If you believe the folks randomly interviewed on the news, it doesn’t seem like anyone’s too worried about COVID-19 here in Montana. How they shop tells a different story: people want to be prepared. I recently found the TP section of Wal-Mart all but empty. Costco was out of TP except for the big public restroom rolls. Same for the 20 pound bags of rice (Costco-wise). I mention this because ignoring the need to “Be Prepared” (the Boy Scout Motto) isn’t advisable in your business life any more than in your personal life – even if you weren’t a Scout. To that end, a friend sent me a link to a founder/CEO advisory sent by the Silicon Valley venture capitalist firm Sequoia Capital. Print readers, see https://medium.com/sequoia-capital/coronavirus-the-black-swan-of-2020-7c72bdeb9753
The Sequoia advisory was aimed at founders and CEOs of firms they’ve invested in, yet they kindly shared it with everyone. They called it (paraphrased) “guidance… while dealing with potential business consequences of the spreading effects…“.
If you read it, bear in mind that it’s targeted at founders and CEOs at startups, not necessarily at Main Street businesses. Still, much of the guidance applies to local business, so I used a little editorial license to adjust their guidance for Main Street.
Challenges being faced
They listed drop in business activity (sales), supply chain disruptions, curtailment of travel, time to containment, recovery time for the economy after containment. All of these things could impact Main Street. For non-tech businesses, the supply chain is the one that concerns me. Stay on top of this if you depend on Just-In-Time suppliers.
Cash runway – Most Main Street businesses don’t have a Silicon Valley style runway. They have receivables & payables and the only investor is often the owner. If you have a line of credit to smooth out the bumps, have a cup of coffee with your banker. No one likes surprises – and that goes for both of you. Two-way communication is critical.
Fundraising – Few Main Street businesses are concerned about raising another round of capital, but the thought of forging partnerships during difficult times is wise, even on Main Street. As the advisory noted, “Constraints focus the mind and provide fertile ground for creativity.”
Sales forecasts – While this paragraph is brief, it’s important. Customers may delay payments because they’re being paid slowly. Be prepared, communicate often, assume nothing.
Marketing – While I agree that care is needed (where the advisory says “rein in customer acquisition spending” and “raise the bar on ROI for marketing spend“), events like this cause some companies to freeze. Fear has them not marketing as hard (or worse, not at all). Fear-induced contraction can become self-fulfilling, causing business to soften because they took their foot off the gas. Even if your spending is curtailed, don’t stop marketing altogether. If you invest carefully, you could pick up some business you might not otherwise have gained.
Headcount – While it’s just slang, I detest this word and its cousin “Human Capital”. As if we’re thinking “Hey Buck, back that skid of human capital up to the loading dock, will ya?“. Let’s take a different angle at this. Your people are going to be scared, or at least, worried. They’re worried that you might cut their hours, or cut them loose entirely, much less that the business might fail. People don’t respond well to surprises. Communicate early & often. If you have an emergency fund or cash buffer that has you ready to make payroll despite a bumpy three or four months, tell them sooner rather than later. Their concern will impact their behavior. You don’t want that.
If it starts to look like making payroll could be tough a month from now, don’t wait to tell them. I know, I know, you don’t want to lose them, so communicate carefully and honestly. Be flexible & creative. Find a win-win to help them stay that helps you both, even if part-time. When things get rolling again, you don’t want to be the business who can’t hit cruising speed due to an inexperienced staff.
Capital Spending – As Sequoia noted, keep your powder dry.
Leadership – They hit this for a couple of paragraphs because it’s important. Depending on how things go over the next few months, your checkbook and your leadership could be tested. Your actions will send a message to your entire community.