As Small Businesses Face Uncertainties from the Coronavirus, Digital Tools, Optimism Keep Them Running

Mar 26, 2020

by Jamaica Gayle and Jake Colvin, NFTC’s Global Innovation Forum

Small businesses are meeting the challenges posed by the coronavirus with hard work (from home, thanks to digital tools) and optimism, but they face an uncertain future. Entrepreneurs are trying to remain optimistic about the future, although many are bracing for shocks in the interim.

Eno Umoh, the Co-founder of Maryland-based Global Air Media and the Global Air Drone Academy, which provide drone services and promote STEAM technology, shared that he “will use this time to evaluate and strategize a plan for the remainder of the year.”

“The plan is to remain optimistic through and look toward when this pandemic slows down. Nobody knows when things will be back to normal so we will work remotely and adjust the best way we can,” said Umoh. He added that, “our profits will be affected because of scheduling delays,” and planned travel for projects in Nigeria and Zambia are likely to be put off.

March Survey from the Wall Street Journal and by Vistage Worldwide Inc. revealed that small-business confidence has plummeted close to its lowest levels in seven years.

Consumer-facing businesses are likely to be hit particularly hard by pandemic-induced economic disturbances. During the SARS outbreak, researchers estimated the consumer retail sector faced a 15 percent drop in demand in China and Hong Kong.

William Spruill, the CEO of Global Data Consortium, a North Carolina-based global identity verification solution, plans to “focus on the business and keep excessive costs to a minimum” moving forward.

Umo noted that all of his trainings, workshops and in-school programming are being postponed indefinitely thanks to social distancing.

Amid extensive cancellations and travel restrictions, small businesses and entrepreneurs are losing opportunities to showcase their brand at events like South by Southwest (SXSW) and industry trade shows.

“Important sales events we have been part of for over 20 years are being canceled, and musicians we work with are losing their main source of income due to canceled shows,” explained Jamie Deering, CEO of Deering Banjo, a family-owned business that makes high-quality instruments in California for a global community of musicians.

“While the negative impact has not hit in full force we are preparing for any eventuality,” she added.

Using digital tools to stay in business
From a practical perspective, companies are forced to adjust to the new, temporary realities of working remotely while worrying about their profitability.  In the last several weeks, in-person work has transformed from an everyday norm to a distant memory for many.

Businesses of all sizes are relying even more heavily on digital tools to connect distributed teams and engage customers.

Rupa Ganguli, Founder & CEO of Inclusive Trade, a London-based e-commerce platform that promotes shopping with a social impact, has been relying even more heavily on digital tools to keep her business running, like video conferencing for internal and external meetings and social media groups for connecting with potential customers and local businesses.

“We are able to stay connected and send positive messages and stay in touch with our global community,” Ganguli shared, while encouraging customers to support her business and the entrepreneurs who sell on her e-commerce platform.

“It’s a real challenge as companies and clients cannot buy physically from us,” observes Sasibai Kimis, Founder and CEO of Earth Heir, a Malaysian ethical lifestyle brand, which sells handcrafted heritage pieces made by women, refugees and indigenous people. “A lot of events have been cancelled, including speaking engagements.”

Although the Earth Heir team can no longer build revenue and relationships from in-person interactions, their shift to creative, online strategies is helping fill the gap. “We are focusing a lot more on increasing our digital marketing and social media reach.”

Some businesses, like Receipt Bank, a pre-accounting tool for accountants and bookkeepers, offer digital tools that enable small businesses to function remotely during this trying time.

“One of the benefits of our software is that it enables the digital transmission of financial documents, and we’ve seen an uptick in interest,” explained Kalliopi Vlastos, the General Manager of Receipt Bank US. “Since social distancing has been recommended, accountants and bookkeepers need a way to do their jobs without in-person meetings and the transfer of physical documents,” she added.

Other small businesses are seeing demand for their services grow from individuals and families trying to cope with this new reality.

Caribu, a Florida-based small business that offers an interactive video-calling app to keep families connected remotely, is helping bridge the gap created by social distancing by offering their service for free.

“Kids are feeling the effects of the outbreak, but don’t always understand why grandma can’t come visit, why the special family spring break trip may have been canceled, or why they’re out of school for weeks,” said Caribu CEO and Co-Founder Max Tuchman.

How to help
Governments have a critical role to play in ensuring that regulations enable the entire e-commerce ecosystem that small businesses are relying on more than ever to keep their businesses running, their employees connected and their customers engaged.

Digital productivity, payment, search, social media, shipping and e-commerce platforms allow small businesses to operate in an age of social distancing and closures of non-essential businesses.

Right now, governments face a particular challenge of facilitating the flow of physical goods through their ports even while temporarily restricting foreign travelers.

Small businesses are also looking to governments for support and help in navigating these hardships. “That there is no contingency plan to help the U.S. economy and businesses survive has put everyone into a state of uncertainty for the future financially and for their businesses as a whole,” Deering observed.

The public can play an important role too.

“To any would-be customers reading this, if your situation is stable, I would suggest trying to find ways to support small and independent businesses of all stripes — your neighborhood restaurants, but also your favorite shops and online brands,” said Eric Powell, CEO of Ratio Clothing, a Colorado-based small business that specializes in American-made custom shirts for men. “It will really help and sales will find their way into the hands of the people that need it most, including garment workers and hourly staff.”