The BIG Small Business Squeeze: Are You In It and Can You Get Out Of It?

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It’s year 3 of a pandemic. Yes, that’s right. Year 3. Remember when they said it would be 2 months? Back then, it was understandable to close your business, to pivot, to put in new safety measures, or to support your staff with extra days off.

Now, 3 years later, small business owners are being asked to pivot some more. (Does anyone else want to roll their eyes at the word “pivot” or “unprecedented times”?) It’s exhausting to hear that your business needs to change AGAIN. I hear you.

Small business owners in the pandemic

Right now, the strain is high for small business owners everywhere. You are being squeezed in every direction from employees, governments, suppliers, and customers. Squeezed and stretched, squeezed and stretched. It’s like getting trapped in a taffy pulling machine at Willy Wonka’s factory—and yes, it feels as terrible as that sounds.

Entrepreneur taking on too much work

Governments have new mandates, like the newly stated rule in BC which calls for 5 days of paid sick leave for employees. While it’s a great initiative for community care, small business owners often don’t have the money to pay out of pocket. Worse yet, small business owners find themselves filling in for everyone who is sick. Every small business owner I have talked to in the last month is tired and burnt out.

If you are looking for help, it’s hard to find people to work and even harder to motivate those who can work. Employees that have had Covid often come back with the lingering effects of the virus and find it difficult to get back to full productivity.

Customers are also more demanding. They are fed up with the restrictions, the waits and the increase in prices caused by supply chain and inflation issues. Customers are opting for contactless shopping, which is where big-box companies like Walmart and Amazon excel. Unfortunately, small business owners can’t afford drones.

There’s pressure in every direction, and it feels like there is no way out.

It’s what I call The BIG Small Business Squeeze.

Are you in it? If you own a small business, chances are that you’ve felt it during this pandemic. It looks something like what my client Olivia experienced.

Olivia’s Story

On a dreary January morning, Olivia gets the kids ready for school. As she puts the dishes away, she calculates, “If I drop the kids off before the school rush, I should have enough time to meet the supplier at the cafe so I can go over the new shipment details with him.”

Just then her sister calls, “What are you doing today? Do you have time this afternoon? I want to have one more lunch before the baby comes and I’ll be cooped up for a month.”

Olivia’s phone dings.

“One sec, I’ll have to call you back. It’s my opener this morning for the cafe.” Olivia hangs up the phone and opens the text. Hey, I’ve just tested positive for COVID, I can’t come in today. I would if it was just a normal cold, but you know. I just can’t.

Olivia’s stomach drops. Who’s going to open the store? For a split second she’s mad at her employee, how could she do this? But of course, the feeling dissipates. Her employee’s well-being comes first.

Oh crap, Olivia realizes, I’m the only one who can open the store. Can I get there in time?

“Mom, where’s my coat?”

Oh right, Olivia thinks, I have kids. Guilt eats her up. Now she’s a bad mom too.

She calls her neighbour for the third time this week to see if they can drive the kids. Luckily they can, and Olivia rushes to the cafe. She makes it in time to open the cafe when the first customer arrives. She rushes to serve them with no preparation or support.

Her customer, while kind, asks for a discount, “That took forever for you to make this. Could I get a discount? It’s tough out there you know.” Feeling pressured, Olivia agrees. But it makes her uneasy. The cafe is barely hanging on right now. Even a 10% discount makes a difference.

small business pandemic masks

Finally, more employees arrive and Olivia can step off the floor. She heads to the back office to focus on strategic work that will keep the company running. Olivia sits at the desk staring at her financial reports. She hopes that by looking long enough money will appear to pay her employee the newly mandated sick leave. That’s when her supplier knocks on the door. She can tell by his face that something is wrong.

“Hey, sorry to do this to you, but we need to up the prices. And an extra $40 per shipment. With the supply chain shortage, we can’t get your products at this price anymore.” Of course, Olivia agrees. Every other supplier is going to have the same problem.

What is she going to do to make up for this new expense? She can’t get it from her customers, who are already expecting discounts. She has to turn back to her books and find out how she can pay these exorbitant new supply rates. But she’s quickly side-tracked by her lease agreement that’s poking out from under her financial reports. With the real estate bubble growing, she isn’t sure if she can pay her lease this year. She built her livelihood at this location for 10 years, and she can’t even afford to stay at her own store.

Her phones dings again. Lunch? her sister texts. Olivia looks at the clock. 1:30 pm. There’s no way she can take time off now. Begrudgingly, she cancels on her sister.

“Olivia, did you see this?” her employee calls from the front.

Olivia rolls out of her chair and drags herself to the front counter. Her employee holds up her phone “There’s a new mandate. People have to quarantine for 5 days now.”

Olivia sighs. Another pivot. Another mandate. At least her employee can come back sooner. Does that make her a bad person for thinking like that?

It’s nearing the end of the day, so Olivia prepares for the weekly team meeting. Normally, they plan for next week’s tasks. But, Olivia feels so depleted, she can’t even think of what needs to get done. How can she pull herself together to lead this?

There’s pressure as the leader to always be on and always have the answer, and right now she doesn’t have either. And her employees are also strung out. Her talk this afternoon about the new mandates was one of the nicer conversations she had this week. Emotions are high and morale is low. It’s affecting production and the supportive work atmosphere.

Right before she goes into the meeting, her mother calls.

“Olivia, Sarah is having the baby tonight. She’s early!” Her mother is ecstatic. Olivia smiles. Finally some good news. But as soon as she hangs up, a pool of dread builds. She’s always at the cafe. Is she going to have any time to see her niece?

By the time the day is done, Olivia doesn’t get home until after dinner. Her husband is annoyed that she worked late again, but he tries his best to be supportive. They don’t fight, instead, they pretend like everything is fine. It works…for now. Olivia just needs time alone to recharge, but she doesn’t take it. She feels guilty that she isn’t spending what hours she has left in the day with her kids, and congratulating her sister.

When she finally goes to bed she is exhausted, frustrated and nervous about how she’s going to keep this up.

Olivia is all of us

Now, there is no Olivia. Olivia is a mosaic of every small business owner, in every industry—from restaurants to chiropractors, to bridal shops. Business owners everywhere have to step back in as an employee, spending valuable time on daily tasks instead of problem-solving how they are going to stay in business. They are squeezed in every direction with no time for big life events, or even small acts of self-care. 42% of small businesses in the United States had to close their doors due to the pandemic.

And what happens when small business owners go down? So does the business. So does the market. And so do the brilliant communities small business owners support.

If you are reading this, and you are not a small business owner, I ask you to extend extra kindness to these people who make up 97.9% of Canadian business. Their companies bring jobs, richness and diversity to the market and your community. They are carrying a heavy weight during this time.

Small business owners are the most generous people on the planet. They are quick to support their communities and their employee’s well-being and safety, yet they put their health last.

It’s not business as usual

If you are feeling squeezed, what can you do to give yourself a break?

We’ve learnt the word “pivot”. We’ve learnt it well. Although you may not want to, you can do it again. And this time pivot to prioritize yourself. Change your business to match your life. Don’t change your life to match this crazy business.

At the end of the day, a business is a business, not your life. What is more important when you look back? Time with your newborn niece, or extra sales? You don’t have to be a martyr. Change is going to keep happening, whether it’s familiar changes or annoying pandemic-induced change. If you want your business to thrive, you need to thrive first.

At the end of the day, business is math. 2+2 = 4, but so does 1+3. There’s always another way for you to make this work.

If you need to raise your prices, raise your prices. Do you need your business to run independently of you? Implement systems. If you need more staff, create an amazing company culture so that people will be jumping at the opportunity to work for you.

Take David, a restaurant owner in Montreal. Due to the lockdown caused by the pandemic, he finally had some time to spend with his family and decompress. When things reopened, he decided to open his restaurant just three nights a week to preserve the balanced lifestyle he discovered in lockdown. You can read David’s full story here.

There is always a way. If you need help, reach out to your business coach, your bank manager, or your accountant. There are people who can help you.

Yes, you are tired of pivoting. And yet, I ask you one more time, will you pivot?

Pivot for yourself, your family, for your free time, your Sunday hobbies and your baby niece. Pivot so that you can have the fulfilling life you’ve been dreaming of since you opened this business.

The BIG Small Business Squeeze is not invincible.

You on the other hand… you are going to make it.

Reach out if you need anything, we are here to help.

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