This March, Shell Martine was set to have the best month ever of her Brooklyn-based boutique film and photo studio, Shell’s Lofts. “We had great contracts with Amazon and Nike all lined up, everyone was vying for dates and we were heading into Spring, which is a busy season for us,” she says.
But then the Coronavirus pandemic hit, all the productions postponed their shoots indefinitely, people were told to stay home and Shell’s Loft, like small businesses all over the country, and indeed the world, had to close its doors.
Martine, like so many others, is facing tough times and trying to figure out how to survive as a small business in a time of the coronavirus. According to a National Small Business Association survey, about 77% of small business owners say they’re “very worried” about the economic impact of the pandemic. Of the 950 people surveyed, almost half expect the US to sink into a recession during the next 12 months, up from 14% in January.
As the government weighs out bailouts to help, small business owners like Martine have been taking their own measures to try to weather the storm.
1. Comply With the CDC and Stay Informed
“I’ve been stalking the CDC,” says Martine, as she follows orders to self-isolate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been urging businesses to look to reputable sources for facts. It launched a website with extensive information for business owners and US residents alike. It’s also issued comprehensive guidelines for businesses to follow, with regular updates.
The World Health Organization (WHO) also has a coronavirus fact sheet for businesses, with FAQs and resources.
2. Communicate as Much and as Clearly as Possible With Employees
Although Martine has a small team working for her, she has been in constant touch with them — via Slack, email and text. Before the coronavirus pandemic really began to hit hard, she’d been encouraging her employees to plan for its impact. Score, a resource partner of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) has a downloadable checklist to help create an effective crisis communications plan.
3. Pivot to Online
While some small companies are able to continue to do business by having employees work from home, others rely on brick-and-mortar sales. As a way to help create some sort of cash flow at this time, Martine put a pop-up notice on her website, offering her customers the chance to purchase a buy-now, use-later credit, for when the pandemic has subsided.
She also took the props and gently used furniture that were inside the spaces where people shot productions and began selling them online.
“Pivoting online is critical for us to get some income to hold us over to keep us here in place,” says Martine. “We’re a tiny team and didn’t have the manpower to react the same way bigger companies could. We thought we had a good back-up, but everything is changing so fast it almost becomes irrelevant. So we take it one day at a time. We make a plan and we see if we can execute it. We’re in this holding pattern right now.”
4. Get Creative and Keep Clients Engaged
Days after it was forced to close the doors to its well-loved stores, Alfred Coffee in Los Angeles started offering an online coffee subscription service. At the same time, Mile High Run Club, which has three treadmill-filled locations in New York, began offering paid-for classes online.
Other companies are taking advantage of the downtime to work on their online presence. “Take this time to create content,” says Nick Flint, owner of Pure Cut Supplements. “See if you can relate that content to your current situation. For example, I'll be posting home workouts and exercises. Plan out a daily posting schedule across your platforms, and even start writing future blogs you can post over these next few months.”
5. Rely on Your Community — and Be Honest with Them
“As a business owner, you present that everything is great because you are selling something,” says Martine. “Now we’re in this position of having to be vulnerable to save our business, and we’ve seen other people have to do the same thing and say, ‘Look, this situation we find ourselves in is putting all of our businesses at risk. Those of us you — the community — that are not being affected by it financially, we’re asking for your support to help keep us afloat so that we’re still here when this is done.’”
Now is the time to be vulnerable, an approach that may be very new to small business owners. Many restaurants, bars, small bookshops and dental practices have been offering vouchers and gift card incentives to their customers, relying on their loyalty to get them through this time.
6. Connect on a Personal Level
It’s also the time to focus on encouraging your community to follow, like and share information about your business and to leave reviews on Yelp and Google. “Everyone is struggling right now, and people likely don’t have expendable money,” adds Flint. “Use this time to connect on a personal level, so when things get back to normal, they’ll feel that connection and hopefully become a lifelong customer.”
Flint also suggests using the extra time to focus on customer service, such as handwritten letters, manual “thank you for ordering” emails instead of automatic flows and responding to more comments on social media. “Anything to help make these customers feel appreciated for still supporting you when everyone is struggling.”
7. Reach Out and Be Proactive
We’re all in this together, and it’s true for small businesses too. With her online sale of props and furniture, Martine is trying to keep providing the small-brand vendors in her extended community with income also. “We want to re-buy and get more inventory to sell too,” she says.
Paige Arnof-Fenn, founder & CEO of Mavens & Moguls, a branding and marketing firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is encouraging the groups her company is part of to get together and start a stimulus package of their own. For Arnof-Fenn, those groups include industry, trade, neighborhood, alumni, women, hobby, religious and the nonprofit sector.
“We’re doing this by agreeing to support and buy from each other directly and referring business proactively to each other too. Cross-promote products and services in newsletters and follow, like and retweet on social media. Whether you need to buy food, a book, a gift, office supplies or equipment, update your website or create a video, there is probably someone in your network who is more than happy to get the business right now,” she says. “Help your neighbors and network thrive, and we will all get through this together stronger.”
8. Be Ready to Apply for Financial Help
While the government is ironing out the packages it’s going to offer to help small businesses, Martine is making sure she has her paperwork in order and knows what resources are available.
“We’re working on getting our taxes done and making sure we have all of our numbers for the year. We can go to the agencies that are going to be offering help for small businesses and to the private sector offering loans and rescue programs when these things are confirmed.”
Have your financial numbers ready. You can show how your business was doing before the coronavirus and how it’s been impacted after the pandemic.
9. Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself
“When this all happened, the first place my mind went was that it’s my fault. That there was some reason this happened. That I should have had more money, more stockpiles,” says Martine.
“We’re doing well. We pay our employees, our bills are paid on time and we have a little bit of stored liquidity, but not enough to hold out for months at a time,” Martine says. “It feels very personal as a business owner — I didn’t plan for this. But there was no way to plan for the way this has gone.”
Certainly, Martine is not alone. According to a survey by the JP Morgan Chase Institute, companies with fewer than 500 employees have, on average, less than a month of cash reserves. Smaller Main Street-type businesses often have just a couple of weeks’ worth of cash to keep going.
“The upside of being so transparent is that even if people are not your shoppers or buying from you, they’re looking out for you,” says Martine. They’re seeing loans and sending you the things they’re seeing, like people who’ve been sending me links to offers of grants or SBA loans,” she explains.
10. Remember That People Want You To Succeed
“The more people know you need help, the more they are looking out for you. The skillset in your community is vast, not everyone does what you do and connections are out there,” says Martine. She firmly believes that small businesses and the communities they live in can band together to help these businesses survive, much as we’re doing all we can to help each other survive.
Nadia Neophytou is a journalist based in New York City, who writes for a variety of publications from The Hollywood Reporter to Quartz.
National Small Business Association. “Small Business Impact Poll.” Accessed March 20, 2020.
JP Morgan Chase Institute. “Cash is King: Flows, Balances, and Buffer Days. Evidence from 600,000 Small Businesses.” Accessed March 20, 2020.