Pivot strategies in the COVID-19 era: Lessons learned from small business owners during Financial Literacy Month

During April’s National Financial Literacy Month, we spoke with small business owners around the country about the challenges they’ve faced during the last year of business turmoil and how they’ve pivoted their businesses to stay afloat during the pandemic. 

These business owners have weathered many untenable challenges and are sharing their lessons learned and some best practices other small businesses can follow during this difficult time. Read on to learn about some of the key steps they took to overcome the challenges brought on by the pandemic.

Expand to new markets 

As a solo entrepreneur, Kevin Gatlin, owner of Playtime Bed Sheets in North Carolina knew the future of his business would require him to knock on as many doors as he could. He was determined to keep his business afloat and recognized his business would need to meet the needs of his customers. He pivoted his business and partnered with dot com companies like Amazon, Macy’s, WayFair, Walmart and more to sell his bed sheets in stores and online. 

As the country starts to reopen, Kevin’s business is beginning to ramp up operations and is continuing to reach new audiences. He shares, “Our customers came through for us and showed our company support along with retail platforms. They purchased more than one Playtime item and continued to purchase our Playtime Bed Sheets to donate to hospitals and shelters.”

Kevin advises fellow business owners to “reach out to the Supplier Diversity Director with each store. In almost every case, they guided us through the process to become a vendor. Get your local and national small business certification because they create more paths to expand your business.”

He says, “Before COVID-19, we really didn’t have a retail presence in the market. But with the pandemic threatening business-as-usual, it was easier to identify the e-commerce buyers for big box stores. They were also searching for products to add to their inventories, which worked out to our advantage. We were fortunate to expand our relationships with these larger companies, and expand our business to new markets.”

Set up an ecommerce site 

Prior to the pandemic, Kathleen Donahue’s retail store Labyrinth Games and Puzzles in D.C. hosted around 700 events annually, between afterschool programs, summer camps, and free in-store events for a number of gaming communities. But when the pandemic forced limitations on all in-person activities, she immediately knew that her small business would be in jeopardy. She says, “We were overwhelmed at first, but we quickly decided to launch our online presence. My team of 17 employees and I worked to move our inventory to a new e-commerce platform, and are now hosting virtual events, where gamers and puzzlers alike can virtually interact with one another.”

Over the past year, Kathleen’s online store has helped to keep her business going and she hopes that her business will come out stronger than ever. 

In addition to building and maintaining your online presence, Kathleen advises fellow business owners to keep working hard and take care of your staff, as they are one of the most important resources to get back to business. 

She shares, “Although our customers prefer the in-store experience, they are happy to have an alternative way of supporting our business during this challenging time.”

Reassess operational expenses 

Being a first-time business owner, Nichole Jackson knew she’d have to rely only on her savings to launch her restaurant, Bronzeville Wingz located in Illinois. And since the pandemic started, Nichole has also had to contend with a substantial increase in food costs and supplies, which is already a challenge for those in the restaurant industry that historically faces low profit margins. 

She explains, “I’m trying my best to keep costs down but it’s a challenge every day. To make ends meet this past year, I worked another part-time job outside of the restaurant."

Many Black-owned businesses have seen an outpouring of support in the last year due to the rise in violent attacks against Black Americans, and Nichole’s business has partially benefitted. But the support, she says, is not enough to offset the costs of running a business during a pandemic. 

She advises fellow entrepreneurs to “Look at where you can shave costs. Is there something that can be eliminated or adjusted? Pay attention to weekly expenses because they are constantly fluctuating.”

We know small business owners have faced unprecedented challenges over the last year and may have questions about how to best adapt their businesses. Visit Small Business Majority’s online community forum where you can engage with fellow entrepreneurs and small business experts from business organizations and advocacy groups on ways to help you small business thrive.