As director of our region’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC), I am privileged to hear business owners’ stories of triumph and quiet desperation. I’ve heard more of the latter, lately, from people struggling to stay open through sales drops.
We have survived economic bumps before and we will again. But we’ll need mutual support and individual resilience. My great aunt Mina is the most resilient person I know. In 1960s Morocco, Mina did something unheard of: she divorced her abusive, alcoholic husband. She started a successful embroidery business. She put three high-achieving children all the way through grad school. Now in her 90s she lives comfortably off her savings.
Here are a few business resilience lessons from my great aunt Mina:
Confront your deadliest risks. What could derail or destroy your business if you’re not prepared? Do you have a disaster plan? Are you risking a big fine or even shutdown due to noncompliance with laws and regulations? Are your suppliers, vendors, service providers, and staff reliable and effective or is there someone who keeps messing up and putting everything at risk?
Remove dead weight. Are you keeping inventory on hand that isn’t generating income? Sell it and stop overstocking. Are you putting off difficult conversations with employees who don’t do their best? Start a PIP (performance improvement plan) now. How much time do you spend on stuff that feels urgent but doesn’t either make or save you money? Map your time and make some hard decisions about what you will not do.
Laser focus on money. You don’t need to know every detail of every transaction, but you do need to track daily, weekly, and monthly sales and expense activity. And if you have trouble understanding your monthly financial statements, then you don’t know enough to make smart business decisions.
Do more of what you’re best at. Sometimes new business owners walk in the door and tell us the target customer for their product or service is “everyone”. By the time we’re done with them, they will never say that again. Which are you most profitable products and services? Who consistently spends the most money on those? Sell more of that and don’t be shy about eliminating what’s not profitable.
Get out and about. You and your team are brand ambassadors. Being known and respected in the networks that affect your bottom line is as important as advertising. Be visible where your customers are; not just as your product or service, but as yourself. Tell memorable stories, teach workshops, share written or video content with free expert advice.
Protect your key people with all your might. Who are the people who help you run well? Who can make or break your reputation? Can you remove barriers to their excellence? Can you learn what they value and need and help them access that? It doesn’t have to be a raise; it can be inviting input into business decisions, or offering flexible work times.
Failure is an option. Three ways to fail wisely. This one’s from me: don’t hold onto something if it isn’t working. Learn how to change directions or even call it quits without losing everything. (1) Value the lesson as much as the result. What did you do and why? What was or wasn’t under your control? What would you do differently? (2) Deal with “small” issues right away: Cash flow problems? Mysterious sales drops? Volatile supplier prices? A canny new competitor? (3) Call it early so you have time to get help to get out. Create a business plan for contracting just like you would for growing. It’s easier to rise from the ashes if you’ve got something left.
Your small business development center is taxpayer-funded, which means we belong to you. Use us. We’ll help you reach new markets. If you need financing, we’ll get you lending ready. If you need to analyze the numbers to figure out your options, we’ll coach you. If you need to sell, we’ll guide you to a smart exit. If you must lay off employees, call us immediately and we will mobilize a confidential team to help your staff get supported, retrained, and rehired. Our job is to help you start, grow, and thrive through ups and downs.
Leila Roberts is director of the North Coast Small Business Development Center. For more information, visit https://www.northcoastsbdc.org or call 707-445-9720.