Lisa Sirkin Vielee: Learn from small firms who turned 2020’s adversity into opportunity

Keywords Opinion / Viewpoint

During the post-Thanksgiving COVID-19 surge last year, I read about a mochi shop in Kyoto, Japan, that is 1,020 years old. This small, family-run business has endured multiple wars, natural disasters and plagues—including the one we find ourselves in now. A lot of small businesses, across the world and at home in Indiana, haven’t been so fortunate. The pandemic has, no doubt, taken a toll on the small-business community, and we’ve had to say goodbye to some for good. But many—in mochi-shop fashion—have persisted, ingesting adversity and turning it into opportunity.

What is it about small businesses that allow them to survive, and even thrive, in the face of adversity?

They adapt quickly and creatively.

Not only did many small businesses adapt quickly, they did so in the midst of extreme uncertainty and changing public health guidelines. Restaurant owners like the Sahm family started selling grocery items and family-size meals. (They also used their buying power to help not-for-profits like Second Helpings provide free meals, providing much-needed work and inspiration for their staff.) Mom-and-pops like Homespun: Modern Handmade pivoted to selling goods online for the first time. Goose the Market showcased its staff and meat products through at-home charcuterie experiences.

Rather than sitting on their hands and waiting it out, many entrepreneurs were able to creatively address the challenges of the pandemic itself, like the direct-to-consumer pajama line Cool Revolution, which began using bamboo fabric remnants to produce face masks. Places like Public Greens offered mini “greenhouses” to extend outdoor dining into the winter months.

Entrepreneurs and small-business owners are adept at seeing opportunity where others see obstacles.

They prioritize their people.

Not everyone had the luxury of working from home during the time known to most of us as “quarantine” or “lockdown.” It was heartwarming to see how many businesses continued to find ways to pay and support their hourly employees despite mandatory closures. For example, by managing other expenses, the Indiana Convention Center and Lucas Oil Stadium were able to pay a guaranteed number of hours to employees through September, despite the cancellation of much of the 2020 convention season.

Those firms that could work from home prioritized team morale and office culture by providing gift cards to local restaurants for at-home lunch breaks or hosting online cooking or yoga classes to keep people connected on personal and professional levels.

Taking care of employees is good for business, because you can’t expect employees to be loyal to you when you’ve not been loyal to them.

They help others first.

Small-business owners tend to wear multiple hats, and everyone on the team usually pitches in to help. During the pandemic, smaller businesses that couldn’t donate money still found ways to come together to help the community. Katz Sapper & Miller employees sent thank you cards to frontline workers, supported their restaurant clients by purchasing meals on firmwide “Takeout Tuesdays” and donated to organizations supporting food security and social justice, which the firm subsequently matched.

I saw this play out within my own small business, Well Done Marketing. When we had to cancel our holiday party, we decided to donate what we would’ve spent to Southeast Community Center to buy presents for families in our Fountain Square neighborhood. And, while we couldn’t volunteer as a whole team, several employees took it a step further by offering to transform the drive-through Santa visit into a winter wonderland complete with at-home cocoa kits.

Studies show that giving back to the community can actually improve your physical and mental well-being. For smaller businesses with limited resources for incentive programs, helping others also helps maintain morale, especially in trying times.

Resilience—or the ability to recover from or adjust quickly to misfortune or change—is a skill forged through experience. There’s a saying that a smooth sea does not make for a skillful sailor. Despite the rough seas 2020 brought about, many small businesses discovered new routes to sail and ways to weather the storms.•

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Vielee is president of Well Done Marketing.

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