By Guy Browning
Last year challenged small businesses as never before. But while we may have suffered financially, it has helped us all appreciate just what’s important.
I’ve got a chart that shows me how well my business has done every year since I set it up. There were some good years. Take 2006 – an absolute belter. I’m not sure what I did right, but it’s never been that good since. On the other hand, 2015 was a bit of a downer – not very nice.
Then there was 2020. I almost gave up on my chart, because everything changed. All around me I see SMEs that have gone through more change in a year than I’ve been through in 20. It seems appropriate to look at some of the lessons we learned, and the achievements we made.
Management gurus say you must change or die. We knew that on paper, but last year was the practical exam. We changed like our livelihoods depended on it – which they did. We tried things we’d thought of before and things we’d never have thought of in a million years. We succeeded and failed, but we failed faster because we were desperate. Some of us failed fast enough to succeed.
The pandemic tried to separate us from customers – our lifeblood, our business and, often, our friends. We found ways to stay in touch. Where we could satisfy them in a new way, we did. We found ways to talk, listen and deliver. We’ll be glad to see the back of some of those ways, but some will be how we do things in future.
Many businesses found two new things in 2020: virtual communication and real doorsteps. We closed the distance Zoom put between us with doorstep deliveries. When customers couldn’t get to us, we went to them. We also learned that technology can’t do everything. It won’t give you a cosy evening in the pub, or a pampering at the hairdresser, or a romantic break in a B&B. These businesses will be back, because we need them.
Remember that rainy day we were supposed to prepare for? There were 366 of them last year. We found out how much fat we had in the business, what we could fall back on, where our guaranteed income was. We also found out how much slack we had. What did we need, did it need to cost that much, and how can we get it better, cheaper, faster? We’re leaner, meaner and keener in 2021.
Rainy days also showed you who your fair-weather friends were: the landlords who didn’t care if you sank or swam, the suppliers whose credit suddenly dried up, the customers who disappeared. But for every disappointment, there was someone who gave you some slack, ordered a bit more, didn’t demand instant payment, gave you a hand and willed you to survive. Enjoy those relationships – they’re the ones worth keeping.
When we set up our own businesses, we were following our passion, living the dream. Last year our passions cooled and the dream, for many, became a nightmare. When we come through to brighter days, we’ll still have our passions and our dreams but they will have been battered and bruised. As they heal, which they will, they will grow back stronger and healthier. We’ll be able to look back and quietly say, I survived 2020. Put that in your chart.
Guy Browning runs the design agency Smokehouse.