Small Business School Challenge Shows How Crisis Can Create Opportunity
After months of lockdown, I’ve been thinking a lot about the hybrid economy that’s emerging. We all know that COVID-19 has had a huge impact on small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). First, there was the initial shock of the economy closing. Then, there were weeks of doing whatever it took to scrape by. Now, we’re entering a new phase — one where we need to start looking ahead at how SMBs can succeed in a post-COVID-19 world.
Last month, RingCentral sponsored the Small Business School Challenge. The organizer, David Corfield, pulled together 150 SMBs, support from 10 top business schools, and more than 450 MBA students. The event came together very fast, but its key lessons have stuck with me and will inform me for a long time. The value of digital engagement in helping entrepreneurs customize their offerings, replicate live experiences, and engage with customers outside of their geographical zone was one of the most valued topics by our participants and an area where we want to help.
While SMBs operate in virtually every industry, the hardest-hit have been those that depend on foot traffic and face-to-face interactions. These businesses, many of which serve as the heart of our communities, aren’t likely to see foot traffic rebound any time soon. For their owners, success depends on maintaining personal relationships and connecting with customers in new ways. To thrive in the new economy, these SMBs need to expand their offerings to include revenue streams that don’t require customers to visit a brick-and-mortar establishment.
At the Small Business School Challenge, the MBA students were tasked with helping yoga studios, restaurants, a wedding photographer, catering businesses, a farmer’s market, and other SMBs chart a course forward by adjusting their business models to succeed in the new normal. In the prize-winning presentation for Cuisinett, a French restaurant in San Carlos, California, students from the University of Washington showed that the restaurant could boost margins by selling wine, gourmet salts, olive oil, salad, and sandwiches to go. And there were many other presentations that stood out.
Incasa, a decor business in Queens, New York, offers handmade products crafted nearby or in Mexico. They also tend to know their customers personally, with 90% of pre-COVID revenue coming from in-store sales. But Incasa has always offered informal interior design consulting as well. At a time when most of their customers are at home, their core emphasis on creating unique, comfortable living spaces has added value. The MBA students found that creative solutions like virtual consulting, packaging wares in curated bundles, and other boutique offerings could help Incasa to recoup 89% of pre-pandemic revenues. The plan was a powerful reminder of the potential for digital tools to facilitate custom solutions.
Just a couple hours upstate from Incasa, the Troy Waterfront Farmer’s Market has struggled to replace lost revenue. Pre-COVID, some 15,000 customers visited the market each week, browsing stalls set up by 110 dues-paying members. About 60% of these members sold produce. One creative solution for the market was to package fresh foods from vendors in a subscription meal box program. As part of the promotion, local restaurant chefs can use the meal box to make a meal, record themselves doing so, and post the recipe online. Along with supporting farmers and local restaurants, subscribers become part of an online community (and finally learn what to do with that kabocha squash). As a bonus, the market delivers a socially distanced “live” experience that helps whet the customer’s appetite for more.
A few thousand miles west, across the border in Canmore, Alberta, the COVID-19 shutdown caused revenue to fall by 40% at Life Works Gym. More than an exercise venue, Life Works has long emphasized its expertise in kinesiology, offering services to help clients cope with joint pain. They’re now prepared to pivot in this hybrid economy, adding new online offerings such as consultation on topics like sleep and nutrition. Like SMBs all over the world, Life Works is using the internet to attract customers well outside their geographical region — proving that digital engagement isn’t just for Fortune 500 companies anymore.
While there’s no denying that SMBs face significant challenges in the months ahead, there is opportunity and reason for optimism. Not only are SMBs the most nimble businesses, but they’re also often led by passionate, innovative, and adaptive people.
I left the Small Business School Challenge feeling invigorated and confident that proactive SMB owners can thrive by projecting their core value propositions digitally. Whether it’s offering custom solutions, replicating live experiences, or expanding their customer base beyond their immediate vicinity — I know the best is yet to come.
Originally published Jun 24, 2020, updated Dec 30, 2022