The outbreak of COVID-19 has knocked us all for a loop. It seems like every day we hear of something else that’s being affected. Schools are closing, whole cities and towns are quarantined, states and municipalities are issuing states of emergency, concerts and events are seemingly all being cancelled, we’ve put the kibosh on travel plans for the foreseeable future, and shaking hands and hugging have been replaced indefinitely by elbow bumps.
Economic impacts of this pandemic will be felt for a long time. Across industries and disciplines, effects of shut-downs, travel restrictions, and general worry are zinging and stinging everywhere. Every time I look online, another friend has posted about the clients they’ve lost that day, the stores and restaurants they’ve had to shutter, conferences they can no longer attend, gigs that got cancelled, etc.
My own brick and mortar business, Uncle Marty’s Shipping Office, is just coming off a huge boon. Last Tuesday, Cornell University—our neighbor and provider of the majority of our client base—announced that students would not be asked to return to campus after spring break. Then, a few days later, moved up that timeline and asked that everyone leave immediately. So, without warning, our student move-out season (which traditionally takes about six weeks during May and June) happened immediately and in a span of about a week. It was intense! We smashed our records and pulled out all the stops to get the students’ stuff shipped and stored as efficiently as possible.
That unexpected burst in business is waning now, and we’re staring at five months of significantly reduced student population in our university-anchored city. What do we do? So many of our neighbors have already closed up for the long haul, offices have sent their workers home to do their jobs remotely, and we’re left with tough decisions to make. It was my decision to keep Uncle Marty’s open regular hours for the foreseeable future (details on the shop’s blog), as our business is classified by New York State as “essential” and therefore exempt from required staff reductions and closures. That being said, I fully understand that every business must make the right decision for their own circumstances. This was ours, and it is of course subject to change as edicts and situations change.
Whether we’re keeping normal hours in our offices or working from home, we are all dealing with this new business atmosphere of uncertainty. What do we do about that? What do we do with our time? Do we just sit on our thumbs for the next few months? Do we bemoan the fact that the world is conspiring against us? Do we take on a victim mindset and start blame-slinging? No! We look at the situation objectively. We innovate. We smile and continue to do everything we can to support our community, team, clients, and networks. We look for opportunities in the chaos. We use any down time that might be coming our way to get focused, establish more healthy habits, strengthen our faith, become re-energized, and prepared for future growth.
Years ago, our neighborhood faced a considerable challenge. If you’ve followed my coaching for a while, you’ve probably read my writings on it before, but the short version of the story is that our road was shut down for nearly two years for the construction of a big building across the street from us. It was tough. As a shipping business, we couldn’t get trucks in or out for deliveries and pickups, our clients couldn’t reach us easily to bring in their shipments and pick up their packages, and our visibility to new clients was all but extinguished by considerable construction dust.
Initially, our sales were slashed by the unexpected interruption, however by the end of it we ended up growing … and thriving. Why? Because we innovated! We didn’t fall victim to the situation, but instead used it as an opportunity to grow our network with city and campus officials to come up with solutions together; we pushed our pickup and delivery service and grew those profit centers considerably, and as a result now have a more diverse, adaptable business model.
The same wasn’t the case for many of our business neighbors. Sadly, many of them cowered and complained during those two years, some even closing for good. We tried to encourage them to innovate and adapt, even suggesting that restaurants grow their take-out and catering businesses since the weren’t getting walk-in traffic. But, change is hard for many people and some of these small businesses didn’t have the knowledge or resources to innovate; they didn’t know what platforms to use, how to get their messages out to the public, or the best course of action to take. It was a shake-out.
Now, we’re facing a shake-out again. There’s no sugarcoating the fact that this current pandemic will be the nail in the coffin for countless businesses. But, there will be survivors. And, more importantly, there will be thrivers! The thrivers will be those who look for opportunities and become problem solvers for their communities.
The thrivers will be the restaurants who turn their serving staff into delivery staff and create quarantine menus and specials to bring flavor to those stuck at home and sick of the same old spaghetti every night. The thrivers will be the rideshare drivers who replace their evening bar-hopping business with food and grocery delivery opportunities. The thrivers will be the hotels who create too-good-to-ignore specials to re-book conferences and vacation packages for later dates, rather than just taking cancellations.
My team and I plan on being thrivers over the next few months. We don’t know what that will look like yet, but we’ve set our minds to it … and when our minds are set on something, rarely do we not achieve it.
This article was also published on the AMBC blog on March 19, 2020.
Marty Johnson is an entrepreneur, writer, and business coach. He serves as ex officio Director of Communication and Advisor to the Board for the non-profit Association of Mail & Business Centers (AMBC) and is Editor of MBC Today, AMBC's industry-leading publication. Marty owns and operates Uncle Marty's Shipping Office in Ithaca, NY, where he's also Co-Founder of the Collegetown Small Business Alliance. Please visit him at askunclemarty.com. #AskUncleMarty