Small Businesses Provide Transformational Insights During Pandemic

Connected Organization Innovation + Transformation

As I take stock of my community, and the effects of COVID-19, a familiar theme has emerged for me while observing the behavior of small, local and women-owned businesses. Large multinational organizations should take a leaf from their playbook on what it takes to succeed during unprecedented change.  

Future State has a long-held view that Connected OrganizationsTM, companies able to master the competency of successfully navigating through continual change, will thrive in the 21st Century. These organizations know their purpose, engage with all stakeholders, integrate and are agile enough to quickly evolve.   

Take these three businesses:  

1. Equator Coffee (Agility and iteration over perfection) – The line at my hometown location, at any given time, was out the door. Shortly before the Shelter in Place order, Equator closed all its cafés. While the financial hit was potentially devastating, CEO Helen Russell committed to taking care of her people and her community. 

Larger companies struggled, filed for bankruptcy and laid off hundreds of employees, but Equator got comfortable being uncomfortable. They experimented, and within a few short weeks evolved their business and reopened a single café to pilot the new process and technology enabling their mission of making people’s lives better through coffee.  

The first day back was rocky. The app didn’t work perfectly, and employees were still working out a new process that turned a very social interactive business model on its head.    

On my first visit back, I arrived bright and early, eagerly waiting to grab my coffee using a new “contactless” process. The CEO was right there, in the thick of it all, running back and forth as she supported employees and engaged with customers. Within a few days the other cafés slowly reopened, until every location was operating and utilizing the new technology and socially distanced process, improving their community one cup of coffee at a time.    

And in the perfect example of adapting your business model to serve the community, you can now pick up hard to find provisions such as toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and gloves with your cup of coffee!

2. Freda Salvador (Honesty and transparency connect your stakeholders) – In a small business, there is little daylight between you and your stakeholders, i.e. your customers, employees, business partners. In moments of transformation, engaging in conversation with your stakeholders can help shine a light on how best to create the experience that will drive success.   

During the early stages of COVID-19, the co-founders of Freda Salvador, a small women-owned shoe retailer, sent an email to their customers. They acknowledged this unprecedented moment and how they felt that sending emails and posting on social media about shoes seemed shallow and cavalier. With humility and authenticity, they asked their customers what they wanted to hear about during these crazy times. Their honesty about their discomfort, yet the need to still sell shoes generated much needed feedback and has led to communications which now strongly resonate with their stakeholders. 

In contrast, I received an earnest “personalized” email from the CEO of an airline claiming that they were looking out for their customer’s safety and enforcing social distancing on planes while viewing photos online of customers jammed on one of his planes with every seat taken.  

His words did not match the reality of the experience his customers were having. 

3. The Hivery (Remember your purpose when SHTF) – When the going gets tough, remember why your company exists in the first place. The organizations mission cannot be sidelined when your very survival is at stake. In this moment, it becomes even more critical to focus on what matters – your reason for being.    

Grace Kraaivanger, CEO of The Hivery, a co-working space whose mission is to create a supportive community for women was stunned when the pandemic forced her to shutter her two locations. What to do when your whole business model is dependent on people being physically together and connecting? Without the deep pockets of the larger VC backed co-working spaces, Grace immediately returned to her purpose.    

She had a sense her clients would still crave community and togetherness during these isolating times, and so Grace quickly focused on “virtual” co-working.  With much of the programming at little or no cost, she tapped into the need and desire the community had for connection and why she created The Hivery to begin with.    

The future of The Hivery is still uncertain, but the community has rallied with financial support to help Grace and all involved ride out these tough times.     

The sad reality is that many small businesses won’t be able to weather the storm. However, many will survive and come back stronger than ever. In times like these, you can’t control everything. You can control your response, and that is what separates Connected OrganizationsTM from the pack.