently set a great example).
· If you’re one of the bigger fish in the pool, and can afford to, try to grant more leeway than usual to smaller businesses (suppliers etc), and be patient if they’re struggling to provide normal service or are slow paying a bill.
· Landlords – now’s the time to show some love to your small business tenants.
· If you sense that a sole trader is struggling just now, could you offer the option of instalment payments?
· Use your discretion to offer discount if you’re able to.
· But think twice before posting on social media offering free or very heavily-discounted services to those who need help “during the outbreak”. It’s selfless, it’s community-minded, it’s generous – but look out for the health of your business too. This crisis could last for several months, maybe longer – could you cope with significant demand over an extended period while still making money? It sounds harsh, but remember what airlines say about oxygen masks. If you’re going to do it, it might be wise to qualify your offer, limit numbers or invite takers to pay what they can afford.
· Make a list of all the small businesses in your area that are being hardest hit (social media may give you some clues, like a steady stream of last-minute cancellation slots being offered at your local hair salon). In whatever way you can, promote them now to help raise awareness, so that people will notice, use and remember them, now and when things return to normal.
· Take the time to Google local businesses you’ve used (and like!) and leave a positive review on their Google Business pages, or Trip Advisor. This means a lot to them in the longer term, but it’s something we often overlook.
· Think about how a local business you’ve used might benefit from a shout-out, and give them one – tag them on social media or feature them in a blog post.
· Buy flowers from an independent local florist and have them delivered to someone elderly, vulnerable or lonely. Not only are you helping a small local business, you’re bringing some much-needed cheer into the life of someone who needs it. Suggest to friends and those in your social media network that they do the same in their own area, and get them to tag their local business on social media when they do it. If they don’t know how to, tell them.
· Ditto, cakes or treats from your local baker or confectioner
· Order from local grocers, farm shops etc. Even if you normally shop with the big supermarkets or discounters, now is the time to shop local, even if it’s just for some of the goods you need. You might even find you like it!
· Likewise, think about ordering wine, beer and spirits direct from local independent wine shops and specialists.
· Highly unlikely, but if Farmers Markets are still being held in your area, try to support them.
· Rather than streaming music, why not buy an actual, physical CD – or vinyl – from a local record store? (yes, they still exist…) And if you don’t have the means to play it, order some kit from a local dealer (yes, they still exist).
· While you’re at it, rather than stream movies, buy a DVD (you do still have a DVD player, don’t you?) If you don’t want to hold onto it afterwards, drop it into your local charity shop, and let them benefit.
· You may not have noticed, but it’s Spring – visit your local garden centre, or if they have a website, check it out and see what you can order….and get out of the house and into your garden in the process. It’s well known that contact with nature is a big stress-buster. And why not start growing your own vegetables if you have space? Bonus: natural foods like these help to boost the immune system.
· Review any consumables your family or business may need – from batteries to printer paper – and think twice before ordering them from a big retailer. You may find a small local business locally offering the same product for not much more – if so, why not buy it from them, even if you don’t plan to carry on doing it in the long term?
· Keep an eye on developments in your area – for example, is a service like this available from your Chamber of Commerce or other groups, connecting businesses and local customers?
· As a small business, think smart, and look at ways of delivering services differently – for example, can you offer new services, or are there ways of offering existing services digitally, or could you offer vouchers (even if you’ve never done it or didn’t think it was relevant to you)? Here are a couple of examples, but there are plenty more: https://squareup.com/gb/en/gift-cards and https://www.giftupapp.com/
· Be flexible with gift voucher end dates!
· Help wary customers to have confidence – tell them what you’re doing to keep them safe, use your social media to dispel any myths around your sector (if you’re a hotel, are customers worried they could contract the virus from the bedlinen?), make it clear you’re following official guidelines to the letter, and make sure staff are on board in sharing that message and very visibly sticking to health and hygiene guidelines.
· Do you have any leeway on your pricing? Could you (don’t shoot me…) price-match a larger competitor, even for a very short time or on a promotional basis? Encouraging trade now could build awareness and a basis for future loyalty.
· Could you offer the option for customers to “pay it forward” and purchase products or services on behalf of someone else less able to afford it?
· Now’s the time to think outside the box and to make sure your business is remarkable – you need to get noticed and stay noticed!
· If you’re going to panic-buy, at least do it from local shops! (Actually, just don’t do it – everyone else needs stuff too, and you can always go retro and use newspaper…)
· Now is not the time to stand still (*)! Now is the time to work on your business! Those who survive will be those who take a good hard look at their business and continue to invest in it, whether that means reviewing (and changing) stale ways of doing things, finding efficiencies, identifying new opportunities, or spending money on marketing. So…
· Take this opportunity to review any self-learning/business development needs in your own business – then order books on those subjects from local bookstores, and have them set aside. If you can’t visit, call them and ask if they can order in and deliver. Or go halfway, and use Hive.co.uk – they can arrange delivery to a local bookstore, which receives a small commission. And when you go to collect, buy something else – another book, a few cards, anything. If anyone needs your support at this time, it’s the little guys like these – not the Amazons of this world. (If you opt for home delivery, Hive still gives commission to the local bookstore you nominate).
· Use this period to plan, consolidate, and invest in your business. Take a look at your learning needs, skills you need to develop, your branding, your literature, anything you’ve not explored or invested in because you lacked time or know-how, and commit to addressing these while things are quiet – then arrange online / phone training with a local business. It’ll be a worthwhile investment in time and money, and hopefully both of you will emerge stronger when things get back to normal.
· Take this time to review and get ahead of the curve with your accounts and financial planning – and use a local accountant or financial advisor to help you.
· Start-ups are particularly vulnerable right now – give them your business if you can.
· Consider a mutual exchange of services with other small businesses.
· LinkedIn have made some of their learning resources free in response to the crisis – use these to help your own business, and tell others about them while you’re at it.
· While you’re stuck at home, it’s important to take”you time”away from thinking about work. Can you support a local small business that offers, say, online cookery courses?
(*) A short (but powerful) lesson from history: in 1665, Cambridge University closed its doors in response to the plague sweeping the country – a reminder that our ancestors faced most of the same challenges as us, without the massive advances in science, technology and healthcare that we can call on. Students were encouraged to relocate to the countryside (an early example of self-isolating). One of them was Isaac Newton, who, rather than sit on his hands until it all blew over, went into creative overdrive, using his time working in solitude to come up with some of his most significant scientific discoveries. Historians later dubbed it his “miracle year”. No pressure, and I don’t want to be trite – but it shows what can be achieved with the right mindset. Could this become your business’s “miracle year”?
· Help out those less tech-savvy than yourself – it costs nothing to share your knowledge. For example, many small businesses have no idea how to deal with the tech issues arising from working from home, or how to utilise resources like video calling. Write and share short posts if you know of any useful links / resources / guides – or create and share them yourself.
· Now more than ever, freelancers need to look after their mental health – they (we!) work alone, and often have no-one to share the stress. Let them know about this site, which has some great free resources: https://www.leapers.co/. (The site accepts donations on a “pay what you can” basis, or paid forward to help others).
· If you have ideas for how to help other small businesses, or how they can not only survive through this, but thrive – please share! This is not the time to keep your knowledge to yourself.
· Don’t try to profit from the situation or use it for self-promotion to hook people in and sell them other stuff – people can see right through it, and, when everything settles down, will remember you for all the wrong reasons!
· Remember, “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” (Maya Angelou)
· Don’t forget to support local foodbanks – some are struggling already thanks to panic buying. You can do it online.
· When the crisis comes to an end – as it will – KEEP THIS UP!
Footnote: none of the links in this post are affiliate links, and I do not benefit financially from them in any way.