My Small Business Story: The Lessons of 2020 (so far)
By Erin H. Brown
It was early 2019. After more than 25 years of working full-time in “corporate” America, I was freelancing and considering a move that I’d had in the back of my mind for a long time: opening a small business. And why not? After all, the idea of being a business owner can be intoxicating. It has all of the trappings of freedom, at least in the eyes of many 9-to-5’ers: flexibility, being the boss, making your own decisions, creative freedom, fulfillment, etc.
Much of this is true. But when fantasizing about the pros, do we dreamers also see the cons? I ask myself this now, weeks deep into the COVID-19 shutdown.
Let me fill in the story. I did open the business. In February 2019 the decision to move forward was made. By summer 2019 I had cashed in an old pension to finance the project. Then in September of 2019 I opened the doors on a small retail business in a suburb of Boston.
The Blue Butterfly is a small shop that sells art, vintage goods, books, retro housewares, cool gifts, and more. We were a (relative) hit from the start. I’m not saying the money poured in — I don’t think any new business owner can say that. But business was good. People liked the store, and a small loyal base of customers not only returned to the shop to purchase but also told friends and spread the word about us. We made it through the 2019 holiday season with strong sales and were ready to hunker down in the traditionally slow post-holiday period to restock, examine what was working and what wasn’t, and put effort into a nascent online presence. I was ready for 2020.
Or so I thought. For as we all know now, none of us were ready for the upheaval that occurred during the first few months of this year, when a burgeoning illness in one part of the world rode on the backs of a globalized citizenry to create a worldwide health crisis. As of this writing, there are more than 2.5 million people infected worldwide. Businesses and markets have been roiled; job losses are off the charts; hospitals are in crisis. The prognosis for small businesses is not good.
Two of the biggest known cons of entrepreneurship are financial risk and high levels of stress. If you want to accelerate these issues, throw in a global health crisis that keeps people isolated in their homes for weeks or months. Little did I know that just months after opening my business I’d be sharing lessons learned in hopes of connecting with and helping others. But here we are. And here are my recommendations:
First, try not to panic. There is help to be found right now for entrepreneurs. With a calm head, check into small business loans and unemployment requirements. I’ve talked to others who are negotiating with landlords on postponing monthly rent payments. If you have employees whom you’ve had to lay off, share information with them on how they can get help, too. You are not responsible for the crisis that has impacted your business, but you are responsible for maintaining a leadership role in how your business gets through this time.
Create shutdown goals. For every business this will be different. Is your goal to move your business online? Map out a project plan so that you are selling by a certain date. For me, I have not been comfortable promoting goods during a time when most people are struggling — but I can try to connect with more people now in hopes of coming out of the shutdown with more supporters, who in turn may become paying customers. So I am asking for “likes” and newsletter sign ups right now. Visualize what can help you progress through this time and make it happen.
Connect with other businesses. You are not the only one struggling, and good things happen when we connect. Use this time to create an affiliate network to share knowledge, share stories, and brainstorm ideas. Research similar businesses (whether in size or focus) and reach out to owners with no specific “ask” except to help each other through this unprecedented crisis. Create a weekly virtual meeting where business owners are introducing themselves and telling their stories. If you were out of work right now, you’d be networking. Consider this your version of doing that as an entrepreneur.
Get involved locally. There is no doubt that countries, states, cities, and towns will have to regroup once this crisis recedes and we can meet and plan in groups again. Try to become part of that process. Are there local business coalitions that you can join now? Are there committees that will be charged with determining the new normal of small business life in your area? You want to be one of those people so you can help determine the future of your own business, and therefore, your future success.
Enjoy the time. This last one might be the most difficult, but I urge you to try to carve out even the smallest of chunks of your stressful days to look around and breathe. Enjoy your morning coffee or tea knowing that you are just one of millions of people with an uncertain future and we will get through this together. If you have children, savor this time with them in your own home. Don a mask and take a (socially distanced) walk. Restart the art of letter writing and reach out to loved ones and friends. Consider this time a pause, not an ending.
And so, as I was saying at the beginning of this piece: It was early 2019. After more than 25 years of working full-time… I was considering a move that I’d had in the back of my mind for a long time: opening a small business. And why not? What could possibly go wrong?
Good luck out there.