When the world came to a halt in March 2020, plenty of small businesses feared what the shutdown would mean for their ability to continue. To survive, many had to pivot—and fast.
The past year tested resilience, creativity, and perseverance, generating plenty of lessons small businesses will carry forward even as business returns to some form of normal. Six business owners shared what they learned in survival mode and how these lessons have helped them build stronger business models for the future.
Rethink your supply chain
Donald Love, CEO of Bay City, Mich.-based Freedom Pet Pass was selling energy-efficient pet doors expected sales to grind to a halt when lockdown orders went into effect.
"Early on, when there were still a lot of unknowns, customers were not only still buying non-essentials, but their appetite for them was growing," he says.
Love was surprised at consumer expectations. "I was stunned at the number of people who expected no interruption to production and supply chains in the middle of the shutdowns," he says.
His biggest takeaway was the importance of a robust manufacturing and inventory strategy. "Our U.S.-based manufacturing and healthy inventory levels allowed us to ship every order on time and as expected," he says. "Companies that have outsourced manufacturing to China and keep low levels of inventory have mostly failed to keep up with consumer demand during the pandemic."
Expand your customer base
Jake Munday, CEO, and co-founder of Custom Neon, sign makers, knew early on that the pandemic would affect his business, but he didn't know to what extent. "We were surprised to see our business virtually wiped out overnight when weddings and events were put on hold," he says.
Instead of focusing on the consumer market, Munday shifted his efforts to a B2B strategy, delivering signs to other businesses that still needed the product. The result was an increase in sales and productivity.
"This taught us not to rely on any one path for business and to explore new and exciting ventures," he says. "To this day, we are still trying to reach new audiences and cater to different customers in an effort to push our brand to new limits. Thanks to this, 2020 has actually been one of our best years yet."
Partner with other business owners
When the pandemic hit, Kala Maxym, founder and chief event composer of Five Senses Tastings in Los Angeles, took her event business virtual and started reaching out to anyone and everyone she thought might be able to help.
"Ego went out the window, and people just stuck together," she says. "We pivoted our business immediately, but to be successful in our pivot, we needed partners to help us get our food and wine pairings out to our customers."
Maxym teamed up with her food and beverage vendors to share contact lists and create safe public events together.
"A lot of the lessons I learned have made me a more thorough and cautious businesswoman," she says. "But I've also become more comfortable taking risks and diving in before I have all of the answers."
Tap into your community
During the pandemic, customers showed how much they value local businesses. Steve O'Dell, co-founder, and CEO of Tenzo Matcha in Los Angeles said the experience taught him how important community is when running a business.
"As time went on, our community of customers were supportive in our business efforts," he says. "This virtual community of people who love our products was not only heartwarming to us all on the team, it showed the power that small businesses have."
O'Dell says small-business owners are more inclined to listen to individual people's needs and desires than a larger company that will view their customers as numbers.
"This connection between you and those who purchase your products is powerful and should be expanded on for years to come," he says.
Pivot with your customers
Richard O'Brien, CEO of Hoamsy, a Boston-based technology startup that matches people to apartments and roommates, found the transition from physical to digital services not only changed the way he conducted business; it also changed what customers wanted.
"Originally, we thought that the fully digital pandemic-driven apartment rental process couldn't last, and putting in the work to do things like add video tours to our platform didn't make sense," he says. "But as the pandemic slogged on, we saw that not only were these changes a way to differentiate, but also something that customers were going to want for a long time to come."
O'Brien's biggest lesson is the importance of responding to your customers' wants and needs—and doing it right away. "Reflecting, I think we gave up opportunities early in the pandemic because we were afraid to make mistakes and afraid that putting work into certain areas wouldn't have a long-term payoff," he says.
One of the advantages of being a small business during the pandemic was having the ability to act quickly.
"We have the flexibility to quickly adapt to current situations and relatively small consequences for making a change too quickly or incorrectly," says O'Brien. "Having fewer customers means we are more in tune with the ones we have."