By Annie Baptiste

Disclaimer: This article was initially written in 2019 and it was titled: How my small business survived cancer.  On reading it now, it almost feels smug, in the face of our current reality in lockdown. However, cancer was the catalyst to implementing and solidifying many best practices and strategies within my business, that is going to see it through this time. 

When I asked myself the questions listed below, I could never have foreseen that a global pandemic would force countries to create lockdown environments where most businesses, except essential services, would not be allowed to trade outside of the owner’s homes.

Questions

  • If you were out of action for half the month for eight months a year, would your business survive?
  • Could it run without you?
  • Would you be able to invoice enough to get you through the year?
  • Would you be able to retain all the staff you currently employ?

I am the owner and operator of a small business, specialising in training and entrepreneurial development.  In March of 2019, I was diagnosed with Stage four colon cancer.  The tumours were removed in an operation which took six weeks to recover from, after which I started with a bi-weekly chemotherapy regime which left me exhausted, immuno-compromised and completely incapacitated for at least four days after each session.  And let me tell you, pregnancy brain cannot hold a flame to chemo-brain.

Last year, the billings were on par with 2018, which had been the best year in 13 years, even though everyone was complaining about the slow economy. (Little did we know what was coming)

Unfortunately, I don’t have a magic formula or instant cure for small business woes, but it is the foundation that has been built over the last 13 years, that has enabled the business to carry on through the ultimate litmus test. 

The following six things helped my business through last year, and will also ensure the survival over the next year:

1. Letting go

The curse of every small business owner is believing that no one can do a better job than yourself.  I had no choice but to let go of some of the work.  Not doing everything myself allowed me to agree to more contracts, which ultimately grew the business substantially.  It also allowed me to spend time on working on the strategies listed below.  In other words, I worked more on the business and less in the business.

2. Good partnerships

My business operates as a “franchise” of sorts, where all the operators offer the service that they enjoy delivering, but also excel at.  This partnership has allowed our network to deliver the best possible service to our clients under one umbrella company, meaning the client has a seamless interaction with our “one-stop-shop”. This partnership is the epitome of a virtual organisation.

A network of service providers built over many years allowed me to confidently outsource a lot of the work.

3. Communication with clients and service providers alike

On realising that the diagnosis will definitely impact on the business’ ability to deliver certain services, I approached key clients and service providers and played open cards with them. I explained how the treatments would affect the timing of work, I introduced them to the people who would be helping me out and most importantly I tried my best not to make promises I was unsure I would be able to deliver on. I didn’t tell everyone I worked with what was happening, but good communication definitely helped retain customers and create trust.

4. Loyal clients & long-term projects

Years of building relationships, and working my butt off, helped carry the business through a tough year. I must admit that there were some clients that cut me some slack, which I appreciated a lot, but mostly the professional relationships built over time, ensured that it was business as usual.  The long-term projects were the lifeblood of the business, ensuring a steady flow of monthly income.

5. Cashflow management & cash reserves

Worrying about whether there will be a next invoice, is the best motivator for living frugally.  Over a period, I managed to build up enough cash reserves in the business for it to survive for at least six months without any income. Because of everything listed above, the business did not need the cash to survive cancer, but it will definitely need it to survive Covid-19.

A bit of dread disease cover also didn’t hurt. It definitely reduced the stress of worrying about income and paying bills.

6. Being open to approaching work and projects differently

This is probably the single most important factor that has contributed to making it through 2019, and will be the reason the business survives 2020.  Because I wanted to limit my exposure to people, due to a compromised immune system, I spent a lot of time taking meetings via online platforms.  I developed a lot of content that could be delivered via webinars or via online-training platforms. And most importantly, I convinced clients that online training and consulting can work.

Guess what?  All of the “I-must-do-this-because-of-cancer”, has become “Thank-goodness-I-did this-because-of-Covid-19”.

Unfortunately, many readers and small business owners will say: Hindsight is always 20/20 and I agree.  However, you now have the time and opportunity to take the lessons from every damn business book in history and actually implement them.  It is never too late to plan for and/or implement sound business strategies for future performance.  Don’t wait for another pandemic or a dread disease to say: “If only I had…..”