‘Don’t compare, just adapt’: small business owners share valuable lockdown lessons

Businesses are emerging from COVID-19 restrictions with resilience and innovation. Two owners share their stories.

For many businesses, the coronavirus crisis spelled disaster. With little time to prepare for the effects of a national lockdown, some fell off a cliff-edge as customers cancelled orders, shopping habits changed and supplies became sparse. It’s been a struggle for all, but many have survived. For some, that is due to a creative outlook that has seen them reshape their offering to suit the so-called “new normal”.

‘Solutions, not problems’ +

With an uncertain economic climate ahead, it would be tempting to focus on the negatives. But looking at potential solutions rather than problems is the key to survival, says Catherine Connor, who owns Cumbria-based bakery Lovingly ArtisanLink opens in a new window with husband, Aidan Monks. “For us, like everyone, it happened very quickly,” she says. While the bakery’s stall on Altrincham Market near Manchester was overwhelmed with consumers panic buying sourdough, its wholesale side – which previously made up 80% of the business – fell off completely.

“There was one particularly bad day when our wholesale delivery driver was being turned away at every drop off. We had paid for the ingredients, the wages and it was all being turned away,” she says. On top of that, businesses who were struggling stopped paying their bills, making things even harder. It would have been easy to throw in the towel, but Connor and Monks had a different approach.

“We had to regroup at speed. There’s one statement we say to each other: ‘Solutions not problems.’ If you focus on the solutions, creativity happens. Another thing we say is: ‘Imagination, not money’ – when you have no money you rely on resilience and creativity and imagination. You’ve got nothing else.”

For Dan Harris, owner of construction business SIA Property ServicesLink opens in a new window based in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, the effects of coronavirus were equally catastrophic.

“Everything slowed down almost immediately and some things stopped overnight”, says Harris, whose work mainly involves refitting residential kitchens and bathrooms.

“My biggest kitchen supplier is from Italy, so that almost stopped overnight and deliveries of anything requiring two people stopped because of social distancing. I was in the middle of doing a key worker’s bathroom when everything stopped and the delivery of her bath got cancelled. She couldn’t go to her parents or anywhere else, so I eventually managed to find one and drove a two-and-a-half hour round-trip to get it.”

Back to basics +

For Harris, a lack of materials meant adapting his business and going back to basics. “I rearranged everything and I had to look for different projects that I could get the materials for,” he says. “Fitting outside taps, outside lights – jobs I wouldn’t ordinarily take on, but if you’ve got no option you do anything to earn a living.”

Changing the way the business worked was something Lovingly Artisan did too, which also meant finally making a shift to organic that they had been talking about for a while. “Previously we couldn’t do that because we were restrained by our wholesale demands,” says Connor. “But suddenly we didn’t have that.” They also turned to collaboration, teaming up with other food suppliers including an artisan butter producer and Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire Cheese, which they started using in some of their popular loaves.

Turning to technology +

Technology has proved a saviour in this time, and despite the practical nature of their work, it has helped both Harris and Connor. The former turned to virtual quotes to minimise contact with people for initial inquiries.

“We have video chats to talk through ideas, then they take measurements so I can send a rough quote. It’s a little more drawn out because there’s a lot of back and forth, and we still then organise a socially-distanced visit before they sign on the dotted line, but it gets rid of some of the unnecessary contact. It also gets rid of the ‘tyre kickers’ – so it’s something I’ll take forward,” says Harris.

For Lovingly Artisan, technology allowed them to provide a substitute for live workshops in the form of an online bakery club. It grew from 257 members to more than 1,000, including people from New York and Thailand taking advantage of videos and demonstrations. They are also now planning an online sales and delivery service.

Planning for the future +

For many businesses who have weathered the storm so far, it doesn’t mean they’re home and dry. Harris is currently booked up until March 2021 as people decide to spend money refunded from holidays or saved during lockdown on home improvements. But it doesn’t mean it’s a return to the way he used to work, and the future remains uncertain.

“Things are different – I can’t just pop to Screwfix and pick something up. I have to go online, order it and collect it, which makes you think about it more. My concerns are that in 18 months’ time when people have done the work to their houses and times are harder economically, that will really affect the construction industry. But there’s nothing we can do except make hay while the sun shines.”

And while things are going well for Lovingly Artisan, Connor is conscious that they have to prepare for tough times ahead, which has included winter-proofing their shop. “We have a counter outside which has been brilliant in summer but the weather can be harsh in Cumbria in winter and people aren’t going to queue in the cold and wet. We need to make it work in winter too. We need people to associate us with warm and cosy, not cold and wet,” she says.

With little spare cash to fund the fit-out of a new shop, the team have done it themselves, from panelling walls to building a counter out of scrap wood from their garage. “We built a shop on a shoestring and are making it a warm, welcoming place where we can give people complimentary coffee while they wait and make sure we keep that queue going.”

Much like her shared mantra with her husband, Connor’s words of wisdom are to “throw imagination” at problems and keep expenditure down while making sure any money is safe in the bank in case times get even harder. It’s also about steering clear of comparison to what was once normal.

“I think what we have to do is turn over a brand new chapter and recognise that how your business functioned last year, last spring, last summer, isn’t going to be how it functions this year,” she says. “You can’t compare, so just adapt.”

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This article was originally published on theguardian.com as part of the British Business Bank and Guardian Labs 'Getting back on track' campaign. Written by Ellen Manning.