CO.STARTERS is a Small Business Too: Part I
The first in a series of inside tips on how we’re keeping our own small business going during the pandemic.
Adaptation isn’t something that happened once in March. It’s going to be a way of life for a while.
We have published thousands of words about what small businesses should be doing right now in theory. But I want to go further and talk about the tactics of assessing, pivoting, and adapting.
“Go back to the basics,” we said.
“Think about how your customer has changed,” we advised.
“Be creative!” we encouraged.
And we stand by all of this advice. But it's come time to share what these general principles might actually look like for a business, and I wanted to share that picture with you through the lens of the decisions I have made at CO.STARTERS.
As the COO of CO.STARTERS, I’m responsible for operations decisions that steer the CO.STARTERS ship. You may not know that CO.STARTERS is a small business too—tiny, in fact. We have eight full-time employees and two part-timers, and we’ve never occupied an office of our own.
A lot of the rationale behind our size is intentional—to seek growth for the sake of growth would be counterproductive to our company’s mission: to equip local individuals and communities to do the important work of entrepreneurial support.
Nevertheless, I thought it would be helpful to share with you the various steps I have taken in the face of the pandemic.
The first step is the assessment stage. Most businesses have already come through the assessment process, but did so ineffectively. It’s worth going over again; as we’ve seen in many states recently, COVID is certainly not over, and lots of regions may need to go back into stages of lockdown as the virus resurges in the fall.
You first. Customer second.
When COVID happened, I thought we were the only ones. I panicked and thought, “our business will be so impacted by this.” And it was. We help startups, and almost no one wants to start a business during an economic halt. And we prioritize helping people in person, which was certainly out of the question. Our entire business model was stuck and we couldn’t do anything about it.
But I then realized we weren’t alone. Millions of businesses—entrepreneurs—were experiencing the exact same panic. I immediately wanted to engage our customers to understand how we could help them, but we couldn’t do that until we took an honest look at ourselves.
This is an especially important point for B2B (business who sell to other businesses) organizations, but it holds for all entrepreneurs. If you aren’t assessing yourself as a business, you won’t help your customers as effectively as you could.
In the CO.STARTERS Rebuild program, we bring starters through a process called S.T.O.P. created by our friends at The Big Self Society. S.T.O.P is a process for self-assessment that begins with slowing down. Take some deep breaths—lure yourself into a state of calm and creativity.
Next, review your triggers. What potentially traumatic memories are your current circumstances causing you to relive? What fears and misbeliefs are being stoked? Be aware of these mental flare-sites as you try to assess the situation accurately.
"I immediately wanted to engage our customers to understand how we could help them, but we couldn’t do that until we took an honest look at ourselves."
Then comes the brainstorming. What are some opportunities that are becoming available right now? If anything, you have the opportunity to form new beliefs about yourself and your business. Instead of “I’m done for, this is going to ruin me,” what could you believe and tell yourself instead?
Finally, it’s time to make a plan. Not a plan for the next year, or the next three months. I mean plan the rest of your day. What’s the next meeting you’re going to call? What time are you going to stop and eat?
Know your numbers.
My first step beyond a self-assessment was to call an emergency meeting with our staff. I needed to know where we were as a team—financially, emotionally, strategically.
I wasn’t prepared to leave that meeting until I knew exactly what our financial numbers were—how much we had in the bank and how much we owed. If you don’t know those metrics for your business, you need to stop everything you’re doing (stop reading this article, even) and figure those out. Get your numbers straight.
After that emergency meeting, I spent the next week on calls with our vendors—landlords, lenders, etc.—and asked for wiggle room wherever I could. I worked long nights and weekends filling out PPP and EIDL applications.
Know your business’ gap. Put a real number in place of the word “survival.”
Closing is not a failure.
Let’s get something straight. Closing is not something that happens to you, the entrepreneur. It’s a decision that you make. Closing is not failing—to fail is to stop trying at all.
For many entrepreneurs in this season, closing will be the wisest course of action. Some businesses may need to close their doors now in order to be open a few months from now. This is a natural part of living in a free market economy.
Take the next steps.
In the future installations of this series, I’ll talk about the steps required to keep moving once you assess. But as a preview, I can tell you that I will be writing about talking to your customers, adapting your offerings, and telling your story.
Remember, these steps aren’t “one and done” actions that you take once. It’s a routine of assessment, action, and reflection—a routine, by the way, that holds value in all times, crisis or calm.
About the Author
Jose Alfaro is the Director of Growth at CO.STARTERS, where he works to build strong and sustainable business models to support CO.STARTERS work at scale. He is an experienced operations director who has successfully scaled organizations in the community development and hospitality industries. Jose loves the creative approach CO.STARTERS uses to help individuals and communities thrive through entrepreneurship. Jose’s first business was a catering company, but his dream is to build a sustainable food accelerator that supports minorities by expressing their culture through food.