3 small business leaders on what it takes to survive the pandemic economy

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Building a business is never easy, but 2020 has been a unique calamity. In the U.S., which has suffered more COVID-19 deaths than any other nation, the economy entered its worst downturn in generations. Although central bank stimulus and government programs such as the Paycheck Protection Program have helped cushion the blow, a return to growth will depend on the creativity and resilience of millions of entrepreneurs and business managers.

Lindsay Gibson, COO, TextNow
Over a decade, TextNow built its business, an app that allows users to send and receive calls and text messages for free, by hosting ads for hotels and airlines and the like. Within weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic hitting the U.S. and Canada, one-quarter of TextNow’s revenue disappeared. The company closed its Waterloo headquarters, as well as offices in Portland, Ore., and San Francisco. All employees started working from home.

Lindsay Gibson, the chief operating officer, stayed relatively calm. A 16-year career at cellphone maker BlackBerry taught her how to navigate an organization on “a downward slope,” as she puts it. At BlackBerry, she once had to cut 250 jobs on her first day in a new role. She remembers it as the beginning of five years of doing more with less.

Her strategy then, and now, was to make plans. Plan A at TextNow was to slash revenue targets and cut expenses. The company eliminated 19 jobs, froze hiring, and ended employee perks such as personal trainers and free lunches. Biweekly companywide Zoom meetings were instituted to keep staff up to date and fortify plunging morale. For three months the mood became “very conservative, very heads down, and very focused,” Gibson says.

The company quickly found opportunities for growth. With so many people unable to visit friends or relatives, TextNow started testing a video chat function. Amid the economic downturn, hundreds of thousands of people could no longer afford to pay their AT&T or Verizon bills, so TextNow’s appeal increased. As school moved online, teachers began using TextNow to communicate with parents and students.

By July, TextNow was growing again. It lifted the hiring freeze and recruited a chief growth officer to beef up marketing and help win customers. TextNow is on track to meet or exceed its new revenue targets, Gibson says.

Brian Butler, president and CEO, Vistra Communications
Brian Butler is used to dealing with disaster. The Gulf War veteran — who still suffers from injuries and hearing loss sustained during his Army service — oversaw a munitions plant in Virginia at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, helped coordinate Hurricane Katrina relief from the Pentagon, and started his marketing and communications business just before the 2008 financial crisis.

So in January, when he first read about a virus sweeping China, he started to prepare. In February he ordered five laptops for a core group of employees and by March had purchased 35. When other companies found themselves struggling to find equipment, his staff was settled and working from home. “I was a planner in the military,” Butler says. “I heavily rely on my ability to think and plan before I do.”

Still, in just a few months, Vistra lost two clients and three major contracts, including a hospital, a large beverage company, and a tourism agency that canceled events, contracts, or big projects. The company responded with an online campaign it called “V Positive.”

“We put up positive messages on a weekly basis,” Butler says. “That generated more good leads for us, just by doing that. So while in some areas we lost a few customers, in some areas we gained a few.”

In late May, the video of George Floyd’s death led to worldwide protests against police killings of Black Americans. Butler is Black, and 48% of his employees are people of color. Vistra started a new business line that offers tailor-made diversity training to customers.

As the months of working from home passed, Butler says he focused more on his staff’s well-being. He gave each employee $150 to “buy something that will help them work better.” The company, which already holds weekly and monthly video calls for staff, started including more informal Thursday morning coffees and Friday afternoon sessions with his father, a chaplain. Butler says the idea stemmed from his experience in the Army, where every battalion has its own chaplain. “And I thought, Hmm, why does it have to be different in the workplace?”

By late August, most of the clients the company had lost in the early days of the pandemic were back on Vistra’s roster. Butler says he’s working from his home for the foreseeable future, just a few miles from the office — and a few feet from the bedroom where he founded his company 13 years ago.

Melissa Wirt, founder, Latched Mama
Melissa Wirt thought she knew about juggling responsibilities. She founded Latched Mama to provide affordable, functional clothing for nursing mothers six years ago, when she had just two children. Today she’s the mother of five.

Then in February, the coronavirus shut down the factories of some of Latched Mama’s suppliers in China. It took a few more weeks before it hit her team — most of them working mothers — in Virginia. “So many moms’ lives, within a 24-hour period, were turned upside down,” she recalls. “Kids stopped going to school on a Friday and didn’t go back on a Monday.”

Wirt’s mother came up from Florida to help take care of her kids. Another mom couldn’t come to the office anymore when school and day care closed. “So her husband is now coming into work” and is on Latched Mama’s payroll, Wirt says, and the woman is doing social media work for the company from home.

In other ways, the work-from-home lifestyle proved a boon to Latched Mama’s business. Women are treating themselves to more comfortable clothes, boosting sales from last year, Wirt says.

Her staff, many at home or working half-shifts, weren’t able to pack and ship fast enough to meet the elevated demand. One of her employees got COVID-19 during the summer, and fear of the virus remained high.

So Wirt recruited teenagers, including a 16-year-old neighbor, to work part time. She also hired two people to manage shipments and warehousing, scooping them up from a nearby distribution company that went bust during the pandemic. “In some ways it’s an amazing problem to have,” Wirt says. “But it’s also hard as a small business because you also have to keep your employees safe. It’s just a lot of balls in the air at the same time.”

Productivity has ticked down. But Wirt says she feels that’s a small sacrifice in an unprecedented year.

“If we need to cut some profit to be able to make sure that people can relax and take a deep breath and be there for their kids and get through this pandemic together, then that’s what we’re going to do.”

Bloomberg News
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