For small businesses who entered the pandemic with no contingency plan, thriving isn’t the goal, nor should it be. The goal for many is arriving on the other side of this 3 to 24 months in one piece.
There is a problem with how the majority of business experts talk to vulnerable small business owners during crisis. The ones encouraging rest, regrouping and self care are mostly women, people of color, and those in the trauma and mental healthcare space. “Business-men” focus on the unprecedented economic collapse, but forget who it impacts most.
Owners were already told you must eat, sleep and breathe your business. Grow at all costs. Now in a pandemic, unhealthy messages continue to be pushed on entrepreneurs extolling the value of productivity and diversification. (The 2020 word of the year could be pivot, though more likely it will be Pandemic or Coronavirus).
You may be feeling increased pressure to reimagine a new future for you or your business. Nearly 80% of small businesses employ only the founder meaning the pressure to pivot is greatly on Solopreneurs. In 2019 6.5 million small businesses were started (an increasing percentage were started by women). New reports predict 7.5 million American small businesses are in danger of closing. That would wipe out more than a years worth of new businesses. With that kind of pressure, what owners need now is considered, kind, practical guidance.
Yet, overwhelmingly the advice for small-business owners are trite statements that belong on posters, not in Coronavirus Business Survival 101. Too many forget that most business owners don’t have resources to shift focus, let alone focus at all.
A few outliers take a holistic approach with their business advice. Sunny Bonnell, CEO and writer suggests entrepreneurs “Share selflessly”. Dr. Weaver, a social entrepreneur expert, gives pointers that are both practical and conscious of the times. Her tips acknowledge the barriers small businesses face.
“In addition, entrepreneurs must be motivated enough to both act on the opportunity and to acquire the resources needed to fulfill it.”–Dr. Weaver
We need more entrepreneurial advisors following their lead; less posts on hacking your productivity, more on taking a beat. Business consultants don’t often acknowledge the need for governments to step up. Unfortunately, messages of success and perseverance overshadow messages to pause. Business advisors trying to inspire use examples that are completely unrelatable for 80% of entrepreneurs. The disparity in reports by women vs. men are stark and a nod to inequity and diverse visuals would go be a start.
Basically, DON’T do this:
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Why “pivot” is not a panacea for all entrepreneurs.
First, the pressure to pivot can be a bit much when you are already out of resources. Forceful language in a time of peaked stress does not assuage fears of failure. Do you need a coach telling you to get back in there with an injury? Capitalizing on this moment seems way less achievable when tapped out.
Between daily mood and energy swings, the focus and creativity needed to pivot may be in short supply. To have faith your business can survive, a gentler approach is in order. “Seek new opportunities”, “Expand your offerings”, or simply “Learn from this moment” feels way less intimidating, (though still impossible for many).
Second, learning something new in trauma, isn’t always possible. Can you retain new information under stress? Reports on our homeschool efforts tell us it’s unlikely. We acknowledge the pandemic has huge mental health implications, and that is bound to impact many business owners. Many avoid getting help they need to avoid Covid-19 exposure.
The message to pivot implies there is health and a capacity to learn, which is unavailable in fight or flight. Resilience is a better message.
Third, who has time to learn something new? As an emphatic life long learner who believes in the value of professional growth and education, learning takes time. How can we tell entrepreneurs to be flexible, innovative and look for new opportunities mid-crisis, if they are barely sleeping? With kids at home, there is not a lot of time for deep work and strategic thinking.
You’re probably busy, even if you’re not productive right now. If you must learn a new skill it’s probably filling out loan applications. Just as founders got going they are forced to navigate antiquated bureaucratic unemployment systems. Suddenly, right as many geared up to file their first business tax return, the pandemic pulled the rug out from under them.
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The privilege to power through.
What do the most at risk business owners need to hear right now?
We still need messages of positivity. We should encourage others to keep going. Gratitude is indeed good for your health; it’s science. Finding balance is wonderful if you can. A lack of awareness is also what continues to push the need to succeed in your feed.
Believing it will all work out is a privilege reserved mostly for white people. Telling marginalized small business owners and independent contractors to think positively puts success or failure squarely on the victim. If they can’t focus or find that silver lining, are they then the failure? Is lack of financial success the invisible enemy?
If that person loses their battle to some invisible out of-their-control-force, does it mean they didn’t fight hard enough? Why do we have to “fight” anyway? Maybe the odds were not in their favor to begin with. With no healthcare, no safety net, no resources, support how can anyone be expected to thrive?
There is a clear divide among small businesses owners. We must recognize the privilege of learning new skills, staying positive and pivoting in the middle of a crisis.
Even in the best economies, not everyone can will themselves to work harder. Businesses who can pivot have access to capital (support systems, networks, mentors, resources and cash) that others do not. Boot straps aren’t there for everyone to pull up. The mental load, children at home, lack of clients or supplies or commercial rent or rent at all…these setbacks leave many unable to “power through.”
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs applies to business owners too. Leaders can’t pour from an empty cup. Why add pressure on the shoulders of those already dealing with high anxiety? Solopreneurs (and many essential workers, teachers, childcare and healthcare providers) can’t keep a growth mindset or switch gears if they can’t meet their basic needs.
Reinvention is a cornerstone of our economy, but this too is one of privilege (see Martha Stewart). Most white collar bankers who lost big in 2008 were not fearing for their actual lives. It’s clear, small businesses from marginalized communities don’t need reinvention; they need support.
At the very least maybe management consultants and business advisors can caveat their tips:
“New opportunities to make a profit, unless you’re barely hanging on.”
“Top 5 tips for entrepreneurs with a safety net.”
It might seem silly, but getting dressed is a simple way to get your work-at-home day started right. Try it – it really works! #hrcommunity #humanresources #hr #hrmanagers #employeeengagement #bminton pic.twitter.com/uzD7To2lbK
— b.minton (@bmintontoolkit) May 22, 2020
Here is a GOOD example of how to be real with small business owners.
“How to pivot your offering in the pandemic, or pivot to filing bankruptcy.”
Try to keep some tips realistic. Getting dressed? I think I can do that!
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Allies are needed everywhere, even in business.
Why focus on producing, even in a global crisis? It has to do with the messengers. Business communications reflect the gender and racial majority of business leadership: wealthy white men. Women and minority owned-businesses are in need of allyship (Here’s a great guide!)
Mainstream business outlets must consider all entrepreneurs. The When McKinsey talks about the future of work, they should mention race and gender. Forbes and Entrepreneur need to acknowledge the privilege to pivot. In The Startup, while some pieces are from women, the majority are not.
Instead of writing about how to thrive, discuss the impacts of racial investor gaps on small businesses. Take a page from women who are experts at blending business and personal lives and discuss the impact of invisible labor and balancing working from home with kids and a business.
Or better yet, take notes from people of color who write about trauma, survival and the need to push back against a culture of productivity. Support and learn from the Nap Ministry who has great messages about capitalism and the need for rest.
We need conscious language to ensure everyone feels seen. Those with privilege need to hold space, not push positivity. We need to share what we have, instead of platitudes. We need to look at diverse leadership for authentic messages of support.
We must remind those who talk of returning the economy to a pre-pandemic hay day the reality of gender wealth and wage gaps. We must push for anti-racist economic planning and a much bigger lift from the government. Likely if you can pivot your business, you are in a position of privilege. Instead of focusing on your next big move, try lifting up another entrepreneur, essential worker or small business owner.
There is a time and a place to encourage positivity and transformation. Yet, we can’t tell ALL founders to stop, drop and roll with every fire.
Rolling with it is a privilege in itself. For many, we must make space for the stop and drop parts first.
Previously published on “Equality Includes You”, a Medium publication.
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