COVID hit the small business community hard. But as challenging as the pandemic has been, many small business owners have also learned invaluable lessons that, as restrictions are lifted and we move towards some semblance of normalcy, will serve their businesses for years to come.
But what, exactly, are those lessons? We asked four small business owners to share their biggest lessons from COVID-19—and how those lessons ultimately changed their businesses. Here’s what they had to say:
Prioritize Your Relationships
During the early days of the pandemic, people were spending more time at home than ever. This led to an increased interest in cooking and, as such, an increased demand for cooking-related items—including spices.
“When the pandemic lockdowns began in the US, stores ran out of lots of things—including spices,” says Meaghan Thomas, co-owner of online organic spice company Pinch Spice Market. “Spice companies also couldn't keep up with the demand for people who were now cooking from home more than ever before.”
As other spice companies struggled to keep up with demand, Thomas realized how Pinch Spice Market’s business model—and, more specifically, their strong relationships with farmers—gave them a leg up on their competition.
“We run things a little differently than the typical spice company...we work directly with farmers, paying fair trade, and have personal relationships with them,” says Thomas. “This gave us a huge advantage when stock began running out for spice companies who tend to purchase most of their spices from the same small handful of suppliers...who were getting tapped out from every angle.”
Throughout the pandemic, Pinch Spice Market’s strong business relationships allowed them to keep up with customer demand—and keep their business moving forward during one of the most challenging times in recent history.
“Our close relationships with farmers in the USA and around the world is critical to keeping our supply loaded through surges,” continues Thomas. “Because we pay fair trade and have grown with them as they grow, we're at the top of their priority list.”
The COVID-19 pandemic “reminded us how important it was to keep a tight supply chain, full of personal relationships,” says Thomas. “Relationships are so important.”
If You’re Not Already Selling Online, You Need to
Prior to the pandemic, family-owned jewelry retailer Moriarty’s Gem Art had a very minimal web presence, with the vast majority of their revenue driven by sales from their brick and mortar location in Crown Point, Indiana.
But then COVID hit, and Moriarty’s Gem Art had to close their physical location for four months, putting a long pause on their primary revenue stream.
The inability to serve their customers in their retail location ultimately led to the company exploring new sales tactics and revenue streams—and moving their business operations online.
“Instead of just relying on people to purchase through only our store, we set up a website [and] a YouTube channel along with an order online/pick up in store [option],” says Moriarty.
The lesson here? Having a single revenue stream can put your business at risk if and when that revenue stream is no longer viable—like Moriarty’s Gem Art experienced when they had to temporarily shutter the doors to their store. But by embracing the online space and creating different, varied opportunities for your customers to engage with your business, you can diversify your revenue streams, lowering your risk—and drive serious results in the process.
“2020 ended up being our biggest year ever in business,” says Moriarty. “We know now that people are willing to trust other means to purchase products—and [as a result] are continuing to explore even more opportunities to sell.”
Now, keep in mind that moving your business online and exploring different opportunities and revenue streams will look different for every business. For example, if you’re a brick and mortar store that sells specialty wine and cheese, you might launch an online ordering system that allows your customers to shop and get items delivered to their home—while if your business offers consulting services, you might launch a YouTube channel offering helpful advice or answering FAQs for potential clients (with a call-to-action to book a virtual session at the end of each video). The key is to think about who your customers are, what they need from your business, and how you can fulfill those needs through digital channels.
Bottom line (and the important lesson to remember)? Whatever kind of business you own, there’s a way to move that business online—and making that move can ultimately help protect your company, profits, and, and revenue.
When COVID hit, most small businesses were unprepared for how to keep their businesses moving forward during an unprecedented global health crisis—including Ravi Parikh, CEO of RoverPass Campground Reservation Software.
“Prior to the pandemic, my company only had a plan in place for a surprise power outage in our building; we did not anticipate ever needing to navigate running the business through a global pandemic,” says Parikh.
Parikh and his team had to figure things out in real-time—and while they were ultimately successful in determining the best way to manage their business through the pandemic, he wishes they’d been more prepared.
“I wish we'd had a plan in place,” says Parikh. “If we had, we could have more easily transitioned to remote work, shifted our marketing, and changed our business strategy for the upcoming year. We would have been light years ahead of our competition.”
Parikh learned the lesson that, in business, there’s no such thing as being too prepared—and is already taking steps to ensure that RoverPass is better prepared for any unexpected challenges in the future.
“I’m working to develop other disaster recovery plans for different types of scenarios,” says Parikh. “No matter what happens, I want us to be prepared.”
Developing a disaster plan will help you think about what potential disasters could impact your business—and create a strategy for navigating those disasters before they happen, which can put your business in a better position to weather any disaster-related challenges. While every company’s disaster plan will look a little different, some questions you may want to ask yourself while developing your plan include:
- What are the most likely disasters to hit my area? (For example, do you live in an area that has a high risk of natural disasters, like earthquakes or floods?)
- What are disasters that have the potential to hit on a national or global scale? (For example, another pandemic)
- What business practices do I currently have in place that put my company at risk? (For example, do you store all your data on a local server—and if you lose power or access to your building, you also lose access to that data?)
- Knowing what disasters have the highest likelihood of impacting my business, what steps can I take today to lessen the potential damage I will incur if and when those disasters hit? (For example, moving your data to a Cloud-based server or creating policies and procedures for a sudden shift to remote operations)
- Knowing what disasters have the highest likelihood of impacting my business, how can I pivot my business strategy to keep things moving forward if and when one of those disasters occurs?
- What training can I give my staff to help them be better prepared to deal with any potential disasters?
The hope is that your business doesn’t have to deal with any additional disasters in the future—but anticipating potential disasters and having a plan in place will put you in a much better position to effectively navigate any challenges if and when you find yourself facing another disaster-level scenario like COVID-19.
Put Your Team First
Chris Gardner is the owner and founder of Paint Rite Pros, a commercial and residential painting business in the Sacramento, CA area—and during the pandemic, he learned an invaluable lesson.
“The pandemic provided a lot of opportunities for us to learn and grow as a company; that happens anytime you're in a sink or swim situation,” says Gardner. “One thing I learned is just how important it is to keep your employees as happy as possible.”
This lesson really hit home once “weekly unemployment benefits were raised and a lot of our furloughed employees didn't want to come back because they were getting paid the same amount to stay home,” says Gardner.
Gardner had to find a way to incentivize his employees to come back to work—and that meant taking extra steps to make sure his employees felt heard, recognized, and happy at work.
To accomplish that goal, “we had frequent meetings with our employees, both management and entry-level, to get their opinions on how things should be done,” says Gardner. “Then, we actually tried their suggestions on how to [make] things better. If those things didn't work out, people at least knew they were being listened to."
If you’re struggling to keep your employees engaged at work, schedule a meeting to gather feedback on why they’re struggling—and then use that feedback to make the improvements necessary to get your team motivated, committed, and engaged. For example, after asking for feedback, you might find out that your employees are feeling overwhelmed and burned out in the face of new COVID outbreaks and need a break—in which case you might reevaluate your PTO policy to give your team the time off they need to rest and recharge.
Or maybe you’re struggling with employee retention—and after asking your team for feedback, you realize it’s because they feel like they’ve been underpaid throughout the pandemic. In that case, you would want to look at your financials and identify any opportunities to increase compensation. What your employees want or need from you will vary based on your company and team—but the act of listening to your employees and doing everything you can to support them and give them what they need will have a major impact on your business regardless of what industry you’re in or who you have working for you.
Tuning into their employees’ needs proved pivotal for Paint Rite Pros. Since learning this lesson—and making employee satisfaction a major priority—“we've had very little turnover,” says Gardner. “In fact, we've had less turnover than before COVID. At a time when a lot of businesses are experiencing labor shortages, we're fully staffed consistently.”