Just a few days into the lockdown, I got a call from Sophie, she was furious and frustrated as she has been working for the last year to develop a wonderful “atelier” to share her passion for handcrafts. Her place was just launched in January, but after less than 1 month of operations, everything was suddenly stopped. On another side, there was a touch of mixed feelings as she was also thankful to be safe at home with her family in these uncertain times. During the first two weeks of the lockdown, Sophie was dumbstruck, as a solo entrepreneur she felt very lonely and worried about finances as she had invested almost all her savings in this new venture.
Then, last week she sounds like a different person, as she is was looking into the future, learning and accepting that it will be a while before things get back to normal. Sophie decided to create new ways to deal with the present scenario and future of her project. She also recognizes that times are hard and cash flow and financials are not working as per plan, but she decided to adapt and reinvent her business. “Juana, this is not going to be easy but I need to do something and work my way out of this crisis to make it happen” she beamed from the other side of our online meeting.
This pandemic has taken its toll on the global economy. Each country tackles the situation differently, this includes total lockdown and disruption of economic/logistical chain reactions that have brought down global trade.
As entrepreneurs, we are always worried about innovation, scaling up, reframing our business model, and getting new customers. But at this moment, many businesses are struggling and even facing an existential business crisis, wondering if their idea is still relevant in the current scenario and will they be able to linger on if the situation continues for an unforeseeable future. This crisis caught us off guard. Do I have enough cash is the number one question? Will people come back to my place? Should I go digital?…
After discussing with different entrepreneurs and small businesses that I work with, I would like to share these lessons in ten strategic steps that we used to lead their way through the COVID-19 crisis and find creative ways to stay relevant in these persistent times. There is no specific order and each step can be taken at a different pace, or if you prefer just pick some ideas that may help.
If you are struggling, I hope you may find some inspiring ideas.
1. Keep calm
This is the easiest thing to preach but the most difficult to enact especially when the cash is running out by the minute. But this is not business as usual, during the first weeks of lockdown, we felt confused and destabilized, especially when we realized that it wasn’t just about our business as we had to suddenly manage the flow of information, children homes schooling, cleaning & sanitization standards, and sometimes being the home peacemaker between fighting kids and at times spouses as well.
Matt in the south of France gave us a lesson on “keeping calm”. He launched a catering business for events in May 2019 and has been very successful at it. He predicted soaring numbers during the current year. Yet, when the pandemic hit, the cancellation of his regular orders started to pour in. He did not panic and discussed the situation with his in-house team. They reinvented their model and started delivering food to health workers. This strategy took off and they are now completely booked until the end of the year.
“Keeping calm” will enable you to have situational awareness to make wise decisions. If you have a team, this will also help them to cope with the crisis as you will lead them out. Step back, gain perspective, look at the big picture, and reassess your strategy. Take your time, not all of us can change the road in two weeks as Matt did.
2. Confront reality
As an entrepreneur and leader, the ability to lead through the crisis is the real test. Consequently, you first need to recognize and confront reality and concurrent emerging threats. The earlier you realize the situation you are in, the earlier you will plan for it.
Saying so, this is the best time to practice your critical thinking skill sets, review assumptions, seek advice, and check various options. Decision making is difficult while you face adverse situations, but accepting the hard facts and being critical about them is the best way to go.
Be aware of distinguishing between these hard facts, soft facts, and speculations. As we are in uncertainty every day, we listen to new theories about the end of the crisis, starting the new world… when we overlook information, we tend to overreact to emerging issues before having a better view. Remind yourself to absorb information critically and act accordingly. Do not forget the basics of assuming testing and catering for disruptions.
Confronting reality will help you to evaluate different scenarios and plan your next steps accordingly.
3. Do your numbers
This is the time to take the calculator out and chalk out everything that is bound to happen financially. This plan can be for the next 6 9,12 months but it has to be done right away!
Having a clear view of the financial situation will help you in planning your future. This may include employee salaries, office rent, and/or utility bills and others depending on the industry. For doing so, you can download this excel template to perform quick forecasting of your cash balance, provided by the courtesy of Claus HIRZMANN, Senior Consultant for Competitiveness from cost understanding and operational agility.
You may also talk to people you need to pay and find out your options for paying out. Chances are they may already have alternatives in place. Ask yourself the most important question “What costs are necessary, what can be put on hold?”
In these tough times, governments and local bodies are dishing bailout financial packages. Do read about them and reach out for the help they are offering for entrepreneurs to survive these testing times. Be up to date with all the information flowing in, since time is something not scarce nowadays.
4. Communicate, communicate and communicate
Today, we need to communicate more than ever. You must react, reassure, and be transparent about your business with all stakeholders. All relevant information must be shared with your employees, suppliers, partners, and of course customers, but we will do a special focus on ‘customers’ on step 5.
Always remember that rule number 1 to better communication is to “listen”. There is no more urgent time to practice this trait than the one we are living to check in with people, empathize, and understand their feelings and insights. As Matt did, ask your employee’s vision, they know your business and customers and they will have great ideas on how to move forward.
5. Connect with your customers
In March alone, there were 16% more people surfing the internet. These people coming on your website may not buy now, but they will be your most prized assets when we come out of this situation as it will be an “all hands on deck” kind of a situation. This is the reason that you must be present, follow up, and make sure that your customers know you are and still there.
Some ideas to keep your presence larger than ever include:
- Develop personalized communication: You can send an email or use social networks, moreover be sure you don’t forget to ask your customers how they are doing. It is also important to let them know the ways to get your product or service in the current scenario. Tell them if you are not operating for now but will be looking for them in the next few weeks, and give options. Last week, I got a message from our florist offering a gift voucher “wow great idea, I thought” to support his business. We will be available to pick up items before the end of the year. Keep in mind that some customers will be glad to help.
- Update your website: Renew all information about the ways you are tackling this situation on your website and social media outlets. Keep your website alive, so as the customer is spending more time online, they can come and understand what you are and what you offer. Make a clear message if you are still operating or not, so you don’t miss out on any potential business opportunity. If you don’t have a website and don’t feel like creating one right away, go to the next point.
- Use social networks: Create your Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube page, or channel depending on your business and shoot out key information about your business. You must get some visibility and give people an insight into the way you are conducting business during the lockdown.
Matt is using Facebook to keep his customers updated on his strategic shift by sharing pictures of him and his team delivering food to health workers. Sophie decided to focus on a communication plan through Instagram and Pinterest to explore new prospects, and sharing ideas of handcrafts at home, by the way, she started to get her first subscribers. Irma who launched a sustainable coffee shop end of last year is creating her Instagram page to promote her products and coffee expertise.
These are just a few examples of how they, are going with their communication flow. Create your program and remember to stay connected with your customers as they are on the internet more than ever!
6. Keep track of the trends
Mary Meeker’s coronavirus trends report shouts “Shifts in consumer behavior are accelerating to become more immediate change since the lockdown”. Even if this crisis caught us off of guard, it will take a while before getting back to normal and some other behaviors will probably change forever.
What we know now is that consumers are spending more time online, but are also switching options faster than ever. As an example, yesterday evening I was looking for some material to prepare classes and activities for my son, so I went through the school activities site and then checked another educational site. Finally, I bought some books to teach him to write. After that, I downloaded some free recipes to try in the kitchen as we are getting tired of the same menus every day. This leads me to the browsing of a gardening website to check out some material, as at these times we are spending more than time in our garden. In about 20 minutes, I jumped and switched altogether different genre of information. However, my search history would not reflect the same if I was not in a lockdown situation.
France figures show an immediate change in online commerce, travel and tourism websites showed the biggest drop of around 79 percent in terms of traffic, followed by the automobile industry with a drop of 60 percent. On the other side, general retailers and mass distribution reported a rise of almost 200 percent in traffic rates and home delivery service of another 173% increase in transactions.
Keep an eye on consumer trends in your niche, this may bring creativity in.
7. Ask for ideas
At this moment, you need new ideas and no one knows better what your customers want than your customers themselves. Therefore, reach out and ask for their ideas on how to run and improve your business in these trying times. What are they expecting from you now? How can your business be of any help? You can use the social network, emailing, surveys, or one of the techniques I prefer “interviews”, reach them, and schedule some remote interviews to get their insights.
Irma, the coffee passionate decided to use her Instagram page and ask her followers how they’d like her help with, and the idea of sharing coffee expertise just popped up. Gael, a sales training expert organized some empathy interviews with 3 of his best customers to define the program of his new YouTube channel. These are just examples, that you can borrow to search for your own “idea inquiring” methods.
8. Reinvent opportunities
The capacity to adapt and reinvent our business is critical in such unprecedented times. It will be a while before things get back to normal and in some areas, we are not sure they will get even back to what we knew before COVID-19. Irma told me once, “Juana, I don’t know if people will go back to my coffee shop”.
You must map all opportunities including crazy and unexpected ones, don’t block yourself on previous assumptions. You need to have the full picture of different alternatives. It doesn’t mean you are going to move from teacher to explorer but having a map of all options enables you to be more creative.
Some random ideas for inspiration include:
- Expand your market: In some cases, your products or services may be not currently used or need it by your usual customer base or even a new one. This holds for restaurants, gift shops, travel agencies & event management. Matt is now offering food cooking and delivery services for health workers; others are putting in place some temporary alternatives as Pernod Ricard producing hand sanitizer or Zara producing surgical face masks. You can change the products or services you offer to keep up with the changing times. This is the moment to ask yourself some tough questions and expand your market, or change accordingly.
- Partner with other business: Yesterday evening I read about a grocery store that has started offering Decathlon “sports products” in France. Some struggling businesses are partnering with other, less-affected businesses to survive. Therefore, go on the hunt for a bigger fish or a smaller one. You never know the small fish flows after (or between COVID-19) and then drags you along.
- New methods to distribute your offer: Gael makes his living from speaking at sales events, all of which got canceled. He changed his medium from a stage to a YouTube channel. Denis has a very nice restaurant in Saint Tropez with a wonderful sea view, his best differentiator was the location. Now Denis is offering online ordering and pickup services. Irma just launched a voucher program for future pick up to cater for current closures and losses. Thus, you need to go virtual as soon as possible. By offering your services through digital channels, you retain existing customers, while also potentially opening your market to people outside of your geographic area.
- Reframe your business: By leveraging your core competence to another market. BlaBlaCar, a car-sharing platform leader in France just launched BlaBlaHelp, which is an app to connect vulnerable people to find help in geographical proximity, a win-win situation in the current scenario.
Many other ideas will come from the exchange of them, write them down, and select some to work on possible feasibilities.
9. Be open to major change and adapt
You may find that your company’s best chance of survival comes from an entirely different business model, product line, or service. You can better position if you are honest about the struggles and decide to change. When we come out of this situation many opportunities will pop up and the ones who accept and adapt to this change will stay.
In case you decide to change your product, service, or market drastically, you then need to define short term and long-term goals. Once you have developed your plan, be sure to test your assumptions as disruption rate is through the roof in post-pandemic times. In this special scenario, the person or business that is most adaptable will come out shouting “winner, winner chicken dinner”. You need to be ready for both best and worst and prepare accordingly.
Taking a wait and watch approach before you pull the trigger may be reasonable in normal situations but in the current scenario, if you don’t act, you will probably whither out.
Hence, adaptability will the only factor that will determine the winners. Review your strategy every 2 weeks and look out for help, support, and partners on the way and extend the same if you can!
10. Pull the trigger and learn
Taking the right decision at the right time is an essential trait and the importance has increased exponentially in the current COVID-19 scenario. However, there is no turning away from the fact rapid decision making has its uncertainties and risks.
Whatever decision you plan,” do something”, executing it is of the essence. The decision may be wrong in the long run but you have to trust your judgment and try to make whatever option you take right by combining strategy, planning, and perseverance. Entrepreneurial leaders know that no decision itself is a bad decision. Therefore, you cannot sit on your hands and do nothing since it has far worse consequences than a bad decision.
Find opportunities to square this as a valuable learning era and list you’re your lessons learned during the COVID-19 situation. You will get a better perspective for current and future hardships in business and life.
Also, know for a fact that things will change once we come out of this situation. You must be ready with a plan once you are out. The new normal is here to stay, and the quicker you adjust the greater chance to survive. Remember that every crisis brings new opportunities and this may be a great opportunity to reinvent. You will come out even stronger than before.
We like you to implement this methodology yourself, whenever appropriate, as best as you can. There is no specific order and each step can be taken at a different pace, or if you prefer just pick some ideas that may help. This is why I created this FREE self-help guide to be used during your journey.
Please add your questions in the comment section or contact me. I am waiting with nothing much to do except help people that I can as a giving gesture in these trying times.
Last but not least big thank you to Matt, Sophie, Irma, Denis, Gael, and all other entrepreneurs that are my source of inspiration.
Stay Home, Stay safe & Be kind