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September 12, 2022 —

Overcoming tough times as a small business

If you are worried about how the cost of living crisis might affect your small business, marketing expert and podcast host Victoria Brown is here to share some great advice and motivation...
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Victoria Brown
Marketing Coach and Copywriter ,
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With a recession looming, energy prices surging and a bumpy road ahead of all of us – tough times are here and things aren’t likely to improve any time soon. If you are a small business owner, have you thought ahead about how to navigate the difficult financial times ahead of us? How can we look to manage and nurture our businesses in such an uncontrollable and crazy climate?

As someone that generally looks on the bright side, I always aim to look for the silver lining. Even when I dropped my iPhone down the loo, I tried to see it as a learning curve (and a chance to upgrade). But I’m realistic as well, and things are looking pretty bleak for a lot of us right now, especially business owners. There is no denying we are going to have to face into the fact we’ll all have to make changes in our businesses if we want to survive this economic storm.

No matter what your business model, you can’t get away from the fact that energy price rises will be going up exponentially. As a result, suppliers prices are increasing and if your product is a luxury (and by that I mean anything that isn’t required to survive – e.g. food, water, fuel etc) you’ll probably have to work harder to persuade your customers to part with their money, given that everyone is struggling to find the cash to simply live right now. But you don’t need me to tell you that. You’re probably already starting to feel the pinch.

laura mcmahon the smallest light candle workshop3
Photo: Laura McMahon / The Smallest Light

I’ve heard from business owners who are aiming to get all their production done for Christmas over the next month – to avoid the upcoming hike in power costs. Furthermore, according to recent research from the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), more than half of small companies in the UK fear rising energy costs coupled with crippling inflation will force them to close. The FSB reports that 53 percent of firms expect to collapse, shrink or, at best, stagnate over the next year. Plus, they’ve warned of ‘a generation of lost businesses, jobs and potential.’ There’s no doubt about it, no matter how positive you try to spin it, businesses are in for a rough ride over the coming months.

So, what can you do to try to survive (and dare I say it, maybe even thrive) in these tough times?

Because, although it’s a cliche, it really is true that times of hardship can transform businesses. Some of the most successful businesses were born out of a recession. Think Disney, Netflix, Airbnb – all flourishing businesses that started in a recession. These kinds of conditions are tough, but they force us to be resourceful and resilient; and these can be powerful tools for any business owner. It won’t be easy. I never said it was. But it is possible.

So, if you’re ready to get stuck in, I’d like to introduce you to my favourite tool for navigating your business through an unpredictable climate – the G-E-T plan. Before we get into the plan, let’s have some real talk. Tempting as it may be, please don’t either panic or bury your head in the sand.

selection of books on chair
Photo: Stories by Chloe for OAM Design

It’s completely understandable that after the rollercoaster we’ve ridden over the last few years, that you just can’t face looking into the eye of yet another storm and troubleshooting another crisis. Panic or denial (whatever is your particular poison) is only going to make things harder, so do your best to face into the facts instead.

There are so many tools out there to help keep calm in a crisis. Olivia Ashworth McDonald from OAM Design Co has developed a tool for creatives called ‘Awaken your day’ for this exact purpose. After experiencing opening her business at the start of the pandemic, and then overcoming Stage III tongue cancer in 2021, she developed the tool as a way of finding calm and creativity in moments of discomfort, be they life-changing or everyday bumps in the road. Olivia has found this tool really helps to clear her mind when feeling overwhelmed.

Awaken Your Day is a set of six brainstorming techniques – a virtual toolbox – that can help you find your creative groove when you need to shake off negative emotion and be freed up to make brave business decisions.

woman working design studio ipad
Photo: Stories by Chloe for OAM Design

Olivia believes that business success is inextricably linked with wellbeing, “Although my professional focus is on brand strategy, identity and graphic design, I love talking about fostering creativity and emotional intelligence in entrepreneurship. It is so true that happiness and success is so often linked to our overall wellbeing and sense of calm,” she explains.

I really agree with Olivia, it’s so important to have tools like these – especially during times of crisis. Because although instinct is always important in business, it’s vital not to be driven by panic and to have a more solid plan to work to.

That’s exactly why I created my G-E-T plan – to work out what you need to do next, even when you don’t know what the hell is happening. It takes the emotion out, deals in facts and keeps you plodding slowly forwards (even when you don’t know the right way and you feel stuck in the wilderness).

Photo: Stitching me Softly

So, how do you create a G-E-T plan?

Well, it’s very simple really. It’s all about finding as much information as you can and using it to make tweaks and changes to your business – ones that are based on facts.  It’s not rocket science. All business is about is just creating a product or service that people want. If you make sure you do that, and do it well, then you can survive any crisis.

Phase one is about GATHERING INFORMATION (hence the ‘G’)

The most useful thing you can do as a business owner is to know what your customers really want. If you know what they really want, then you can offer them exactly that – giving you the best possible chance for success.  It’s that simple.

How do you do this? Be creative, I know you can do it. Here’s a few ideas to start you off –

  • Look at the data – what’s selling/what’s not.
  • Look at the costs – where are you getting value, and where are you not?
  • Run a survey – Typeform is a brilliant free tool for this.
  • Talk to buying customers directly at events/craft fairs etc.
  • Hold your own event or market (you could even include other business owners) with free nibbles – it will be good PR, enjoyable for you, you’ll learn loads about your customers AND its way cheaper than getting a company to do market research for you.
  • Ask for responses on emails and social media.

Of course, not everyone will reply or volunteer to a survey, but every piece of information is a valuable nugget that might give you an amazing idea of the best direction for your business.  So, see what you can gather, you might be surprised! This is something you should do regularly, but is even more important when you’re facing tough times. I once found that my customers wanted me to offer support with blogging and I would never have guessed that before I sent them a survey. Did all my audience respond to that survey – no! They never will. But be thankful when anyone gives you this kind of valuable information.

This is a strategy that Emma Bassey from Stitching me Softly has been using over the last year, “I’ve been in business since 2017 and the past year has been the most difficult by far. I could have very easily thrown in the towel on a number of occasions. I’m also a single parent to three girls, which brings its own set of emotions and challenges to running my own business.”

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Photo: Stitching Me Softly

Emma continues: “I look at what social media channels are converting at the highest rate for my business, take the top two and focus my marketing efforts there. When sales are slow, I also take the opportunity to take a close look at the tasks that have perhaps fallen to the bottom of the pile and make sure I make time for them whilst I can. To keep myself motivated and my mindset positive I like to put a really detailed schedule in place, including self-imposed deadlines and rewards. I have dyslexia so this level of organisation really helps to calm my brain. I just need to show up and complete the list of small tasks each day.”

It’s so important to not lose sight of your audience when you’re going through tough times. So, phase 2 of the G-E-T plan is ‘ENGAGE’.  If you’re thinking – ‘umm, shouldn’t we always be doing this?’ – well, yes! But the fact is, when we’re sitting there panicking about what to do, we often forget these fundamentals. It’s so, so important you don’t end up self-sabotaging what’s working in your business when times are tough. You need to keep in touch with your customers. Keep showing up to show them you care about them (they’re going through a tough time too) and most importantly to remind them you’re still in business.

Worried that promoting yourself in a time of crisis will come across as insensitive? Don’t be. Remember all that information you gathered in the first phase? Use that information to find out how you can support your customers. Maybe you can do something to help them – and tell them about it on your socials and emails. There’s also nothing wrong with selling – as long as it’s done in a sensitive and thoughtful way. Maybe your customers just need some different price points. People are usually still looking to buy gifts in tough times and providing solutions for them by offering gift ideas can be a great way to serve your audience.

So, what are the best ways to keep engaging with your customers?

  • Keep showing up on your regular channels
  • Regularly email your customers
  • Just don’t drop off the face of the earth – be there for your people!
creating flatlay image with candle and props
Photo: Laura Mcmahon / The Smallest Light

And finally, phase 3 of G-E-T. This is about TAKING ACTION. It’s about getting creative and doing something.

It’s about taking all that data from the gather stage and using it to make your business more profitable, serve your customers better and create the best business you can. What changes can you make? What makes sense, given what you’ve already found out?

You could use this as an opportunity to:

  • Streamline your business – stop offering products or services you no longer enjoy/people don’t want.
  • Bring out new products/ranges/services that customers are asking for (if they make sense to your business.
  • See where you can cut unnecessary costs in your business.
  • Improve your business processes.
  • Outsource something which isn’t in your strengths, so you can focus elsewhere.
  • Think about up-skilling in an area which you know would grow your business.

Or maybe you just might want to change direction completely.  Just like Laura McMahon – who’s decided to pivot from running her online natural home fragrance store, The Smallest Light, to create a marketing business.

woman working at a laptop at home
Photo: Laura Mcmahon / The Smallest Light

She knew she had to make some big changes because it just wasn’t working for her, Laura explains: “I have (very recently!) decided to close my online store this autumn and shift my focus to offering freelance digital marketing services to other creatives and small businesses like mine. While this change of direction came from a realisation of how much I enjoy marketing and creating written content – it’s undoubtedly been accelerated by the current climate!

Even though it’s likely that this career progression would have happened regardless, my product sales have taken a big hit this year, and that has prompted me to reassess what’s working for me in the business and what is not. Questions I might not have been asking at this point if my sales had remained at previous highs. I really feel that small businesses will need more solid marketing support with SEO, blog content, email marketing and utilising other platforms like Pinterest.”

Of course, you might not want to completely change your business, and instead make tweaks.  The key is to use the information in front of you and go with your instinct. And the best way forward will be different for everyone.

Sometimes little tweaks are all that’s needed and sometimes cutting costs isn’t the best way for you. Sometimes it pays to think big. A recession is not necessarily the time to think small. So, if you think the best way to survive is to stand out and go big – just listen to your gut and go for it!

If the pandemic taught me anything, its ‘show up for and serve your customers’ –  there are endless opportunities out there for the brave in business during tough times.

Could this be your moment to shine?

Victoria Brown is a Marketing Coach and Copywriter for small creative businesses. For more business tips and weekly inspiration, sign up here or view her website.

Victoria also hosts Creative Slurp podcast – inspiration and education for creative business owners.

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