Two months ago, I sat down with the team at Kolbeco and had a meeting I never thought I would have to have as a business owner. It was March 16th, you know where this story is headed… I had to tell the team the plan for how we would handle the coming weeks in light of COVID 19. While we were not technically under orders to shut our doors, we knew that it was the right thing to do to assure the safety and wellbeing of the entire staff. At that meeting I had to tell the team that we were closing the office and moving to a remote working environment. The look on their faces showed the wide range of emotions that all were feeling at the time. There were looks of surprise, sadness and downright shock. It felt eerie and even unsettling. As a business owner, I like to have answers for my team, and be able to offer assurance. I could do neither. I had that feeling one time before in my career. That afternoon took me back to having to close the office on September 11, 2001.
But somehow this was unique.
I have owned my own agency with my business and life partner for 20 years. I am no stranger to economic uncertainty. I have worked, lived and run a business through the Y2k – Tech Bubble, the 2008 Housing Bust, the Great Recession and yes, as I previously mentioned 9/11.
But the COVID 19 business cycle felt different than any of those.
Just like any other tumultuous time, I began to reach out to those in my circle – the people whom I count on when I need to talk over, flesh out an idea, or work through a problem. Those conversations yielded a consensus. This experience, we all agreed was an unprecedented time in our lives. This feeling was shared by clients, other marketing agencies and business owners.
I think several business owners expected a minor correction due to the virus, but nothing like this. Businesses that have been “recession proof” in the past, were suddenly at a standstill.
It was the first time in my life that I witnessed a global shutdown either required by the government or by the need for safety. Many businesses went from having record quarters to suddenly see declining sales in a matter of days.
Now that we are over a month in this, and I can breathe (admittedly, not a full exhale, but at least no longer holding my breath) and examine what happened.
1. This shutdown quickly discouraged the strongest of businesses.
Typically, entrepreneurs are an adaptive bunch and will pivot quickly. In this case it was hard to pivot quickly. It was paralyzing to all sectors. All that could be done by many businesses was to look at the fundamentals and plan for when things started to open back up, but nobody knew when that would be. The lack of an end in sight made it very hard to feel motivated to press on. In the end, businesses quickly realized why what they did was important to people they served and got back on track.
2. Brands that stayed true to their guiding message in the bleakest hours come out the strongest.
In my job I must constantly remind clients this too (whatever current obstacle they face) will end. It is hard when you are working day in and day out under extreme stress and the results are not coming. But I see it every time there is a crisis. Once there is a return to consumer confidence the floodgates open up and the sales quickly follow.
3. You must prepare for the next downward business cycle now.
Now is the time to develop relationships with business professionals. Those that had access to bankers, CPAs, business groups and consultants got PPP funding, and those that may have taken an extra day or two didn’t make the cut. As soon as you can establish those relationships with your support professionals the better off you will be down the road. Focus on what you do well but cultivate strong professional relationships with experts so that they are there for you when you need them next.
4. Innovations you offered during this period will have to continue for quite some time.
I believe after this pandemic reaches a point where things are more normal, whatever innovations you put in place to make it through will need to continue. In fact, they might even be the new norm. If you started offering curbside pickup or Zoom meetings with your customers, you will need to factor those in as you move forward.
5. Being an entrepreneur is one of the hardest and most stressful jobs.
As an entrepreneur you often are on stage in front of an audience being judged by your every word and every action. In this time many entrepreneurs were pushed to the edge or almost over it. The entrepreneurs who will weather this storm are those who fought and focused on the long game. They are the business leaders who acknowledged their flaws and need to adjust, but they never relinquished what got them started in the first place no matter how hard the fight got. They lost sleep, worked more hours than they ever had for little or no compensation, and they did this all because they wanted the organization and team to survive.
COVID 19 and its economic impacts are far from over. We are facing a whole new world. I am hopeful that this is the biggest challenge that I face in my career, and when we emerge on the other side, I am smarter and able to use the lessons of this time to drive success. And while, we can all acknowledge that this is an experience like no other, the same pillars of strong business hold true: focus on great service, products and staying true to your core message and you will be able to keep your business healthy.