Seven Steps to Small Business Recovery

What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.
Friedrich Nietzsche

The world is a different place than it was 90 days ago. Countries traded saving lives by shutting down most of their economy. Tens of millions who had jobs are now unemployed worrying about their future. Business owners large and small are struggling to find their footing, wondering what will be the new normal when the recovery happens. For the majority of companies, the business models of the past will not return.

Hit hardest were most small business service providers. Each day as they sheltered in place watching their bank accounts dwindle, they wondered: If I can’t perform my services, what will happen to my business? The reactions ping-ponged between uncertainty, fear, panic, anger and distress. But over the last month the reaction from a growing percentage has been resolve. Resolve to leave behind elements or services in their business that no longer work in the current environment, and determination to create new ones that do.

A company that has its finger on the pulse of tens of thousands of small businesses is Honeybook. They provide the software for freelancers and small businesses to manage clients and their business – proposals, billing, contracts, payments, project tracking, etc.

Honeybook CEO Oz Alon has had a front-row seat to how their members have pivoted, providing their services in new and creative ways, and are sharing these in a special Rising Tide feature on their website. Here are a few examples:

Pivot from In-person to Online

  • Jill Johnson, owner of The Paint Mixer, used to offer painting parties and creative adventures in her Salt Lake City studio. She started offering paint-from-home kits and hosting private parties via Zoom for team building, social hours, and birthday parties. “Our clients are loving the experience and are very grateful. I receive emails and texts, as well as social media posts daily, and it is inspiring,” Jill says.
  • Regina, owner of Silly Sparkles, is a children’s entertainer offering magic/puppet shows, face painting and balloon twisting at events. Since she can’t perform in person anymore, she’s switched to virtual party packages with customized entertainment for each client. “People still have birthdays, and they still want to make them special!” Regina says. “Virtual parties are a great way to serve those clients, and they’re willing to pay for it.”
  • Jordan Edelson, co-founder of Chic Sketch, reimagined his events business as a virtual events business. His goal was to create a similar experience to their in-person events where guests are sketched live by their team of talented illustrators. Their team now does live sketching during virtual events over a video conferencing platform.
  • Melissa Rasmussen of Catering By Chef Melissa normally offers custom catering with a farm-to-table approach, but in this current business climate, she’s pivoted to offer dinner meal kits. The menu is posted on social media and on their website; customers pay their invoice online; and the meal kits are available to be picked up at their commercial kitchen or delivered for a small fee.
  • Florist Robin Smith of  Rhapsody in Blooms started offering virtual floral design classes. She either ships class supplies (including the flowers and a vessel) directly to participants or arranges no-contact pickups. All students have exactly the same products to work with and join a Zoom call to attend the class.

The Seven-Step Small Business Pivot Process
Honeybook CEO Oz Alon observed that there was a pattern to these pivots. Regardless of the type of service they were offering or the kind of businesses they had, they took the same seven steps:

  1. Create an MVP, Minimal Viable Product or MVS, Minimum Viable Service—Assess your current business model. What capabilities and current services do you have? Then think about what the market needs right now and how you can adjust your services to meet those needs. What is it that people will grab out of your hands? Create an MVP or MVS to start.

Alexander Osterwalder co-creator of the business model canvas, suggests a playbook of business model moves you can make:

Shelter in place as a market opportunity
What new value propositions (products/services) can you offer to those stuck at home or to those who need to operate with new social distancing rules?

Resource pivots
How can you use/repurpose your existing resources for new offerings?

Delivery/Distribution Channel innovation
Can you move to digital/online, extending your reach and potential customers?

Opportunity to buy/acquire
Are there resources (people/physical assets) that others are abandoning that you can now get?

Jill Johnson, The Paint Mixer owner, suggests taking a look at the assets you already have. “Our pivot happened pretty quickly,” she says. “I knew as soon as our surrounding counties started to mandate closure that the business would be in trouble if I didn’t try something. After a good cry (and a glass of whiskey), I met with my team to talk ideas and short-term solutions. I looked around the studio and decided to use what we had. We offer painting parties and creative adventures. With the stock in our studios I took photos of what could be a potential ‘create-at-home kit.’”

Regina, owner of Silly Sparkles, seconds working with what you have as a starting point for a Minimum Viable Service. She says before you invest money in new equipment, it’s important to be resourceful. “When you use what you have, you’ll quickly learn what works for you and what doesn’t,” she says. “For my first virtual show, I only had magic props, green fabric for a green screen and a laptop. I didn’t need to invest a lot of money in a green screen because what I had worked just fine. I did, however, need to invest in a better mic.”

2. Customer discovery— While you might have come up with a great Minimum Viable Service, it’s just a series of guesses and assumptions. The next step is to validate the problem/need with customer discovery, by asking your existing customer base if they would be interested in your new service. You can do a poll on social media or send out an email blast to get a sense, then use video conferencing to do deep dives on real interest and intent to buy. Jill says, “We did a soft rollout with our mailing list to see if there was any interest, and there was!”

3. Rapid testing—Don’t spin your wheels trying to perfect your new service. Get it in the hands of your customers as soon as you can to test product/market fit. “Don’t spend energy building it. Create one, take a photo and try it with your current list. Then, when demand is apparent, build like crazy,” Jill says.

If you want to get started testing your idea quickly, consider giving it away for free at first. “It’s easy to get overwhelmed,” Regina says. “Instead of complicating the process, just jump in and try something! Start by offering a free, live magic show to family and friends. You’ll learn so much from this test run and it will give you momentum.”

4. Refine your offering—Another key part of rapid pivoting is a fast feedback loop. Constantly ask for feedback and act on it—improve on what’s working and tweak what’s not. Jill says, “The first 6 weeks I hand-delivered every package in the neighboring areas. I would text to let [customers] know it was outside and that I would love feedback. This touch allowed direct contact with every consumer.”

While customer feedback is great, also consider getting feedback from your peers. “Once you’ve started simple and tried a test run, it’s time to learn about how to improve your process,” Regina says. “Send out a recording of your first rough performances to other performers who have already been doing virtual parties. You’ll most likely receive insightful feedback. With some minor tweaks, you can upgrade your show significantly.”

5. Market on all your channels—Share about your new offering everywhere your audience is, whether that’s your website, email list, or on social media. Jordan Edelson of Chic Sketch shares about his new business offering on Instagram, driving customers to a specific landing page to learn more. The landing page also includes a YouTube video of an actual live event to help potential clients see how the service works.

Don’t forget to keep both your offering and your messaging simple. “Make it fun, make it accessible and make it easy for your clients to buy,” Jill advises.

6. Rely on tried-and-true tools—While some parts of your business may need to be altered, others may still work just fine, including tools, processes and frameworks that help you run and scale your business. Continue to rely on these to make pivoting business easier.

7. Share with the community—If your new service works, be sure to share this knowledge with your community, whether that’s on Facebook groups or in virtual meet-ups. In case anyone else has tried something similar, you can get feedback to refine your service. If it didn’t work, sharing with your community is still valuable as you may swap stories that may inspire you to go a different direction entirely.

What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger
Shelter in place is a mass extinction event for many industries. Not every business will survive. But what will emerge are businesses that diversified their offerings better positioned to withstand future volatility by providing complementary channels and offerings. And they’re opening up new ways service providers can scale to more customers.

“I think our Paint Mixer business is changed forever,” Jill Johnson says. “For the first time we now have a service that allows us to reach a national audience way beyond our local area. It will also allow us to create more classes that people can join virtually. I don’t think this is a short-term solution at all, but an entirely new direction that we have to take.”

Jordan Edelson of Chic Sketch observes, “There has been a paradigm shift in consumer behaviors, especially in their adoption and emotional acceptance of virtual video conferencing. The world changed overnight, and it has opened a door for our new service.”

Lessons Learned

  • The Seven-Step Small Business Pivot Process
    • Create an MVP or MVS, Minimum Viable Service
    • Do Customer Discovery
    • Rapidly test your idea
    • Refine your offering
    • Market on all your channels
    • Rely on tried-and-true tools
    • Share with the community
  • Carpe Diem – seize the day

We’re going to be holding a series of 5-day Hacking for the Recovery classes for businesses searching for the new normal at Stanford this summer. If you’re affiliated with Stanford, find out more or sign up at https://h4r.stanford.edu