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Seven SME lessons from a tough year

Businesses that found themselves deepest into their comfort zones had the most trouble adapting to the crisis.
Image: Shutterstock

If your business has made it this far, congratulations! You have likely survived one of the biggest collective economic crises of our generation. As we approach the end of a year that can only be described as ‘unprecedented’, it is important to reflect on the lessons that business owners can learn from it, and how best to implement effective strategies for the year ahead, based on these insights.

While it’s been an incredibly difficult period for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) – many of our clients included – this past year has also provided invaluable insight into why some businesses proved more resilient than others, even within the same industry and region. Here are my seven greatest SME lessons from 2020.

  • Check your information sources

In the fog of the crisis, reliable information became vital to business survival. Business owners who had cultivated solid sources of information, such as news organisations, business associations and carefully-selected individuals within their networks, were able to withstand the considerable misinformation polluting social media this year. This, in turn, enabled calm and accurate planning. In contrast, many business owners who lacked good information were prone to panic decisions and paralysis.

Business owners with access to reliable sources of information were also well-positioned to identify new business opportunities arising from the pandemic.

  • Beware of comfort zones

The pandemic has proven that nothing is absolutely certain. Businesses that found themselves deepest into their comfort zones had the most trouble adapting to the crisis. This does not mean that business owners must live in constant fear of calamity, but rather that a minimum level of awareness and readiness for unexpected setbacks is healthy.

In addition to this, businesses with basic contingency plans have proven to be much more robust than those without.

  • Adapt or die

How fast a business could adapt – whether it was to working from home, new forms of client interaction, introducing different products or services, or even alternative marketing avenues – was key to its survival. Agility is a function of mindset, business culture, planning and information sourcing, and is equally as important for spotting new opportunities, as it is for weathering crises.

  • Promote sound leadership

Businesses with strong leadership coped much better than those adrift on the stormy sea. Leadership includes having a clear and agile strategy, good communication and execution of the strategy throughout the whole organisation, decisive decision-making and the building of a strong team around the strategy. An important part of crisis leadership is setting a tone of calm – not to be confused with complacency – in order to avoid panic and despair.

  • Stay abreast of technology

As lockdown hit, any lack of investment in information technology was sorely felt by businesses.  In contrast, business owners with well-developed IT infrastructure found it relatively easy to adapt to work-from-home practices and remote communication with clients, avoiding a potential scramble to set up modern systems and train staff to use them.

  • Compliance, compliance, compliance

From your financial information to tax compliance and staff employment contracts, it is important to keep everything in order and up to date. Having this information readily available allows your business to apply for support and finance without delays, as both private and government financiers require this information before offering any support.

  • Contingency resources are key

If ever there was a time to dip into a rainy-day fund, it’s now. The importance of contingency planning is closely linked to the lesson around being ready for unexpected setbacks. This goes beyond just having an emergency fund – it can include an emergency line of credit and a good relationship with potential investors.

Jeremy Lang is regional general manager at Business Partners Limited.

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