Small businesses that survived the COVID-19 pandemic still face a long road to recovery, but some of the innovations business owners adopted last year may outlast the pandemic itself.
“If you make it through this, you ask, you learn, you adapt, and I think it only makes you stronger,” says Keith Hall, president and CEO of the National Association for the Self-Employed.
Here are four ways small businesses adapted in response to the pandemic that may have long-lasting effects on future operations, according to industry experts and business owners themselves.
1. CREATIVE BUSINESS MODELS
The pandemic forced businesses to find new ways to serve their customers — and quickly, says Meghan Cruz, director of grassroots advocacy at the National Retail Federation.
Now, that small-business owners have built out new infrastructure, like curbside pickup and e-commerce operations, they can continue using the hybrid business models they adopted during the pandemic, she says.
Within a few weeks of the pandemic shutdowns, Keith Wallace, founder of the Wine School of Philadelphia, was facing possible bankruptcy. Unable to open the doors of his business’s in-person-only classrooms, Wallace had to cancel wine classes for thousands of people.
“The only way to survive was to pivot,” he said via email. “I realized this was the time to try something audacious.”
Wallace repurposed his office into a recording studio, turned the main classroom into a video studio and taught himself how to produce and edit videos. By September 2020, the school launched its first online-only Level One Sommelier Course, an eight-week program.
By December, Wallace was able to recoup about 30% of the business’s income through the online programs.
Now, he is working on launching three additional online programs nationally within the next year.
“This change is forever,” he said.
2. INVESTMENT IN DIGITAL TOOLS
Prior to the pandemic, many small-business owners used technology as a secondary approach to business, according to Hall — but that shifted in 2020.
A 2020 Salesforce report found that growing small businesses were more likely to accelerate the pace of investing in technology due to the pandemic.
“Previously, we were a company that welcomed guests at our front counters with a handshake and a smile,” Clark Twiddy, president of Twiddy & Company, a family-owned vacation rental company in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, said via email.
Twiddy said when the company closed its in-person counters due to COVID, investing in technology enabled them to “deliver Southern hospitality in a way never before imagined.”
Twiddy & Company started using Salesforce for customer relationship management, scaled up its phone technology to Genesys, a cloud-based system, and introduced an AI chatbot to help customers on its website.
3. RECONNECTING WITH THE COMMUNITY
Small businesses have long been an integral part of the communities they inhabit. And during the pandemic, Cruz says, business owners stepped up to help those communities, even when they were in difficult positions themselves.
Cruz tells the story of Cardsmart Greetings, a small gift shop in Buffalo, New York, whose owner, Tracey Mangano, ran a hand sanitizer distribution event in her community, despite her business being closed. Cardsmart was recognized by the National Retail Federation and the Qurate Retail Group as part of their Small Business Spotlight series.
Small businesses, Cruz says, “were able to be there for their communities when the communities needed them the most. And I think that trend will stay.”
4. NEW OPPORTUNITIES
An April 2021 Federal Reserve report concludes that we’re unlikely to understand exactly how many small businesses have closed their doors since the start of the pandemic until it’s long behind us.
But on the other side of that coin: 4.3 million businesses were formed in 2020, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. That represents a 24% increase in new businesses from 2019.
Not all of the growth over the past year can be attributed to people finding their entrepreneurial spirit, Hall says.
Many employees who were laid off continued to work in their industry, such as real estate, marketing or accounting. But out of necessity, they became self-employed business owners, Hall says.
These self-employed professionals have found opportunities by connecting with other small-business owners looking to outsource back-office work they traditionally did themselves.
“There’s a fundamental shift in opportunity,” Hall says. “A fundamental shift in the demand curve for new small businesses. And I think millions of people are going to benefit from that."