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How it feels to fight for your business’s survival through the COVID-19 pandemic

How rallying around a purpose, embracing radical transparency, and hustling has helped us stay afloat and optimistic about surviving the second wave.

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2020 plan B - change of business and personal plans for 2020 coronavirus pandemic and market recession, handwriting in a sketchbook
2020 plan B - change of business and personal plans for 2020 coronavirus pandemic and market recession, handwriting in a sketchbook

“2020 is going to be our year!”

I’m sure we’re not the only business who made these words their rallying cry, seizing the dawn of a new decade as an opportunity to set ambitious goals and embrace an optimistic ‘anything is possible’ mindset.  

My business partner Shelli and I had spent the past five years hustling – building a thriving innovation and research agency from its humble beginnings in her basement, assembling a team of brilliant-minded and truly wonderful human beings, and gaining coveted spots on vendor lists for the kinds of companies we only dreamed about one day calling clients. All of this while having and raising three young children between us, and coming out the other side of the kinds of personal and business crises that tend to make or break a business partnership, each time emerging stronger than we were before. 

Our agency had built a reputation that meant business mostly walked in the door, and our repeat rate was 90%+.  We felt immense gratitude for our agency’s success, and the extraordinary team behind it, and didn’t take it for granted. But, over time, it had grown to feel as rock solid and resilient as our bond as business partners. Our agency’s success had not come without sacrifice. Shelli and I were on cross-border flights almost weekly for the better part of five years, work had steadily and regularly creeped into the hours before 6 am and after 10 pm, and many vacations had been cancelled or consumed by work (as an entrepreneur, shutting off your phone or your brain is never really an option).  We constantly felt pulled in two directions – as working parents so often are – trying to meet our own impossibly high standards at home and at work, yet often felt like we were falling short on both fronts.

2020 was a particularly noteworthy year for our agency, The Idea Suite – we hit our five-year milestone in January, and had recently been recognized as one of Canada’s top growing companies. Having been so internally focused for half a decade, putting all of our energy into building a thriving agency and exceeding our clients’ expectations, 2020 was set to be about taking a breath, laddering up, and looking outward, while letting our extremely capable team take more of the reins on day-to-day project work. We joined the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers and, almost immediately, started filling our 2020 calendars with speaking engagements. We joined a newly formed entrepreneurs network which helped us make connections with fascinating Toronto-based business owners. And then, in an incredibly productive three-hour session in February, we crafted the outline for the innovation book idea we’d conceived five years ago, but never had the time to write.  

We were ready to make 2020 our best year yet, and all the pieces were falling perfectly into place.

The best laid plans…

Like most North American businesses, our world officially turned upside down in early March.  It started with the cancellation of the Natural Product Expo West – an event we’ve gone to every year since we founded our business. The fact that I got on a plane to Los Angeles on the last day in February thinking that attending a show with 85,000 people from more than 130 countries in the Anaheim Convention Centre was without risk is testament to how quickly the COVID situation escalated in North America. On Monday, March 2 I was conducting shop-along research in West Hollywood, and by the time I finished my last interview at 6 pm, I received the somewhat eerie notification that the show – slated to begin the next morning – was to be cancelled.  Things were, all of a sudden, getting very real.  

Welcome to the battle zone 

Fittingly, Friday the 13th would be the last day of school for (at least) three weeks – which at the time, for parents everywhere, felt unmanageable. Shelli and I enforced a mandatory work from home order for our employees, while, one by one, in the days to come, the calls and emails began to come in – speaking engagements and conferences postponed or cancelled,  projects cancelled or delayed indefinitely, life as we knew it being put on pause. Our clients were filled with uncertainty around budgets, return to office dates, and future plans – and gaining commitments was now impossible. Suddenly, for the first time in our history, we were staring down the barrel of a completely empty pipeline.

As a consultancy, when you’re not working, you’re bleeding – and, even worse, you’re panicking. Every non-billable day threatens your livelihood. So, Shelli and I fired into action. Our first step was to look for immediate ways to cut costs – getting out of one of our two office leases being the most obvious. The second step: finding ways for our team to keep busy without any work in the books – building our brand, pre-working potential projects, and generally getting to work that was always deprioritized in favour of urgent project deliverables. And then there was the third step: changing our business model, and fast.

Purpose, radical transparency, and hustle

Shelli and I needed a purpose to rally around, and that became saving our people. We needed to find ways to bring in enough money to keep our whole team employed, for as long as we possibly could – with the goal being indefinitely. With a seemingly infinite number of things to occupy our minds and our to-do lists, it was immensely helpful to have one overarching goal we were passionately working toward.

The tone we took with our employees from the very beginning – upon my return from my ill-fated trip to California – was radical transparency. No sugar coating, just the truth. Our weekly Thursday cocktail hour – which had largely fallen away during our busiest period – was resurrected that week but would become our most sombre one yet.  I remember saying to the team “If we make it through this, it will be a great case study”, to which one of my colleagues responded quietly: “This is the worst Pub-o-clock ever!”

And then, Shelli and I did what we do best – we hustled, with all the energy and scrappiness of our very first year in business. We wasted no time as a team bringing every aspect of our approach, across all of our offerings, into the digital world. And then, we iterated and re-iterated the approach in the following days until we were comfortable that it met our high standards. In parallel, we got in touch with old clients, new clients, prospective clients – anyone who might need support with innovation in a world that was changed almost beyond recognition. We desperately tried to lock down projects that had been interrupted or were up in the air. We had many (so many) meetings with senior leadership teams across multiple companies and geographies, all with the objective of convincing them that our virtual approaches could work as well as our in-person ones – praying all the while that our home Wi-Fi wouldn’t fail during the technical demos. And, one by one, things started to happen – most notably a pipeline that would take us to the end of June. We were, after a long, deep breath, finally coming up for air.

What do I feel?

Gratitude – More than anything else, I feel so much gratitude, more deeply than I can express. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve wanted to reach through the phone and hug a client – one who simply asks how I am, one who takes a leap of faith in new technology, or one who unknowingly keeps the lights on at our agency for another few weeks by awarding us a new project or kickstarting a stalled project back into action. I’m grateful for my health and that of my family. For a supportive husband that has taken on equal or perhaps more than fair share of household duties, on top of his own demanding career. I’m grateful for my business partner – we have never been closer, despite not having been in a room together for what feels like an eternity. I’m grateful that our business is one that was capable of pivoting so quickly, and ultimately seamlessly, in the face of COVID. 

Love and Amazement – The adoration and admiration I’ve felt for my team cannot be overstated. The way they have stepped up, embraced change, and given 200% to everything they’ve done has been both humbling and truly inspiring. I’ve had to fight back tears at multiple team meetings and one-to-ones – when a team member has shown incredible compassion toward me or a fellow colleague, selflessness about their own personal situation, or their fierce loyalty to a business we’re all fighting alongside one another to keep alive. They’re a true embodiment of every company value, and I will be forever indebted to each and every one of them.

Connection – Specifically, our connection with fellow business owners and entrepreneurs. As we looked at cost-cutting measures, there was inevitably some remorse about the large expenditure we’d just made to join an entrepreneurial community based entirely on in-person gatherings. However, like us, having a (now virtual) community to share tears, advice and motivation with during a pandemic that rocked the foundation of virtually every small business has proved absolutely priceless. 

Anxiety – Insomnia is still a daily struggle. I worry about my team, my family, the world. I feel a deep longing for the neatly compartmentalized life I once had – one where I could give 100% at work, and then give 100% at home. Now, by comparison, I operate in a hybrid world of teacher/parent/business owner/household manager, where everything is blended into one exhausting, multiple hat-wearing 18-hour day, in which the idea of neat compartments seems as fanciful as a pet dragon or a flying elephant. And yet, I also feel…

Optimism – Specifically, that there is light at the end of the tunnel – no matter how long that tunnel might turn out to be. Amidst all of the turmoil of this crisis, I have seen so many beautiful sides to the human spirit, and been lifted countless times by the positive energy and actions of others. It’s a reminder that attitude determines so much in our path in life, and that perseverance is always a possibility. In a year where we have seen so much suffering, and so much heartbreak, we have also seen the green shoots of possible futures – ones in which we can hopefully look back on these times not merely as something we had to get through, but as a beginning. 

What lies ahead?

As an innovation agency, we are paid to ‘see’ the future, and my own projections for small business owners as we enter phase two of the pandemic are, unfortunately, somewhat bleak. They tell me that this crisis – and its impact – is far from over, and that there will be tough weeks and months, if not years, to come. But, they also tell me that we’re learning and becoming more resilient with every day in this brave yet bewildering new world – and that the lessons we are learning will serve us well through the rest of this pandemic, and with the new challenges that will inevitably follow.

Like many small businesses, our agency used up a lot of the flexibility we had in those early weeks and now have little wiggle room left. Those government programs that were a life preserver back in the Spring are beginning to wind down. The next quarter is going to be the make or break for many of us, and it will happen in the midst of a second wave, flu season, colder weather, and our collective exhaustion. But, we know now that we are not alone, and that together we are far stronger and more resilient than we could ever be apart – even when being together means keeping our distance.

The storm that’s coming won’t know what hit it.

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