Getting Small Businesses Back to Work in a Responsible Way

By Brij Sharma, Co-Founder, Naples Technology Ventures

Small businesses have been extremely hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, and there’s no doubt that “business as usual” has had to take a backseat to larger considerations of public health and the greater good. Indeed, every business owner today should be putting the health and safety of their employees and customers at the top of their priority list right now. Small businesses are the backbone of our economy at the federal level and the lifeblood of U.S. communities at the local level.

We all need small businesses to be thriving again—and as soon as possible. It would be wonderful if all business owners could see the many state prohibitions on doing business safely lifted today so we could all go back to work tomorrow. But public health experts agree that this is a bad idea, and each state has its own distinct set of challenges, with various levels of contagion. So, let’s discuss what smart business owners should be doing right now to preserve their sustainability as individual states start to open again.

How Small Businesses Can Help Themselves

Smart small business owners certainly have not crawled in a hole during these weeks to “wait this thing out.” That’s the last thing anyone should be doing—both for the sake of the economy and their own future sustainability. Here are key considerations and ideas for small businesses looking to turn the lights back on.

Be creative. Let’s be clear up front: Any small business activities being conducted right now need to align with current COVID-19 regulations and restrictions, not to mention common sense when it comes to potential virus transmission. A lot of restaurants have done their best to adapt with new or enhanced delivery and curbside pickup options. Some restaurants are even creating distance by using mannequins at alternating tables!

Even though the revenue might be only a fraction of a typical day when the dining room is open, this activity is invaluable in terms of staying present in the community, keeping operations oiled and people working, and—importantly—providing some relief and comfort to American families craving a literal taste of familiar things. This model can be expanded and adapted across a number of small businesses, particularly at the retail level.

Home Depot and other big box retailers have used crowd control tactics to move people through their stores with social distancing enforced. Restaurants will need to do the same, with tables further apart and one-way directions marked on the floors. It may be awkward in some places. But it also will be vital.

Re-envision your business for a virtual world. Humanity is flexing its immense creativity in terms of how day-to-day in-person activities can be accomplished in virtual settings. Look no further than the flurry of Zoom meetings being set up for everything from board meetings to preschool classes. Small businesses need to think about how they can be virtually relevant as well. For some, it’s a tough fit—but for many, there is opportunity. Salons can offer virtual guidance on at-home haircuts with people’s regular stylists, and some salons have been delivering coloring kits and helping the “DIY” client who needs a hair update. Art galleries around the globe are providing curated virtual tours and expedited shipping of selected art. Again, now is the time for creativity to shine within the small business landscape. Chefs are offering cooking lessons, gym instructors are already offering valuable tips, and even celebrities are busy offering fitness guidance. They’re all doing so with the goal of staying in touch with their communities and letting consumers, fans and followers know they care.

Reallocate employee time to marketing and community-building. For some businesses, driving sales right now will be difficult or impossible. But even a modest investment in marketing activities right now, particularly through social media, can lay the groundwork for a dramatic upswing in business as doors reopen, not to mention the establishment of long-term community goodwill and customer loyalty. Small business owners should consider reallocating some of their employee’s regular time to online community-building efforts such as crafting relevant online tutorials, creating shareable social media memes featuring the business or supporting local relief organizations. There are great online marketing and client engagement tools and programs out there that you can employ, typically for a minimal cost, to keep in touch with your clients and prospects. Engagement with your customer has always been important, but it has become the new currency during these months and will lead to more business directly as we all start to venture out.

Plan for a tiered ramp-up. More than anything, small businesses can’t afford to be caught flat-footed when larger business opportunities return. There’s a very good chance this will happen in dribs and drabs, not as some singular massive event. People might be allowed back to restaurants and retail establishments, but in moderation and with distancing enforced. And many customers might continue self-quarantine efforts for longer than others. In any case, smart small business owners have been planning for the resumption of activities. Which employees will come off furlough first, and what early activities and promotions can be ramped up by the summer?

How Governments Can Help

Of course, small business owners need to operate within the confines of what’s permitted of them at any given moment. In this respect, governments need to be more creative too. While some states have been more active than others with their restrictions, states that permit small business owners more leeway in doing business while maintaining proper social distancing and other best practices will see their economies recover more quickly. Take a look at the New Jersey shore openings to see how creative this state’s government will be.

Another key here is COVID-19 testing. Across the country, we still need many, many more tests to be made available, and making widespread testing available must be a top government imperative at both the state and federal level. This is a health as well as an economic concern. Once tests become more widely available, employees and businesses can reduce the unknowns surrounding contagion. As always, knowledge is power. The knowledge provided by more widespread testing will be key to reigniting the small business economy.

How Communities Can Help

Small business owners are also leading advocates and pillars within their communities. Where possible, community leaders and members should engage with local businesses and try to help. As an example, a local club of mine set up an employee assistance program and requested contributions from other members. We were able to raise more than $30,000 through the generosity of our members to help furloughed employees in their difficult times.

A woman who runs a digital media and technology company that serves the auto dealerships around the US transitioned her team from selling cars for these dealers to enabling those dealers to deliver food to the needy in their communities. This smart program, developed by Diana Lee of the Constellation Agency, has provided hundreds of tons of food to the needy around the US, while keeping dealers highly relevant in their communities. Very smart.

The rapid onset of the COVID-19 crisis and the unprecedented nature of these times has caused too many small businesses to freeze in their tracks completely, and to stay frozen since March. The simple fact is that any motion right now is important motion for a small business. Rather than shutting the doors completely until everything “returns to normal,” small businesses should be doing everything they can to regain even a small level of momentum right now. These will be the ones that will be better positioned to ramp themselves back up in a nimble fashion in the coming weeks.