When COVID-19 swept across the globe in early 2020, it sent small businesses into a tailspin. Seemingly overnight, doors closed, orders dried up, and customers disappeared. Profits dropped from prosperous to precarious in a matter of weeks. According to an economic impact report published by Yelp in September, 60% of the businesses currently noted as “closed” on the platform will not be reopening.
But for those businesses that have continued to survive — and even thrive — the lifeline that has largely kept them afloat over the past several months has been supporting each other.
Though a myriad of unknowns still surrounds the coronavirus, what is known is this: Working together has helped many small business owners weather this unparalleled time. Small businesses across a variety of industries are sharing leads, offering advice and encouragement, swapping skills, cross-promoting each other’s work, and, most importantly, building a sense of community among peers in place of competition. What they’ve learned over the past several months offers a blueprint for a more resilient, more collaborative small business ecosystem — even in a post-pandemic world.
From boutique shops to dance classes, small business owners work across every industry, but many share similar struggles, concerns, and questions. “I was on a call early in the pandemic, and someone said, ‘There’s got to be a way for us to swap skills and help each other.’ And I thought, ‘Yes, there has,” said Rachel Hayward, one of six co-founders of Derby Swap Shop, an online skill-swapping marketplace that launched May 4. With a free account, users can ask for specific services they need, such as having a press release written or review of a LinkedIn profile, along with a specific service (or willingness to consider various offers) in return.
“The whole idea of this was to harness one’s collective connections regardless of location, and the fact that we couldn’t speak to each in the normal face-to-face to help each other with practical things so that you could keep your business going at a time when it was the most challenging,” she said. To date, Derby Swap Shop has had 90 posted swaps with noted success. “We’ve had people who have swapped and gone on to have great exposure, increased turnover into their business, and paid work for each of them,” Hayward said.
Embrace the Unknown
COVID-19 showed that even the best-laid plans can be turned upside down. Working together can be nerve-wracking as well, especially because it requires trust and a time investment in partners you may not know well. “You need to be more flexible than you might think,” said Natalie Moores, co-founder of Mac + Moore, a marketing consultancy.
Her company abandoned its typical fee structure for a client on the verge of launching a program when the client’s investor pulled out due to COVID-19. Moores and co-founder Jess MacIntyre, who knew the client in a peripheral capacity, agreed to move forward on the launch for backdated payments and a small number of shares, realizing the program might not take off. “As you are potentially navigating unchartered waters, things can move and change at a fast pace, and you have to be accommodating of that,” Moores said.
Be Specific with Your Needs
Collaborators need to be transparent and specific about their needs and expectations. “If you’re forging something that goes against the normal way you’d do business, you need to make sure it benefits both sides,” Moores said. “If you can be open, honest, and clear about how the collaboration will work, what the boundaries are, and make sure you’re all on the same page about expectations, things are likely to run much more smoothly.”
Watching the Derby Swap Shop grow from day one, Hayward notes the willingness to help and receive help was better received when needs and skills are detailed. “For example, you’d say ‘I need some help with WordPress.’ The more specific you are, the better,” she said.
Communication is Key
Like any good relationship, being open and honest about collaborative work is essential. “Having lots of conversations about what you want to do is key, learning from each other’s experiences, and getting to know each other’s businesses,” said Lisa Smith, founder, and owner of Ginger Bakers. Located in Cumbria in northwest England, her business has worked with Rinaldo’s Specialty Tea & Coffee in various capacities over the years, but the pandemic led to additional collaboration in gift box packages sold online. “Be realistic with deadlines. Joint working inevitably takes longer than you think,” she said.
Even in uncertain times — or perhaps because of it — maintaining communication is particularly important. “Remember that you’re all still people even when you’re working in a professional framework, so picking up the phone or logging onto Zoom rather than relying solely on email can go a long way,” Moores said.
Build Resistance Before Disaster
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 20% of new businesses fail during the first two years of being open, and many business owners likely eye the competition with a mix of fear and suspicion. But building bridges with competitors before you’re in dire straits establishes a solid foundation built on trust that you can lean on in difficult times.
Rachel Charlupski, owner of The Babysitting Company, which offers hotel and event babysitting in southern Florida, noted her industry is very competitive. This pandemic was the first time that some of these companies engaged with each other, but they’ve found an opportunity to support and refer business to each other when certain businesses don’t offer specific services or can’t accommodate certain requests. “This is a very strong group of businesswomen who are also good people, good business owners, and want the best for their companies and clients, many of which we share,” she said. “One thing I learned is that we are not enemies, and we can help each other. I can not believe it took 15 years to start our group.”