Business in the Midst of Chaos

Just a few short months ago most of us were setting business goals for 2020, feeling optimistic and anticipating another year of growth. None of us knew at the time that our planning would be scuttled so early in the year by a global pandemic. The past couple of weeks in the U.S. has seen daily changes in the amount of contact we’re allowed to have with each other. This week we started with gatherings of no more than 250 people on Monday, no more than 50 people on Tuesday, restaurants and bars closed except for take out on Wednesday, nonessential services like hair salons ordered closed on Thursday, and we’re inching closer to a shelter in place order similar to those that have happened in China, South Korea, Italy, California and New York City. COVID-19 is having a growing impact on every person in the world.

As a consultant for the Larimer SBDC and Loveland Business Development Center I’ve spent most of this week on calls with clients who are rightly concerned with whether or not their business can make it through this major disruption. I know for certain that this thought is on all of our minds. We hear rumors that we’ll be under these isolation recommendations for anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 years. The truth is that nobody knows for sure when these orders will start to be lifted. So much of what will happen depends on our ability to cooperate in a way that mitigates the spread of the virus. Some of us have committed to that cause, others haven’t.

After several weeks of enforced lockdown, China is now reaching a point where new cases are rapidly dwindling. Italy continues to see climbing rates of infection and death even after being on lockdown for almost two weeks. South Korea has benefitted from early testing and response and is now seeing a steep decline in new cases. The U.S. will likely have a different experience than other countries due to the disparity of response from state to state and the inaccessibility of testing. We have no idea how long this quarantine period will last.

We haven’t had this level of uncertainty for several generations. I don’t have any easy answers, nor do I want to pretend to be optimistic. This is an extraordinary crisis. All of our systems will be tested by the unfolding circumstances and there is no way to forecast exactly how we’ll each be affected. Health and life are on the line for some, while for others the impact will be most deeply felt in their personal realms of relationships, career and finances. We business owners have the added responsibility and stress of keeping our companies together until we come out the other side, and we have no way of knowing exactly what the other side will look like.

In 2013 Northern Colorado was hit with record setting floods. Several cities and towns along several major watersheds saw homes and businesses washed away or filled with rocks, mud and debris. The cleanup took months and the reconstruction of structures and roads is still going on in some places. In the aftermath we saw some businesses reopen and others who didn’t. Some took advantage of disaster relief loans and grants to get their doors open. Others opted not to add any more to their debt load and closed their doors for good. The full recovery from those disasters in ongoing. We can expect the same from the crisis at hand. This may take a long time to fully recover from.

In the meantime, the most commonly asked question I hear from business owners is “What do I do now?” While I can’t say anything to allay your fears, I do have a few suggestions to consider.

  1. If you can still make sales, make sales. – There are some folks who are annoyed with businesses who are continuing to focus on sales and marketing possibly because these activities don’t appear to be sensitive to the situation at hand. Honestly, some of this is true. There are some businesses who are carrying on as if nothing else is happening and this might be upsetting to a segment of their consumers. Check yourself and adjust if necessary. At the same time, if you have a viable product or service and a market who is willing and able to buy, please make the sale. For some of us this won’t be a time when sales are possible so we may want to consider other income sources like subcontracting, new value propositions, or temporary work.
  2. Stay in touch with your customers. – Right now, one of the best things businesses can do is care about the welfare of their customers. Email, phone, video conference, social media – we have the technology to stay connected – use it. Make a list of 5-10 people that you can reach out to each day. Have real conversations and don’t worry about trying to make a pitch. Just ask them how they’re doing and listen. If you hear a need that you’re able to respond to, please respond. These kinds of conversations will be remembered for years. Remember that the bulk of marketing is creating and maintaining good relationships with your customers. One caution – try not to burden them with your concerns unless they ask. Just make genuine connections.
  3. Take an inventory of ALL your resources. – In times of disruption, one of the first things I recommend to clients is the practice of taking inventory. This isn’t the same as counting all your unsold products. This kind of inventory is meant to create an exhaustive list of resources that you possess. Your master list will have several sub-lists. You can organize how you wish, but I usually have people write either in columns or make one page for each set. Write down all of the tools you possess, all of your skill proficiencies, all of your partners and mentors, all of the material assets you have access to, and a list of potential revenue or funding sources. It’s easy in times of crisis to lose sight of the things we have as we focus on things that we don’t. Most of us have a wealth of resources.
  4. Be open to opportunities that aren’t a part of your normal business model. – We already see this in the restaurants who have quickly implemented take out service, and in musicians with cancelled gigs who are playing concerts or teaching lessons online, and in business owners who are sharing their expertise in online workshops and courses, and a multitude of other adaptations in the face of changing circumstances. As you stay in touch with your customers and their needs and identify your resources, new opportunities may begin to take shape, and you may have a lot to gain by giving them a shot.
  5. Form or join a mastermind group. – Masterminds come in all shapes and sizes, and they can meet for a number of purposes. In this time a couple of different mastermind possibilities make sense. One type of group could be made up of people who work in the same industry who are working together to understand each new challenge that the crisis presents and to anticipate new trends and identify possible responses. Another relevant mastermind in this time could consist of a business owner and their community partners, working together to develop new strategies as they understand emerging conditions in the marketplace. A couple of side benefits of participating in mastermind groups are the creative synergy of thinking through situations as a group, and the support that is found in the human connections within the group. These are invaluable at any time, but especially so during a crisis.
  6. Contribute generously to your community. – Breweries donating thousands of cans of drinking water. Distilleries making and giving away hand sanitizer. Coaches offering free support calls. Restaurants donating food to shelters and food banks. Crafters sewing masks for doctors and nurses as their regular supplies dwindle. Is there an opportunity for you to fill a gap for people where you live? Low cost? No cost? Again, these are the things that are remembered for years to come.

These are just a few options that are available to you. It goes without saying that self-care is a huge priority for everyone right now. Rest, exercise, good food, talking to people, tending to your state of mind and emotions, and cultivating calmness and compassion are all good things to focus on now. Remember that everyone you know is going through some level of difficulty right now and while you may feel alone in what you’re facing, there are many others with a similar situation. Now is a good time to practice empathy and to offer help rather than criticism and judgement. We’re all doing the best we know how to do. Please guard against despair and reach out for help if you need support.

Finally, keep in mind that free business consulting and low-cost training is available to business owners through your local Small Business Development Center. The SBDC can help you link with resources, develop new business plans, assist with market research and strategy, and so much more. To learn more about our local SBDC resources, visit LovelandBusiness.com and LarimerSBDC.org. You may also schedule your appointments on those websites.

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