Why Big Isn't Always Better...
As 2020 draws to a close, it’s fair to say that this has been a year like no other in recent memory. The optimism heralding the arrival of a new decade was swiftly followed by a sense of fear and panic as the death toll from the pandemic began to rise. Then a summer of renewed optimism that we were finally emerging from the crisis were dashed by the arrival of a second wave, only to be dashed by the arrival of a second wave. Finally, a second lockdown buoyed by positive news on the arrival of a vaccine.
Whatever your own personal views on the rights and wrongs of the government’s lockdown policy, one thing I think any small business owner can agree on is that we’ve felt the rollercoaster of emotions as acutely an anyone this year. Those sunny lockdown days may seem like a distant, hazy memory as I write this looking up at a grey winter’s sky but I’m not sure I will ever forget how sharply the pandemic brought into focus the precarious existence of a small business owner. As I sat at my desk on the final Monday of March, I answered the phone to call after call informing me that previously agreed contracts were either now cancelled or at best on hold for the foreseeable future.
It was hard to be annoyed at the bearers of these bad tidings. In many cases the person delivering the news was also fearing for their own long-term job security. However, whilst the government’s support package came to their aid, I like so many others found myself slipping through the cracks of any government support scheme as the Chancellor turned his back on the directors of Limited Companies. The overriding emotion at the time was a deep sense that everything seemed so unfair. Clients were cancelling work not because of a poor experience or even a badly judged commercial strategy and my eligibility for any support seemed to rest on how I had decided to structure my business.
Knowing what I know now, it’s much easier to be sanguine about the situation. Unlike those in the retail and hospitality sectors, my business experienced a bounce back as many of my digital clients found themselves in the unusual position of benefitting from the challenges some more traditional businesses were facing. However, as important for me is a deep sense that small businesses are actually better positioned to emerge stronger from these troubled times than some of our more lumbering, corporate counterparts and, for all of its unpredictability, I think 2020 has provided some shining illustrations from outside of the traditional business world.
Cast your minds back to March when the lockdown restrictions were first announced. Children were sent home from school and, somewhat understandably, schools and education authorities struggled to swiftly put a plan in place as to how the nation’s children were going to cope being schooled from home. Parents meanwhile were at their wits end just thinking about how they were going to keep their children occupied all day and just how were they going to get their kids to burn off all that excess energy. Into the fray came fitness guru, Joe Wicks to bring some structure to our children’s days and get households up and down the country jumping around in unison to the Daily PE Lesson.
Theoretically there are countless governing bodies who should have been able to put this in place. Equally there are hundreds of corporates who spend a small fortune on brand partnerships within sport who would have had much deeper pockets to pull this off and yet they all lacked the mindset or the initiative to make it happen. In that world, being ‘agile’ has become confused with jargon such as “scrum masters” and “product backlogs” rather than the get up and go to make stuff happen fast.
It’s been a similar pattern in other sectors. Whilst most of the music industry was staring into the abyss of the cancelled summer festival season and what that meant for their portfolio of artists, Taylor Swift somehow produced what will probably end up being album of the year, seemingly without many in the industry having any clue it was happening. If, like me, you have a teenage daughter, you’ll know your Reputation from your Red and will have probably been watching the Long Pond Studio Sessions on Disney + as essential family viewing. The documentary chronicles the creative process behind the album and how, despite not being able to get in a studio together, Taylor Swift was able to collaborate with a range of artists, building on each other’s inputs to get to a better end result.
For the most part, if legend (or Disney documentary) is to be believed, she was able to achieve this by not involving the politics of a major record label, only letting them know once complete that an album was due to be released. Whilst we may not have Swift’s knack for re-invention (or her bank balance for that matter!) , these often-informal networks are equally critical to us as small businesses; the ability to partner and collaborate with other like-minded partners to deliver a better end-product for our customers. Sure, buried within the strategy division of any large enterprise will be some form of partnership division and yet, for all the rhetoric, successful collaborations are few and far between. Whilst big business partnerships so often get lost in the process and the politics which inevitably surround them, we can undoubtedly be more opportunistic.
As if my range of influences so far has not been diverse enough, my final inspiration comes from one of television’s most unlikely and quaintest recent success stories – The Repair Shop. At this point, I should declare that, whilst my dad is able to turn his hand to anything practical (he’s currently in the midst of spending the second lockdown constructing and fitting a new set of double doors), the genes appear to have skipped a generation. However, there’s something strangely captivating about watching this eclectic mix of craftspeople inject a new lease of life into a whole range of treasured belongings.
For me they sum up the third crucial ingredient that small businesses are uniquely positioned to bring – craft. Many of us may have eschewed corporate life in search of spending more time on the things we are truly passionate about, where our skillset lies or simply because we had a great idea. That unique combination of working in an area you enjoy, where you know you are skilled and where you see there is an opportunity to build a business is something which is hard to keep alive once companies become more unwieldy.
Fitness guru Krissy Cela recently gave an insight into her business journey on Steven Bartlett’s Diary of a CEO podcast, saying “you live and you breathe your business and… no-one understands that…when you do have time to yourself, you never switch off”. I’m sure many of us as small business owners can relate to that ‘always on’ mentality, especially in what has felt like such a relentless and gruelling year. However, if you’ve made it this far, my guess is that you’ve drawn on huge reserves of grit and determination. To use a football analogy, you’ve earnt your right to play by riding out a few tackles in the first ten minutes. Now’s the time when all of us can draw on what makes us unique as small businesses to be successful in 2021 and beyond.
The original version of this article first appeared in the January 2021 issue of The Business Independent magazine (www.businessindependent.co.uk)