Planning for your small business amid crisis

Before it was even categorized as a pandemic, COVID-19 created an unprecedented amount of disruption. In the span of my relatively young life, I have never seen anything affect all aspects of society in as disruptive a way as this.

Thus far, it’s impacted how we live, work and play. It has forced us to take responsibility for our communities, protecting our most vulnerable populations by depriving ourselves. It has changed the routine of our daily lives and for some, prompted re-discovery around how we spend our time. It’s had disruptive implications for childcare, work effectiveness, and social relationships and has sparked well-founded fears around job and financial security. Like so many things, it has wreaked disproportionate havoc on the most financially vulnerable among us.

For small businesses and organizations operating on narrow margins, these disruptions are particularly destabilizing.

I run a small impact investing consulting firm, called Spectrum Impact.

We work directly with organizations, funds and families to help craft their impact investing strategy. In other words, we take your commitment to building an impact approach (which can be a program, a product, or a partnership), connect it to the change you want to see in the world, build the tools to help you generate that impact, and bundle all of that into a long-term sustainable action plan.

As a small business owner, COVID-19 has had an immediate effect on the work that I do. Our business thrives on relationships. Client referrals come from friends, colleagues, impact leaders and those we’ve already served. That work is delivered in a highly customized fashion — often face-to-face, working alongside our clients to address the problems that they‘re tackling.

Disconnection and isolation are bad for business. It affects our ability to generate work, deliver it effectively and continue to grow. And yet, compared to many small business owners dealing with slowing demand, we are incredibly lucky. The universe of service delivery will continue relatively unscathed, compared to our brick-and-mortar peers. Physical consumption and access are not necessary for us to survive, and though we see greater effectiveness when that’s possible, the wheels of our business keep on turning through video screens and phone calls. In the service domain, this crisis might even spur innovation and new thinking on the work that we do and how we do it.

Over the last two weeks I’ve been reflecting on this new normal, like so many other small firms, entrepreneurs and businesses. In the Boards and Investment Committees that I serve, questions about long-term viability, cost-cutting, and the future are popping up in full force.

We’ve laid out a few ways — below — that we’re protecting our company’s future and continuing to deliver value, while also supporting our peers and partners in the work they do:

Focus your scenario planning on the resources you have now

Some businesses plan for a worst case scenario from the moment of chaos onwards. But that assumes that the pain of disruption won’t affect you retroactively, and that’s not always true. Take billing for example. Many small businesses charge their clients when work is completed (even if in-part.) From the date an invoice is sent, most organizations have 30–60 days to pay, and those invoices often need to go through several layers of approval. With people working from home and many approval systems not set-up for virtual sign-off, your payment may be in limbo for a while. Planning for your worst-case scenario should rely — principally — on the cash you have on-hand. What do you have in the bank, how long can that keep you afloat given the ongoing expenses you incur, and what cuts might you make to stretch out that number (responsibly!)?

Assume that your clients are as stuck as you are, and payment won’t be possible until everyone’s back in the office.

Reset the clock on lead-generation for after things get back to normal, not leading up to it

Running your business is one thing, but growing it is quite another. For many small service-oriented firms, like ours, identifying clients and designing the right projects for them takes time. In our line of work, the impact we have on these clients also has downstream effects for the funds and entrepreneurs that will eventually turn to them for investment. In other words, we don’t have the luxury of designing a shoddy project or crafting half-hearted recommendations. What we design has to work for each of our clients. And to work well, we have to be the right partner.

Even in the best of times it takes patience and confidence to convert on new business. Approvals are needed, rethinking often occurs, and there’s always some consideration or re-consideration (as we think there should be) on fit. As you’re watching your lead generation come to an uncomfortable stop during COVID-19, know that this won’t go on forever. First, determine (even if it’s a rough estimate) your conversion time frame. In other words how long does it take to move from introduction to a signed contract?

Second, assume that the clock will restart after things resume their natural cadence — not leading up to it. In the return to normalcy, people will have a lot on their plates. Signing new consultants and services will not be their first priority — returning to business-as-usual will be. Create the right expectations (and contingencies) for yourself and your team, and plan to restart business development at the right time.

Use this downtime time to invest in, create, and disseminate the right thought leadership

In times of uncertainty, there’s nothing more valuable than reliable information. That isn’t just true for news alerts and COVID-19 updates, it’s also true for the work you do, the experiences you can share, and the capabilities you can add to your future client-base.

This is a great opportunity to spend some time building up your thought-leadership prowess. In other words, translate your intellectual capital into resources people can use now, and ideally, for free. As a service provider, it allows you to provide value even when things are slowing down. The work you’ve done in the past, your perspective today, and the work you’re hoping to do in the future can all be deeply useful to your network. It can inspire creative thinking, new ways of working, and fresh ideas on what to do when things pick up again. Most importantly, your ability to share resources and tools now will also help these organizations support their end beneficiaries during a difficult time.

To honor our commitment in sharing what we’ve learned, we’ve created a free toolkit for organizations, funds and families to start thinking about building an impact strategy.

During this period of uncertainty, we’ll continue to design and release issues of our Toolkit that will help explain how we work and give our network resources to keep thinking through the change they want to see.

For some of us, this is uncharted territory. But it is precisely during these times of uncertainty that we stumble upon new ways of doing business — ways that are more nimble and adaptive to our “new normal.” While social distancing requires us to keep our physical distance, you can use this time to cultivate and deepen relationships with prospective clients, partners, and other beneficiaries — virtually. Finally, this slower time can also free up more of your headspace to intentionally build your thought-leadership capabilities and continue to provide value-added content to your network.

#impinv founder at Spectrum Impact. Ex @CaseFoundation + @BNYMellon + @RockefellerFdn. Bookworm, travel glutton, and lifelong Pens fan. www.spectrum-impact.com

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Rehana Nathoo

Rehana Nathoo

#impinv founder at Spectrum Impact. Ex @CaseFoundation + @BNYMellon + @RockefellerFdn. Bookworm, travel glutton, and lifelong Pens fan. www.spectrum-impact.com

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