COVID-19: Nine tips for business survival

employee monitoring

Scene Change co-founder and Motivation for Sceptics blogger Ian Whitworth. Source: Supplied.

Yep it’s back to COVID-19 this week. We’re right amongst some serious end-times shit for our industry, and it’s probably the same for you. Thanks a lot to whoever ate that original pangolin — now the tab for their exotic dinner is in the billions per week.

When I wrote about losing six figures, I didn’t think three weeks later I’d be referring to that week as ‘the good old days’. A COVID-19 day is a week in the old scale.

Three weeks ago was the Savage Setback era; this week we’re into the Survival Not Guaranteed times. I literally answer my phone now with: “What fresh bad news have you got for me?”

Plenty of SMEs will not see the end of this financial year. There are no easy answers, and for some businesses, no answers at all.

From someone who’s gritted through some bad times before, here are a few things you can do to make it less horrendous.

They’ll increase the odds that you’ll be one of the businesses still standing when the vaccine reinforcements arrive in 12 months or however long it takes. This story is a bit longer than usual but this is not the usual infotainment — this is serious.

1. Do your cashflow forecasts *now*

Honestly I can’t believe I have to write this. It’s like asking airline pilots if they checked the fuel. Yet I’ve spoken to half a dozen business owners lately who have done no more than a revenue forecast, then checked their bank balance, plus A/R less A/P.

That is not good enough with entire packs of wolves at the door. You need details: wages, rent, tax, supplier payments, documented down to the day they’re due. That’s the moment you go from ‘might be okay’ to ‘oh my God I must act now’.

If people in your industry are saying, “if you can survive X months COVID-19 will all be over and demand will take off again”, assume it will be at least 50% longer than that.

And when they say “but we’ll emerge from this stronger than ever”, remember those are just words they say to make you feel better and it’s not necessarily true.

For us, the cashflow hellscape has entered a new realm. Normally you can look ahead and go: mmm, terrible revenue months coming up, better take precautions. Now that booked revenue sits there, offering a glimmer of hope, then evaporates a week out. Fucking all of it.

So on that topic:

2. Update your terms and conditions

My new full-time hobby is the cancellation clauses in our terms and conditions. I recognise that doesn’t sound cool, but it’s all that stands between us and extinction.

Not that we’re all about black-and-white enforcement of contract; even our hardest negotiations are done by talking like reasonable people. But in times like these you need a place to start that conversation.

We hadn’t checked our terms and conditions for a few years, and we’d grown a lot. They left us wide open to danger. A cancellation on a $5,000 job isn’t terminal. A few $200,000 ones are.

Plus, they were written on the olden-days assumption of a few random cancellations every so often, rather than every single client rushing for the exits.

Sorry, but we’re too small to underwrite the commercial risk management decisions of large companies. So we updated our cancellation clauses with more realistic lead times and fees that accurately reflect the hard losses we will incur.

We did that a month back and it’s been an essential part of our survival plan. Check you’re not exposed.

While we’re on T&Cs, every so often we quote clients who are regular middle managers, but they quite fancy their contract law skills. They go through your terms (and ours is only two pages long) and send you a long series of proposed amendments, drawn from the ancient legal principles of Things They Reckon.

Here’s our response, and it should be yours:

No.

Anyone who does it is a maniac who will only get worse once you start working together. Imagine the nutbag diligence they’ll apply to querying your invoices. If you need to say no to the work, do it.

Almost all terms and conditions are drafted on the assumption of both sides being reasonably fair. Amateur lawyer mate’s assumption that you’re trying to conceal secret confidence tricks reveals a level of paranoia you don’t want to be working with, even in the starvation times.

Roz Monsters Inc

I’m not a lawyer, but…

3. Have the COVID-19 chat with suppliers

You will owe money to two sorts of organisations: the business suppliers you work with every week, and large ogres like landlords, banks and the tax office. The first cares about your ongoing survival, the second … not so much.

Talk to your regular suppliers and be honest. I’ve written a lot before about not screwing suppliers out of their last cent, because one day you’ll need them. Did you do that? Because now is that time. Ask them to help you survive, in whatever way they can, so you can be a good, ongoing customer in future.

We started our business about ten minutes before the last global financial crisis. There was a core of suppliers who really helped us out back then and that gratitude lingers to the present day.

You can have a shot at landlords and banks, sometimes it works. Just this morning we got a deal out of one landlord to push part of our rent back into the second half of the year. Commercial landlords are, as a general rule, total dicks. But try it.

Mr Monopoly

Commercial landlords: much less endearing and far worse dressed than this.

4. Talk to the tax office

When the grim reaper comes for a doomed business, it’s almost always the tax office under those black robes.

That’s because a lot of businesses are either hopeless at understanding their tax obligations, or treat it as something that can be permanently kicked down the road while they pay suppliers who are screaming louder.

Trading your way out of tax obligations is a bitch, because more trading means more of at least two sorts of tax, probably four.

Sooner or later they will come for you, and frankly a lot of businesses deserve it.

Here’s what you do: call the tax office and tell them honestly about the state of your business. Ask for a payment plan. We’ve done this a few times over the years for some of our smaller businesses (obviously not the ones under Armenian management) – and the tax office has never been anything other than reasonable. I think they’re so used to scams and denials that they find honesty quite refreshing.

Now is a good time to be asking them for more time — they’ll be expecting your call.

(Update: they’ve now made it official. There’s info here on what they can do for you).

Be grateful for this reprieve and take paying it off very seriously. Or it’s Reaper Time for real.

5. Don’t wait for the government to rescue you

A lot of business people like to complain that the government doesn’t do enough to help them. This is a dangerous, cargo-cult mentality because you’re waiting for them to do something.

The whole point of owning a business is having control over your own destiny. Deal with your own affairs as if there was no government help coming. If it does come, it will be less and later than you’d hoped. Treat it as an unexpected bonus but there is no governmental superhero coming to save you in the final scene of your COVID-19 movie. It’s up to you.

6. Come up with new ideas for your pricing and terms

Think about how you can get paid up front. You want the work so bad but now is the time to tighten up your payment terms, not loosen them. Do a sweet deal for payment upfront. Get payment in stages rather than at the end of a project.

Companies with purchasing budgets will still have to spend that cash by the end of financial year, coronavirus or not.

The further up the management ladder you can contact on the client side, the better chance you’ll have of getting some business out of them. (Read how to do that here).

7. Is there something else you can do for a bit?

Today I heard of an exhibition stand constructor that is being smashed by cancellations, so they’re turning their cabinetmakers, carpenters and equipment to do kitchens and wardrobes for a sweet deal. People are happy to put the word out to help in desperate times.

What else could you do to get bit of cash in and keep your team together?

8. Service those surviving customers like nothing else

There are still people with money. And you have a ton of excess capacity, both in staff and whatever else it is you do.

Now is the time to throw in the free dessert, the room upgrade, the matching belt, something to thank them for being a lovely person and spending cash with you instead of wasting it on another half-pallet of toilet paper.

Now is the time you can make them a customer for life.

9. Laying off staff

And now we get to the elephant in the room. How long can you hold onto your staff? It’s an ugly question, but being in charge means facing up to ugly things.

If you just use this as an excuse to punt people to boost your executive bonus — which happens — you are scum and people know it.

If you have no revenue and no prospect of any revenue, you have to be realistic. No matter how much you say your people are your greatest asset, no matter how much you love them as people, their long-term needs are not served by your business going under. Then they’re all unemployed, and you’re not going to be starting a new business any time soon.

You can start by seeing if they’re okay about agreeing to a reduced number of days per week so everyone keeps their job. This is easier in smaller places. Some specific advice from Fair Work Australia on that here.

The other option is that you probably have people on your team who are a bit underperform-y. You might be keeping them because you can’t find anyone better, or just because you are nice. If you make them redundant, it’s tough but it will lift everyone else, because your good people can spot an underperformer quicker than you can.

I know it goes against the generally humane vibe of this blog, but when it’s time, you have to act quickly. It’s fucking awful but people will survive and you don’t destroy all you’ve built over years of personal sacrifice.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Got to go and do more cashflow calls. Be careful out there. And lay off the pangolins for God’s sake.

This article was first published on Motivation for Sceptics. 

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