COVID-19 lessons for an SMB owner

May 15, 2020

As an SMB owner, I know I will have a story to tell my grandkids. I lived through a pandemic while owning a small business. And I’m not going to make it rosy, it was/is hard, difficult and downright scary. However, all I could do was to focus on what I can control, what I can do, any good it may produce, and what I’ve learned. I hope it helps you too.

After more than 26 years in the US, I had almost forgotten how it feels to live in an unstable market. Growing up in Uruguay, I experienced moments where you simply took three zero’s out of your currency because it was too devalued. Here, in the US, the 2007 financial crisis was the only financial crisis I knew but it hit certain markets and not everyone at once. Covid-19 was my first global, democratic financial crisis.

What did I learn or got reminded of during this time?

  1. Become comfortable with the unknown
  2. It is ok to ask for help
  3. Back to the basics: your most important assets are your current clients
  4. Conservative is not a bad word
  5. The importance of being a realistic optimist

1. Become comfortable with the unknown

In the middle of March, it hits us suddenly; we are in a pandemic. Each day things changed and not for the better. We all woke up to numbers that got worse by the day, but we thought, if we just hold tight and survive for six weeks, all will be good. Then, we started to realize, this was a different type of situation, this was not going to easily go away, and if we are going to survive, we need to make decisions as this was the new normal. That meant being comfortable to know that our 2020 marketing plans where we were going to have 40% of the pipeline depending on events needed to change, were raising funds for a new product was not going to happen and we need to redefine the dependency we have on networking as a way of finding new business.
What else did it imply? We were not going to be able to figure it all out because we don’t know how the reopening process will unfold and we need to be comfortable with redefining strategies every week. Most of the world’s population lives with the uncertainty of what they will eat the next day. As business owners, we get taught to plan YOY growth, business plans are attractive and uncertainty is not good for business goes the saying. However, this pandemic has forced us to flex our muscles of creativity and agility and be prepared to change course every day. We will be all stronger and better because of that.

2. It is ok to ask for help.

As business owners, you are used to the fact that you are where the buck stops. You have the overall responsibility of your business and the one that should provide for solutions. How about this time? When you cannot control what was going to happen with your business? When you really don’t know? When it is not about working hard or working more hours? This time was different for me. This time, I spent hours and hours with my co-founder online looking for every resource available to help our company financially and it was not about new business ideas but grants and loans. I always thought that asking for money was the last resource and not part of a plan. I’m very grateful for the resources we found, but the surprise was that when we shared with the company what we were doing as a plan, instead of feel uncertainty, our team felt supported. We have not failed, we were doing what we were supposed to do and people appreciated that.

3. Back to the basics.

Your most important assets are your current clients and your employees. It is a cliche: it is all about your clients: but is that your existing clients or your potential clients? We know it but sometimes we need to be reminded, “you always are looking for new clients and you need to keep the old, one is silver the other gold.” When we look at our clients, we were thinking about how can we help? How can we keep our business and our clients afloat? I’m a problem solver by nature, so I always want to know the problem to think about solutions but in this case, I realized it was far better to listen and provide what our clients needed than think about new ideas. And for that, my main assets were our team. I realized how worried I was about their well-being, about being sure they were healthy in all aspects. It was not a cliche, I really felt, we were in this together and my responsibility now extended to how they were at home.

4. When being conservative is beneficial.

Since 2015 when I co-founded TangoCode, I had been focusing on finding the keys for growth and scale, therefore being conservative was not a good word. We needed to experiment, fail quickly, and learn quickly. That required risking capital and within our possibilities is what we have done. Cash Flow management was not something that growth-oriented individuals love to do. It was what companies big and old did, or small companies that were never going to grow. Nowadays, cash flow management is one of my main focuses and it is the same in most of the companies I know, and it is a good thing, not a bad word. It allowed us to keep our business afloat throughout this unique time and it is going to allow us to lay a stronger foundation for growth. Also, I had been grateful for being able to have a process, a system, and people that had made a priority to work for it, although it wasn’t the shiny thing to do. Being fiscally conservative while still focusing on what you need to grow, is what we need in the new normal.

5. The importance of being a realistic optimist.

I have always loved the idea that the only constant is change. I like and embrace change, so I thought about myself as an agile thinker. However, I also like to be positive and optimistic. I always push for positive thinking and positivity. Now, in the face of a pandemic, I was confronted with the idea that true agility brings resilience and the possibility to thrive but for that, we need to confront the uncertainty in all its levels, with all its complexities and all its fragility. So forcing to stay positive among all, could make us be rigid. I needed to embrace the idea that I was stressed, scared, and uncomfortable, to realize the things I could change. I needed a level of discomfort, to release creativity and be a realistic optimist.

As a realistic optimist, I’m optimistic about the future and the effects of the pandemic in the way we relate with each other. Throughout this time of being forced to work from home, it unlocked great opportunities for companies to become remote-first and it impacted how we relate to each other. As the CEO of a distributed company, it provided me the opportunity to relate with everybody in the same way regardless of where we are located. It also, allowed all of us the opportunity to connect at a more human level. From the kid that runs in diapers behind the camera to the dog, the baby, and the birds we all agreed to be more vulnerable by opening our homes and letting people see us in that human dimension with the imperfections that it brings. And by doing that, it allowed us to connect in deeper ways. We will never see each other the same way, now that we have that in common, and on that I’m very optimistic about what it results from human experience.