Surviving Economic Lockdown: Real-World Strategies for Small Business Owners

Never in recent memory have small business owners had to overcome the problems they face in today’s economy. Sure, there have been slumps before. But businesses have never been prohibited from going to work—ordered to close their doors.

The crash of 2008 was devastating for many people. But there weren’t statewide orders preventing people from doing business. There weren’t federal advisories against travel, shaking hands and attending meetings—basic elements of commerce and connectivity. This is a uniquely difficult situation, and it requires a damn good strategy.

Whether stay-at-home rules are right or wrong isn’t the point here. I’ll leave that to the health experts, the politicians, the apocalyptic newspaper headlines and to my Facebook friends who seem to have suddenly become epidemiologists.

Today I’m simply writing about the financial impact on individual small businesses and what business owners can do about it.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

As the owner of a marketing company, recently I’ve had to come up with strategies to help clients cope with the challenges of stay-at-home orders. After all, my company is running their Facebook and Google ads. We’re writing their blogs and we built their website. Who else are they going to turn to for help navigating this mess? We’re their marketing expert.

What services should they shut down? How to stay profitable while working remotely?

Not only did we have to give them advice, but because we’re their marketing company, we had to execute it for them. This meant writing letters to their clients, posting updates on their websites, testing Facebook ads that will generate leads despite a stay-at-home order… the list goes on.

After helping numerous clients develop a strategy to continue to survive—and even thrive—during this time, certain commonalities began to emerge for me. I saw there are certain key steps any company should consider when dealing with a stay-at-home order. This article was written so that I might help more small businesses than just my clients.

Saving Lives vs. Saving Livelihoods

Most business owners I’ve talked to want to do the right thing. They want to do their part in stopping the spread of COVID-19 and they want to follow the governmental advisories. At the same time, they simply can’t afford to close up shop and wither away for an indefinite period of time.

And while it’s all well and good to talk about deciding between saving lives and saving livelihoods, the fact is that small businesses employ nearly 50 percent of private sector workers. Their businesses simply aren’t built to withstand this. So goes small business, so goes America.

Health and safety are the top priority, of course. But when you start destroying the American economy and societal support systems, you create new, unexpected health and safety problems. And though everyone seems to realize this, they still don’t feel there’s any other viable option.

While I don’t have any input on how to address this on a nationwide scale, I have certainly found there are steps that individual owners can apply to their own business. And because debating the rightness or wrongness of stay-at-home orders doesn’t seem to actually solve anything, out of necessity it is important for business owners to take a different perspective.

How do we minimize the damage of a stay-at-home order to an individual small business? Is there some way that we don’t HAVE to choose between saving lives and saving livelihoods? Can we attempt to do both?

Identifying the Real Problem

The real problem with closing for an indefinite period of time isn’t just the immediately lost revenue or some temporary reduction in national GDP. The real problem lies in the organizational impact to an individual small business that shuts off its natural flows of production, sales and promotional actions.

Any business is a complex network of interconnected employees, vendors, subcontractors and customers. For some, it may have taken years to get these internal systems running correctly. Losing a single key team member is enough to set them back months. Losing a key account can create a domino effect that ripples across all company operations. Thus, restarting a company can look less like flipping a switch back on and more like putting the pieces of a puzzle back together.

Thus, the danger of completely stopping a company is that it’s much harder to restart again in its original condition after good employees wander off, customers find other vendors and sales pipelines dry up.

This is why, as amazing as the recent government stimulus programs are, they simply aren’t enough to counterbalance the months of economic disruption which small businesses will experience—even after stay-at-home orders are lifted.

Sounds doom and gloom, doesn’t it? So, let’s talk about what to do about it.

A Stay-At-Home Order Small Business Strategy

We all know it’s important to think positively and to realize that this too shall pass. We all know it’s important to continue to flourish during this time period. But let’s talk about actionable steps any small business should be considering.

Our goal here is simply to minimize disruption as much as we can and try to make sure the business is in the best possible condition for years into the future.

Let’s go through a step-by-step plan:

1. Don’t take a staycation.

Notice, “don’t take a staycation” doesn’t mean, “don’t close your location.” It may be very necessary to close your physical premises. But, for the love of all that is good and holy, don’t just close down and wait for things to blow over. Keep operations going somehow. Even if you can’t go into work, there are still things your business can do from the homes of employees—yes, even a dentist or a masseuse—which will keep its heartbeat alive.

The greatest impact to your business’ long-term economic health will come from voluntarily shutting down all operations. This is where you lose track of customers, employees wander off and momentum disappears.

If you have to temporarily close your physical location, fine. But don’t close down the creativity, hard work and outreach that have been at the core of your company’s success over the years.

2. Secure your finances to keep the business afloat.

This means different things to different industries. Some businesses won’t be impacted by the current situation at all. (I’d imagine hand sanitizer companies aren’t hurting too much right now.) However, others will be hit badly—the travel industry being just one example. No matter what, a business must secure the cash to continue to operate.

The web is filled with information about this, so I won’t get into the details here. As you know, the Federal government has provided a number of options to help businesses with the immediate cash crunch. Both Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans and Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) appear to have generous terms—in some cases the loans are entirely forgivable. But there are more options than just these two. While both the PPP and EIDL loans can be fantastic for a small business, you’ll want to act quickly as funds are limited and the rollout appears to be a bit bumpy.

3. Continue any regular business operations still possible.

In many cases, you may not have to shut down completely. Depending on your industry and local circumstances, it may be possible to continue certain aspects of business. A restaurant may have closed its dining room, but still has curbside pickup. A dentist isn’t performing elective procedures, but is still doing emergency dentistry. As a priority, identify what aspects of your regular operations can be continued (even from home) and do whatever is possible to strengthen these. Specific steps to consider include:

  • Get the word out. First, get out communications via your email list and social media. Make people aware that you’re still open and what services you’re offering. If you’re still maintaining a physical presence, people will appreciate knowing that you’re open, how to do business with you and what sanitation guidelines you’re following.
  • Organize new operating systems. Your previous business systems may not work in this new operating climate. A physical store might need to define new social distancing guidelines, whereas a CPA or attorney may need to beef up its IT infrastructure so staff can work from home. Many companies can continue to function efficiently if they take the time to adapt their existing internal systems.
  • Keep the team informed. These are uncertain times. Knowledge and stability increase efficiency within any organization and written updates give your staff something they can refer back to if they have a question. As you develop solutions, ensure the team understands what you’re doing about it. They’ll worry less and focus more on productivity.
  • Maintain a revenue stream. Find some way to keep revenue coming in. Even if you’re a chiropractor and no one is coming in the door, you can still offer your existing patients a discount if they prepay for services. There are plenty of creative ways to generate revenue being thrown around on the web. These will help keep the company focused on survival and prevent it from falling asleep in a subsidized debt-induced stupor.
  • Hope for the best, but plan for the worst. No one can predict the future. While some reports signal the current situation may pass sooner than anyone expects, others paint a gloomier picture. Either way, the solution to an emergency isn’t about optimism or pessimism—it’s about preparedness. Don’t try to wait it out as your business declines further and further. Take aggressive action now to keep your core business running strong despite anything that comes your way. If everything is back to normal in four weeks rather than four months, you’ve lost nothing but your time.

4. Market more, not less.

It is human nature to shrink and withdraw when confronted by something dangerous or uncertain. However, this is exactly the opposite of what your business should be doing right now.

Think about the message everyone is getting: Coronavirus, stay home, danger. There is a lot of noise right now, and if you aren’t in the toilet paper business, they certainly aren’t making memes about your company.

From a PR and marketing perspective, this is hard to compete with—it can feel like yelling into a hurricane. However, if you stop communicating your message, your business will come out of this situation smaller than when you went into it.

People are home. They are receptive. They’re talking and listening. You probably have a more captive audience than you’ve ever had. Take advantage of it.

You have to keep marketing and communicating your message to prospects, no matter what. Otherwise, you will be dead when the stay-at-home order is lifted. No one wants to open back up to half the business they had when this thing started.

5. Develop new offerings and profit centers.

It is a testament to human ingenuity that right now the internet is packed with all sorts of brilliant ideas on how to create new profit centers and methods of offering service. From studios and gyms offering online classes to dentists and optometrists doing telemedicine, people have come up with absolutely brilliant ways to continue their operations remotely.

Many businesses have potential profit centers they can develop which don’t require a physical presence—and many of these will continue to be viable profit centers moving into an increasingly digital future.

The cool thing about developing a new profit center is that, not only can it help sustain the company during a stay-at-home order, it provides an entirely new growth avenue for your company once the order is lifted.

6. Take advantage of this time to work on your business.

Every business owner I’ve ever met has a list of things they’ve been “meaning to work on” for their business. Whether it’s continuing education for the staff, new marketing ideas, technical R&D or implementing a new software system, taking the time to organize your business for greater efficiency is a critical part of your growth. You’ll never get a better time to do that than right now.

Once you’ve got the above steps under control (finances secured, any possible operations maintained, marketing ramped up, new profit centers developed), if you still have idle staff and resources, try not to furlough them. Instead, get them busy working on your business in ways that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. Polish the business so it’s ready to explode when restrictions are lifted—and is poised to be competitive in an uncertain economy.

Continuing education, new software onboarding, employee training and additional certifications—these can’t take place during regular business hours. Take advantage of any free time to get these done now so your team emerges sharper, more trained and more efficient.

A Look to the Future

Of course, all this sounds much easier said than done. That’s because it is easier said than done. It’s always easier to write about something than it is to actually do it. I’ve got my own business and I know the amount of blood, sweat and tears it takes.

But the reality is we’re walking into a different economy than we had just a few short months ago. A lot of water has gone under the bridge. People are way more familiar with videoconferencing, grocery delivery and working remotely than they ever were before. (Hell, they want you to wear a mask and gloves to the bank now.) Some of this will immediately revert back to the way it was, but a lot of it is here to stay.

In uncertain times, the only guarantee of success is a healthy business that can withstand anything—no matter what happens. And this is achieved by keeping your company as active, alive and operational as you can make it today.

Because, your future isn’t written on a newscaster’s teleprompter or the governor’s notes at a press conference. It’s written in the strategies you make today.