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Undoubtedly, the coronavirus pandemic has changed the we all live, work, and play for the foreseeable future. With the economy in a tailspin and social distancing and self-isolation the norm throughout the country, companies of all sizes have taken a hit. However, it is small businesses, particularly minority and women-owned business enterprises (MWBEs) that have been hit the hardest. Many of these businesses are in a holding pattern as we all try to understand and determine the long-term impact of this pandemic. To help provide some clarity on how MWBEs can move forward through this time of uncertainty, MBE magazine recently spoke with Erin Joy, founder and CEO of Black Dress Circle©, a facilitated, member-driven roundtable for women business owners.
Erin’s answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q:With all of the uncertainty regarding coronavirus and the economy, a lot of business owners are afraid of what’s to come. What advice do you have for those small business owners and entrepreneurs who may be paralyzed by fear?
Erin:Based on the conversations that we are having, the first thing is that we really want to see is entrepreneurs and small business owners taking action. This is the time to be in action. There are some people who when they are under a lot of stress, they freeze, they numb up, they stop taking action. That is dangerous, right now. The kinds of actions that we need to be taking are things like, if we think it’s inevitable that we’re laying off employees, we need to lay off those employees, so that they can either go get another job at Amazon or a grocery store or for one of the delivery service companies that are still available or they need to go file for unemployment.
Business owners’ inability or unwillingness to take action is really going to hurt them and it’s going to hurt their employees. Business owners need to be getting their documentation in order so that if various types of aid come out, then they are ready to submit those applications and they can be first in line. We need to be talking to our payables, companies that we pay, and renegotiating payment terms. So, my first point is that now is the time to be in action.
Q: Do you see any opportunities in this environment that small business owners could seize?
There is a great opportunity for forging new relationships and these are relationships that are going to pay off for decades. I’ve seen a lot of my community connecting with each other and joining together to lead a call or a webinar for an audience that they both share. Maybe they both serve teachers and they are coming together, two different businesses, to put together content to serve teachers.
In my own business, I sprang into action around creating content for small business owners, entrepreneurs, and small and mid-size companies and I created the concept of the State of St. Louis business call. And I now have relationships with about eight new leaders of very prestigious organizations here in St. Louis, just from one call.
Another place where there’s a big opportunity is in real estate investing. I have some real estate investor clients who, together, have been preparing for an economic downturn for about two years and they are poised to support people who need to unload their real estate. My clients will be able to buy that real estate at a really great value.
The other place where I’m seeing opportunity is with IT companies. One of the gentlemen on our call talked about how his company is a little slow at the moment but in about three weeks or so, he expects to be slammed because the number of malicious attempts and attacks on our IT systems are going to be significant. So, there is an opportunity for companies in the IT space to support all of us because it’s obvious that now, more than ever, we’re leaning on our technology.
Q:Many businesses have been forced into a remote working environment, which many have never experienced and may not be prepared for. How do they maintain clear lines of communication with all team members?
The key to the phase that we are all in right now is being in communication, staying in communication, and using all of our available resources to do that. Email certainly serves a purpose but what’s more useful is instant messaging because we are moving things very quickly and we want to be able to send messages from our keyboard and not just from our phones.
One of the important things that entrepreneurs and business leaders need to be doing right now is developing a communication protocol. We have to, now, move into a way of operating where the communication starts to get a little more organized. It’s been pretty chaotic throughout the week. So, one of the ways that my team and I communicate that we’ve developed a protocol where if there’s something that is extremely urgent, we will send each other a text message. If there’s something that is urgent, such as “Hey, catch your attention as soon as you can,” we use our instant messaging. If there is something that could wait some time, then of course, we use email. With email, it’s one topic per email thread, per email conversation. It’s a unique subject line, so that you can easily search for a record of your communication. And of course, we’re using video calls in lieu of what would be in-person meetings.
Also, regarding communication, we are checking in with each other, not just about business, but overall, “How are you doing?” It’s really mental health, emotional health, physical health first, then let’s talk business. We typically would deal with people a little more transactionally, but we are now in a time where it’s appropriate that we’re far more relational than transactional.