Avvo 1-on-1: Pandemic Advice for Small Businesses


Avvo 1-on-1 is a new Avvo question-and-answer article series featuring candid interviews with attorneys in various specific fields of law.  The goal of this series is to humanize intimidating law topics for the everyday person through stories, anecdotes, and other real-life experiences shared by attorneys.   


Our next installment features Nolo Author Peri Pakroo.


Pakroo is a business author and coach, specializing in creative and smart strategies for self-employment and small business. She has started, participated in, and consulted with nonprofits and for-profits for more than 20 years. She is the author of the top-selling Nolo titles The Women’s Small Business Start-Up KitThe Small Business Start-Up Kit (national and California editions), and Starting & Building a Nonprofit, and has been featured in numerous national and local publications including EntrepreneurThe New York Times, Real SimpleInvestors Business Daily, and BusinessWeek.


What advice would you give small business owners during this pandemic?


Early on in the pandemic, it became clear that there’s definitely no one-size-fits-all solution to this epic upheaval. 


The businesses that are succeeding are laser-focused on one thing: their next best move. The reality is that most business plans went out the window starting in March, so resourcefulness and adaptability are the winning strategies right now. 


For businesses that depend on physical locations and/or person-to-person contact for core business operations, a major challenge is figuring out to what degree their operations can be shifted to online/virtual methods — and that shift is not always easy or doable. Safety for staff and customers is now a pressing concern for every business, especially those with office buildings and retail spaces. This is new territory and there’s no road map, and everyone is figuring it out as we go, so the best resources will often be your fellow business owners. For that reason, now is a crucial time to nurture and maintain your network. 


If you have stable cash flow but business is slow, you can use the time to invest in your systems. It’s a good time to tackle elusive tech or database upgrades, or other admin tasks that are hard to get done when business is hopping.


Personally, how do you think the pandemic will change business as a whole in America?


I tend to see opportunities even in the worst circumstances, including this pandemic. I can’t help but view the experiences of the last five months as a sort of test case for how businesses both small and large can shift to deal with climate change, which is critically important because we are so far behind the curve. We are learning some invaluable lessons about what products and services are essential, how workers need to be cared for—including health care and paid sick leave—in order to keep those essential businesses running, the role of employers in our social fabric, the importance of local businesses, the interdependence of economic ecosystems and support systems, and so on. 


Consumer and employer practices have been forced into new patterns that are still taking shape. We’re learning about the vulnerabilities of national supply chains that had previously been taken for granted, and how small local businesses can fill those gaps. On the flip side, we’re also seeing how vulnerable so many small and medium enterprises are — and how quickly mom and pop businesses can disappear, and how negatively that can impact our communities.


We’re also seeing that many ways of doing things that previously had been considered to be set in stone are actually more malleable. Many businesses have found, for example, that their workforce can often work from home with little to no ill effects on the company or the workers. 


This barely scratches the surface of the changes afoot in American and global business, but ultimately I hope to see lasting shifts that benefit communities, strengthen small enterprises, instead of multinational corporations, take care of workers and build caring local economies with safety nets to help the most vulnerable among us.


What advice do you have to those small businesses who are on the brink of losing everything?


One particularly important type of resource right now is the world of community-based business incubators and support organizations that can help you navigate possibilities for sources of emergency financial support such as loans or grants. The rules can be really complicated so a navigator or intermediary can be a major help. 


The institutions that often serve as such navigators and intermediaries within local communities include Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs), Women’s Business Centers, and Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs). Ask other business owners you know to find out who in your community is helping businesses navigate the ever-shifting landscape of emergency funding. 


Are there methods or government resources some small business owners do not know of that can assist them to stay afloat during this pandemic?


The federal PPP and EIDL programs figured prominently at the beginning of the pandemic, but now I’m seeing more county-based sources of funds as well as grants from private companies and banks. Every day I get notices of new programs to help small businesses, and many of these are focused on underserved populations such as Black women-owned businesses, immigrant-owned businesses, industry-specific businesses like performance venues, etc.  


Staying in the loop so that you actually hear about these opportunities can be a challenge. Social media is typically where they are announced and shared, so keep an eye on your social channels.


These are certainly unprecedented times, however, do you know of another situation that has been similar? If so, how did small business owners survive that time period?


It’s hard to compare the impact of this pandemic to anything most of us have experienced in our lifetimes. The effects of COVID dwarf even massive natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, which permanently changed the economic and social landscape of the New Orleans region. The key to survival will be to adapt. Businesses will have to pay close attention to shifts in populations, consumer buying patterns, government investments, and more, and be ready to do the hard work of retooling. 



What is your advice to those thinking about starting a new business during these tumultuous times?


Starting a new enterprise is never without risk, and depending on your situation this could be a great time to try something new. As always, you’ll need to evaluate your resources to decide how much risk you’re willing to take on. If you have financial padding, maybe now is the time to try out an audacious idea, especially if the product or service you envision fits well with pandemic realities or new consumer needs. If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, all the uncertainty right now may be a sign for you to wait a bit on your business idea. However, if you do decide this is the right time for your business idea, Nolo.com has ample resources to help you reach your goal. 


Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? How do you think the economy will look when this is all over?


There’s always light at the end of the tunnel; if only we knew whether we’re tunneling under a hill or a mountain. The bad news is that many businesses will not survive. I hate to sound bleak but the number of business closures already is sobering, and we clearly have a ways to go in this tunnel. I expect that at least some of those businesses will regroup and start new ventures. And the businesses that survive will emerge leaner, wiser, and more resilient. 


I predict a well of pent-up consumer demand and smart businesses will be ready to serve those customers. Some ripe industries for this will be travel and hospitality, for example.


Having gone through collective trauma, we will hopefully find more compassion in business and social life, which should translate into more human-centered workplaces. The mass movement for social justice is awakening a wider awareness of the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in all aspects of social and economic life. And the need for access to health care has never been more compelling, so I deeply hope we can shift societal attitudes so that solutions can take root.