How to adapt your business to survive a pandemic. Five lessons from small businesses around the country.

October 8, 2020

Photo by Natalie Grainger on Unsplash

There is no shortage of stories that start the same: 2020 was supposed to be the year that your business really took off, finally launched, or paid back that mortgage.

But in reality, we know what happened. From March to June, 3.3 million businesses across the US had to shut at least temporarily. Many of them never opened back up.

There are programs in place at the federal and local level that have tried to alleviate the pain and one can argue whether politicians are doing enough, but the simple truth is that many small business owners are simply on their own to navigate through the crisis.

And it is only by adapting their businesses that they are able to survive.

The good news is that there are examples of small businesses across the country doing just that and we can all learn lessons from their success.

Lesson #1: Take what you can and get online

This may be the most obvious lesson, as we have all heard stories of restaurants switching to delivery and businesses of all sizes creating e-shops, but it is worth repeating.

And it isn’t necessarily just about taking your existing products and shipping it through the mail. For proof of that, there is a story from Kansas of a business that makes novelty gifts like coasters and mugs, most popular around Christmas time.

Before Coronavirus, these gifts were sold through markets and shows leading up to the holiday season. With the cancellation of these shows from the pandemic, they had to shift to online sales. But they didn’t stop there, they also looked at what other niches were out there that hadn’t been filled yet.

So they took the existing tools that they had and were able to start producing customizable face masks. These turned out to be a big hit and brought them to sales levels even higher than they had pre-Covid.

Lesson #2: Get straight to the end customer

Selling online just isn’t possible for all businesses though - but the same concepts can be applied.

If you think about it, selling online is essentially cutting out the middleman and selling your products directly to your end customers. Even if your product isn’t really suited to online, you still might be able to find a way to reach your end customers.

Take for example, Tri-City Meats in Olympia, Washington. They are a meat company that typically sells their meats wholesale to restaurants, hospitals and other businesses. Not exactly a business that can be taken online very easily, but they have still found ways to adapt and reach their end customers.

They have installed a deli-counter right in front of their warehouse location, where customers can come in and buy their meat directly from them.

Other businesses that have thrived with a similar direct to customer approach are farms that have opened up for customers to come in and pick their products themselves, including a u-pick apple farm in Nevada sold all their apples in one week and Lovely Hollow Flower Farm in Idaho saw over 1,500 visitors on their opening day.

Lesson #3: Create an experience

These businesses also have something else in common - they create an experience.

Currently with restrictions on businesses still in place and many people reluctant to return to many businesses that are still open, there is a need for new experiences that provide pandemic safe entertainment.

U-pick farms and orchards are a great example of being right on this trend, providing a safe experience where families can spend the day outside while spreading out and keeping distance from others.

Another way to create a unique experience for people is to do a pop-up shop or event. Take this example of an Italian restaurant in Ohio that created a pop-up restaurant at the site of a historical covered bridge. This is a great way to get attention and because it is only temporary, it is easier to set-up in a safe and flexible way depending on how guidance changes.

Lesson #4: Look for a win-win situation

The pop-up restaurant wouldn’t have been possible without the permission of the local government to set up at the site of a historical landmark.

This is a great example of finding a win-win situation with someone else in your community. If you think about it from the local government’s perspective, they are trying to promote local businesses, local heritage and history while also encouraging responsible behavior from citizens.

By approving a pop-up restaurant, they can provide the citizens of the community with a unique experience while helping them achieve all of the above.

And while we are on the subject of community…

Lesson #5: Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Everyone knows that we are living in unique times and no one wants to see businesses in their community close down - but everyone has a lot on their minds now and might not be noticing if you’re struggling.

Don’t be afraid to let them know if you need help, you might be surprised how much of a reaction you get. Take for example, an independent bookstore in LA that announced on Twitter two weeks ago that it was thinking of shutting down.

The next day they received over 1,000 from customers on their e-shop. As local author Janet Fitch put it in the same article:

“If you want these places to exist,” she says, “you have to support them now. Because we all have these ideas of the places that we love and, you know, man, when they’re gone, they’re gone.”

That is great advice to close on because it is not just important for business owners but for all of us as consumers. If you love someplace, don’t just assume they’re doing ok - keep supporting them.

Greg Dickens grew up in a small town of less than 2,000 people in rural New York State. After a decade working in finance and technology, he's now taking everything he has learned to create new opportunities for the people he grew up with by building digital tools that help local communities. You can check out his work here.