Opening a business during a pandemic will surely put your skills to the test.
I gained a lot of experience building teams and leading multimillion-dollar retail accounts for Fortune 500 organizations to withstand the recession.
Now, I find myself using those same skills as a small business owner. As entrepreneurs, we try our best to choose industries with long-term viability. As a millennial, I’ve seen my share of macroeconomic challenges to know the industry I chose to venture into as a small business owner would have to prove to be “recession-proof.”
However, if life has taught me anything, it’s that absolutely nothing is fool-proof, so it’s best to arm yourself with the necessary skills to weather the storms you know will arrive—recessions, inflation, pandemics, etc. Before opening my coffee shop franchise, I conducted a wealth of research on which industries have withstood the test of time. It was important for me to feel comfortable taking on the risk of small business ownership. The industries included coffee, beauty, fast casual food concepts, and more.
I knew my ability to withstand macro events would rest on a product that wasn’t deemed discretionary; it had to be something people feel they “got to have.”
I thought, “What’s more necessary than a cup of coffee to start your day?”
The average American reaches for a second cup of coffee to sustain their action-packed lifestyle. It doesn’t hurt that coffee remains the second largest traded commodity in the world, with growing demand even during inflationary times.
When considering starting a business, researching the trends of successful companies within your industry and understanding how they hold up against macro-factors is essential to your success and long-term planning.
You should be planning for rainy days from day one—even when all you see is rainbows.
Beyond the industry-specific factors, I’ve also learned there are factors we as business owners and managers can control to navigate challenging times successfully.
Here are three tips to equip your business with the tools to combat a recession and continue to thrive.
As a business owner, if you’re not flexible, you won’t be able to withstand a recession—let alone the day-to-day grind. We’ve seen companies like Sears close its doors permanently because it couldn’t adapt and resonate with younger generations. On the other hand, Target and other companies are great examples of how to keep up with emerging trends and weather an ever-evolving competitive landscape to remain relevant. Target is competing well against competitive retailers like Walmart and Amazon. It does so by taking its shoppers on a treasure hunt filled with an assortment of options, which makes a trip to Target akin to a trip to the museum. Target remains nimble enough to adapt quickly, lean in ahead of the curve, and invest in technology. As a result, Target leads the industry in e-commerce growth and has built a formidable omnichannel presence.
As a franchise owner of PJ’s Coffee in New Orleans, I initially envisioned building a charming walk-up coffee shop through the regional brand with the hospitable feel of my hometown. But, I considered that I would be signing my franchise agreement at the beginning of a pandemic and thriving businesses offered convenience. At a time when indoor dining was prohibited across states, drive-thru businesses were open. So, I pivoted and mandated for myself that the only way I would continue with my storefront was via a drive-thru location. Although it wasn’t my original vision—it wasn’t the “dream”—it ultimately benefited my position as a business owner during challenging economic times.
You also have to adapt to emerging shopper and consumer trends. When you understand your audience, you gain the ability to adjust to their preferences, which enables you to ride the wave of a changing market landscape. Any macro event, such as a pandemic or recession, can change your target market’s behaviors permanently. Understanding how your clientele adjusts their spending habits during these times can help you stay relevant to their needs.
As an eCommerce sales director within an industry-leading CPG (consumer packaged goods) organization, I have a front-row seat to how the grocery/retail industry has changed in the past two years. Out of necessity, shoppers turned to online shopping in droves. Even as the world opens back up, people are still opting to shop online. The convenience and ease that online shopping provides is here to stay, and brands/retailers are planning for the future by keeping these trends in mind through marketing tactics, budget allocations, store layouts, product innovation, and more.
For my franchise, this meant a lobby and drive-thru were not enough; I, too, needed to go digital to remain relevant with the customer. Thankfully, my franchise had a pre-existing mobile app that offered pick-up, but I needed to ensure that products were also available for delivery—enter DoorDash and Uber Eats.
Building a strong community has been at the core of my entrepreneurial success. What I’ve learned about community is its role in visibility and desirability.
Recessions and challenging times in general force people to make tough choices. Typically, interest rates inflate, layoffs begin, and people tighten their purse strings. People become more intentional about where they spend their money and how often. You want your business to be the one people choose to spend their reduced discretionary income with.
If you have a physical storefront, you can physically create and foster community in your neighborhood by learning your customers and creating genuine connections. Within the digital space, i.e., a digital storefront (website) or social media profile, growing your online presence, creating relevant content, and engaging with your followers builds a community that’s equally valuable as in-person.
Let’s not forget the role that creating community and culture amongst your team plays in your ability to succeed during challenging times. Building bonds between your employees and clientele is important, no matter the size of your business.
For me, community begins with a simple “Thank You.” By thanking each customer for their business and each employee for going the extra mile, remembering customer names, and greeting them each time I see them. Community is also leveraging the power of social media to execute exciting giveaways that bring current and new customers into my store with promotions like “Wear Your PJs to PJ’s [Coffee Shop]” or delighting my social media followers with an early surprise launch of a product.
Your management/executive team can make or break your company. This is precisely why we’ve seen the same company with the same brand sink or swim under different management. You can have the right brand, product, innovation path line, and advantageous pricing, but if you don’t have a management team who can manage the present while building for the future and all of the chaos that falls in between, your business’s viability and relevance will be limited.
Executive-level thinking creates the pulse of an organization which drives priorities and enables organizations to build formidable long-term strategies connecting the here and now to what the organization can be. It flexes just enough to remain relevant while sticking to core values. Strong management balances today’s issues and priorities with mid- and long-term needs that drive toward monthly goal attainment. Skilled leaders know how to lead through adversity and know when to lead from the front and when to lead from the back. They understand the supreme importance of culture and are obsessed with the reality that none of our organizations exist without a frontline of dedicated and skilled employees.
There’s a reason why investors or lenders will spend just as much time evaluating your financial projections as they’ll spend time thoroughly vetting your organization’s management team. This person can quite literally make or break an organization. When undergoing the SBA (small business administration) loan process in 2020, my professional background and capacity to manage my business were intensely evaluated—more so than in most interviews I’ve ever been on. Their primary question was, “Why you? Why are you the best person to manage these operations?” You should be asking the same thing of any and all potential business partners or employees you plan to hire to run your business.
Be humble enough to ask yourself the same question: “Am I the right person to run a company?”
Operating a business and infusing creative thinking that births innovation and product pipelines may seem similar but require different competencies. Many people are surprised by the rigor and skillset it takes to run a company and eventually determine the role is better left to someone else. That realization is a powerful one and may alone save your company and/or set it up for a world of success.
There is no perfect system or blueprint to guarantee protection from external factors or altogether failure, but I’ve found that flexibility, building community, and selecting the best key players are three foundational areas that can help insulate a company from things outside of its control.
If we can control how nimble we are in our planning, we can adjust to trends or world events. You can control how you choose to build culture and community that attracts consumers in a way that encourages them to continue to choose your business.
You can control to whom you give keys to the city.
By focusing on the controllable factors as your standard of operating, you’ll remain more in control even when uncontrollable variables enter the equation.
Brittany Willis is a Fortune 500 Sales Leader turned franchise owner, consultant, and small business expert, who currently owns and operates multiple businesses located in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Brittany is the founder of Protégé to Pro, which offers career and small business guidance via digital courses and a podcast. Brittany‘s portfolio includes her PJ’s Coffee of New Orleans franchise location in North Dallas, which opened in 2021. A New Orleans native, Brittany’s family relocated to Dallas-Fort Worth following their evacuation during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Brittany went on to graduate from Vanderbilt University with Honors. While at Vanderbilt, Brittany founded and served as the first president of the Vanderbilt undergraduate chapter of the National Black MBA Association. In 2016, Brittany earned her Master of Business Administration from the University of Arkansas – Sam Walton Graduate School of Business. Brittany has more than a decade of Fortune 500 experience, successfully developing and managing corporate retail accounts valued at more than $300 million. She’s managed major corporate accounts with retail juggernauts, Walmart, Inc., Amazon and Target.
Brittany started her career in the Consumer Packaged Goods industry with Kraft Foods as one of eight college graduates to be selected into the 2010 Management Development Class. It was during her tenure with Keurig Dr Pepper, a leading coffee and beverage manufacturer within the Consumer Packaged Goods industry, when Brittany gained direct access and involvement to the coffee industry. By 2019, Brittany had completed certifications from the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) in Coffee Sensory, Green Coffee, Roasting, Brewing, & Barista Skills. This was the catalyst that resulted in Brittany making the active decision to complement years of success with managing Fortune 500 accounts into building her own business within an esteemed coffee franchise model.
Brittany is a proud member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. She currently resides in North Dallas with her beloved husband and their fur-baby. In addition to contributing to her local community as a small business owner, Brittany sits on the Board of Directors for the WaterTower Theatre, the Dallas Entrepreneur Center at Red Bird, and her residential Homeowners Association, serving as Treasurer. Brittany is also an active member of her local Chamber of Commerce and the Addison Midday Rotary Club.
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Opening a business during a pandemic will surely put your skills to the test.