(As appeared in Forbes.)
Like most small business owners, my mind is exploding at the moment. I am concerned about my employees and their health. I am focused on my current customers, wishing them health and continuity, and working to ensure they have the support they need from my business.
True leaders are very emotional people that employ not only people but heart, creativity, and courage as they navigate murky waters. Necessarily, we switch back and forth between emotion and logic. It is our logic and pragmatism that sustain us in uncertain times and ensure we have the chance to lead with heart the next day.
Logically, I’m wondering which of my clients will delay purchases. I’m wondering if I’ve satisfactorily diversified the industries we serve given the damage being done to segments of our economy. I’m wondering how we’re going to check the mail and make deposits to ensure we have the cash flow we need to continue business in semi-quarantined conditions.
Like many of you, the SBA.gov website is a friend and constant companion. At the start of last week, my friend was ignoring me. As I listened to the White House, addressing the very real healthcare considerations and substantial planning to help us slow the progression of the coronavirus, I longed for words to quell my fears about business. Understandably, our doubts as business owners were initially prioritized behind the immediate health risks of all Americans.
We keep hearing about being at war with an invisible enemy. That enemy for many business owners is doubt. The unknown makes it incredibly difficult to plan for contingencies. As someone who considers myself a good forecaster and a keen observer of patterns, I am in uncharted territory.
Understand the economics of your business
I spent the first few days of the past week, self-isolated with Excel, running numbers. I developed—and this is no exaggeration—dozens of scenarios to understand the impacts of potential disruptions in business, potential losses of business, potential losses in capital, delays in plans for growth, and efficiencies we could gain to extend us through scenarios A through Z.
For those of you who may not be financially minded, take this opportunity to learn the economics of your business. Take some of the time you may be spending right now worrying, and instead, review your financial statements.
Use the hour of time you’re accustomed to spending at Starbucks each morning on the phone with your financial manager or CPA. Have them walk through in detail what they see. What trends are driving your costs, and no less important, what trends are driving your current and potential revenues?
There is an ongoing argument right now about what “non-essential businesses” are because none of us believe we have one. Take a similar look at your business’s cost structure. Determine what your non-essential costs are and cut them today. Many of us will uncover things we could absolutely live without, that we’ve been carrying.
More importantly, understand the things that expand your revenue. Which clients are most critical to your business? Which clients deliver the greatest profits? Which customers value you and consider you to be “essential?” What are you doing today to make contact with them, understand their current reality, and be essential?
These are important things to know and to do, not just in times of crisis, but every day.
Start with what you know and then imagine you know nothing
I’ve heard a lot this past week about the ways people are reinventing how they do what they do. And this goes far beyond large companies retrofitting their production facilities to respond with medical equipment and supplies.
Many of us are multi-tasking as we oversee schooling in our homes while we conduct business. The challenge of managing both is forcing us to change our routines and try new things. If you’re like me, you have found better ways to operate as families and households in the past week.
And the same is true for our businesses. While not every business can operate remotely, those of us in the service sector are pushing entire operations into a virtual setting.
This exercise is breaking our business routines and illuminating things we can do better or differently. It is also showing us non-essential things we can avoid doing altogether as we can reinvent how we work.
It is important to take stock of what we’re learning because the changes we’re integrating now can help us alter our very cost structures and, in many ways, improve our businesses on the other side of this pandemic.
Have faith in yourself and the power of our entire economic system
As I went through the motions and all of the emotions this past week, I reminded myself to be deliberate about my actions and not respond too quickly from emotion. I’ve been listening to the daily press briefings from the White House and witnessing a lot of careful planning, pragmatism, and also hope.
When criticized about the knee jerk reaction of “bail-outs” and funding as the answer to the problems befalling the business community, the President spoke very directly to the small business community. He made a great point that I don’t think many in the Press Briefing room genuinely understand. He commented on (I’m not only paraphrasing but taking creative license here), how very hard it is to start a business, keep it going, and how much money and effort it would take to put this back together again.
For those of us who have done this—envisioned, staffed, delivered, grown, and worked to fund our business—the emotional and financial costs were and are incalculable. Some, although I’m not among them, given a choice to do this all over again, wouldn’t do it knowing now what it requires.
I chose to hear very clearly that America won’t let “this” (dissolution) happen to us. America understands the sacrifices we have made, and that half of our country is counting on the stability of small business when we re-emerge from our lairs once we’ve “stopped the spread.”
I’m doing my part with all the business owners I know to stop the spread of doubt. It is an enemy right now, and not nearly as silent as I wished it would be. We need to use the power of positive thinking to improve everything we can and help all those that count on us.
It is unclear whether Sam Rayburn or Lyndon Johnson is due attribution for these sage words, but “Any jackass can kick down a barn, it takes a real carpenter to build one.” Remember how hard you have worked to build your business. Now is not the time to be a jackass.
Be the kind of builder Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote about. Click the link to read the entire poem, print it out, and recite it in the mirror with your morning coffee. Half of America, and all of your people, are counting on you.
“Build to-day, then, strong and sure,
With a firm and ample base;
And ascending and secure
Shall to-morrow find its place.”
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow