Melbourne-based Atiyah has fallen through the cracks of the COVID support system — here’s what founder Ben Armstrong wants to change

Atiyah Ben Armstrong

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If you’re an SME in Victoria right now, times are tough. We are enduring yet another snap lockdown, with many purely at breaking point. 

Historically, starting and succeeding in small business has always come with its challenges. Before you even begin, you’re reminded that the majority of businesses will fail within the first year — and that’s without a global pandemic to contend with. 

I launched my startup Atiyah — a zero-carbon, 100% renewable street food kitchen at Melbourne’s Federation Square — in November 2020. Some might say that we should have waited, but it had been a long time in the planning and had already been delayed.

And we believed that just like many already established businesses that had tweaked their service offerings in order to stay afloat or even just stay relevant in the current climate, what Atiyah offered absolutely fit into a COVID-safe environment.

Startups have always played a key role in the ongoing health of the economy. They are key drivers of economic growth and job creation, and certainly as the pandemic has shown, they can also be a catalyst for radical innovation. However, the COVID-19 crisis is reducing their creation, challenging their survival, and limiting their growth, and this will have significant implications for economic recovery and employment.

To achieve startup success, outstanding support is needed, with many businesses (as well as our own) sadly falling through the COVID-19 support system. Many have had to grind it out, losing large amounts of money along the way, and putting enormous strain on their health and families. 

Grants and funding that were previously allocated to supporting startups were redirected to COVID support programs throughout 2020. The difficulty around sourcing funds to sustain a business during the pandemic has been an enormous challenge for many, including at Atiyah, not to mention the way it wreaked self-doubt and fear into entrepreneurs and small business owners. 

What can be done? 

This can be mitigated by taking steps to support existing startups and the creation of new SMEs. 

SMEs are typically more financially fragile and have smaller cash buffers than larger businesses, which can have a detrimental effect on their resilience in a crisis. They have smaller inventories and fewer supplier networks, which in turn makes them more susceptible to supply chain disruptions and price increases. 

Governments should be supporting short-term liquidity and availability of funding. Loans to SMEs in sectors that are most affected by the pandemic — those located in areas most affected by lockdowns — should be targeted in the provision of financial support. Likewise, SMEs should be allowed to deduct more losses than the current tax codes provide for, as a way to enhance cash flow and help speed up recovery and preserve employment.   

In the US, restaurants and other qualifying businesses that own or operate 20 or fewer establishments may be eligible to receive a grant to aid in pandemic-related revenue losses. A fixed portion of this funding is reserved for restaurants or food services with gross receipts under a certain amount. A similar program could work here too. 

If snap lockdowns are to be a way of life for the foreseeable future, we need to work on a holistic plan to help SMEs continue to operate and recover, providing not only financial assistance but wider wellbeing support to help this critical business sector bounce back, drive economic growth and thrive. 

As our world is shaken up by COVID-19, it’s time for our global startup ecosystem to get closer to, support, and learn from each other.

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