10 tips for businesses to manage the impact of COVID-19 by Brody Sweeney

Brody Sweeney, the founder of the Camile Thai Kitchen franchise.

Far too many businesses, both franchised and not, have found the ground torn from under them as the pandemic took hold. If you are one of those finding it hard, I’m setting out some ideas based on how we have been managing the pandemic.

We have been incredibly fortunate, despite the trauma experienced by the restaurant industry at large. Camile Thai began the pandemic with a 30 per cent hit to our sales – and we needed to find a way out of it. Through some hard work and clever thinking, we made it work. 

1. Have an opportunity brainstorm
In the immediate aftermath of the lockdown, a kind of shock pervaded the business world, and many were paralysed into inaction. But not everyone.

Some entrepreneurs have put their heads up, to think about what new business opportunities are presenting themselves. Every crisis gives rise to opportunity, and it’s possible your business could pivot into a new direction which didn’t exist before.

Restaurants that never did takeaway before are doing takeaway now. Pubs delivering pints out of vans with beer taps fitted. Wine distributors selling cases to the home instead of to their restaurant clients. Get together with your team (if your business is really small, invite in some friends and colleagues) and brainstorm how you could change direction into a temporary or permanent new direction.

We then tested our new ideas as quickly as we could. This is a time for MVP’s – Minimum Viable Products – where you can get a prototype out to real customers before getting it perfect. The guys who put the beer taps into the back of the van didn’t wait around to conduct research, or design the perfect looking van – they just got it out there, and got immediate feedback.

2. Be absolutely honest with yourself. Consider going into receivership and starting again
Absolute honesty is necessary if you are to survive the next period. Avoid wishful thinking and hoping yourself into a better position. I read last week about one of our role model businesses in the UK, Pret a Manger, who have reopened and are doing only 20 per cent of the sales they were doing prior to lockdown. ‘Pret’ needs to have a very honest look at their business, because no amount of wishful thinking is going to bring customers back before they are ready. 

One unpalatable option is receivership. If your situation is so terrible that it can’t be turned around, it maybe better to bite the bullet and start again, than to flog a dead horse.

You know best your own business. And as the old adage says, you can fool other people for a while, but you can’t fool yourself.

3. Make a one year plan
It is all about the next 12 months. Survival. So why might you have long or medium term aspirations, if you don’t exist in 12 months time, they’re all academic.

Make a plan for the four key areas of your business – in fact the four key areas for all businesses – Finance, Marketing, Operations, People.

We know before you start the plan, that it won’t work out exactly, but that doesn’t matter. As you execute your plan and an aspect isn’t working, change it. Then change it again, and keep changing it until you get it right.

4. Where you can, cut costs immediately
Preserving cash is the only way you can survive until things improve. Defer payments immediately if not already done so – you can figure out later how to pay the deferred amount back. The point here is that if your business is down, and you pay all your bills as due, you might not survive. Contracts across the business world will have to be renegotiated. You’re not alone bending your contracts now – if that’s what it takes to survive.

Cut any discretionary expenditure that you can. Subscriptions, consultancy, travel, bonuses etc. should all be up for grabs.

5. Commmunicate, communicate, communicate
Keeping in close touch with all your stakeholders is not only the right thing to do, but it makes good business sense as well. When you’re not able to have face to face meetings in person, then video calls have been a godsend. I personally never made a video call before the crisis, and now I’m never off them.

On the suggestion of Daniel, our Head of Marketing, our leadership team commenced daily morning video calls, and we have stuck religiously to this since then. I feel we’ve never communicated better as a team, and we have decided to keep this communication up as the crisis subsides, fingers crossed!

We’ve also made special efforts to keep in touch with the rest of our teams, including all hands video meetings and regular staff updates about what’s happening in the business. And the results of all this communication? Less misunderstandings, less stress for our teams, and a better team spirit – all these are so worth having.

6. Keep perspective and ask for help
For one of the few times in my business career, most businesses in my industry of hospitality are in trouble at the moment. You’re not alone.

Trying to figure out what to do when something like this hasn’t happened before is really hard. This is the time to call in favours, and lean on others you respect and admire for help and support. We have made a point of reaching out to businesses to support others in our industry at what we know is an awful time for them. And we’re not alone. The spirit of help and camaraderie from notional competitors across the business community is inspiring.

I know, from bitter experience, when you’re in the shit, it’s hard to keep a sense of perspective. And when you don’t have a sense of perspective, you can end up making poor quality decisions. Talking to other industries, to people who are not emotionally involved in yours, can help you stand back, and look critically at where you’re at and where you are going.

7. Mind yourself and those around you
I’ve never worked harder in my life than during the pandemic. The lines between working and home life become ever more blurred. Finding the mental space or time to look after yourself both physically and mentally, go out the window.

But looking after yourself is a critical element of fixing your business. If you are crushed physically or emotionally, you don’t make good decisions. Your business requires you to look after yourself.

Personal relationships can fall victim to your stress and add even more stress on. Minding those around you, who are dealing with their own issues, is expected. When you are there for them – you feel better about yourself as well.

8. Celebrate the little wins
There’s enough bad news and uncertainty out there to last a lifetime. So celebrating little wins is a welcome antidote to the negativity that surrounds us at the moment.

9. Lead from the front
This is not a time to be a shrinking violet. Even though your world may be full of uncertainty and stress, your team is depending on you to give clear direction. Put on the brave face, put yourself in their shoes – understanding their fears and uncertainties, and give them a sense of a compelling future.

10. Remember the lessons you’ve learned from this period – they will come in handy again
There’s no escaping that this is an awful time for a lot of people in business. You can’t control many aspects of the external environment, but that doesn’t mean you should be paralysed by indecision or lack of leadership. Put on a brave face and work hard for solutions. Making difficult decisions and innovating your way out of trouble are the qualities that will set you apart from the herd. And that is a quality that will never stop being useful to you.