Do you have it? Can you find it? Does it exist? These were the questions I recently asked of local business owners through 20 discussions in one on one interviews and focus groups about how local business is doing in year three of the pandemic. There were other questions of course. How did you pivot? What did you learn? What will you continue doing assuming there is even an end to the pandemic.
In several conversations we explored the word pivot. Some owners answered the pivot question rather straightforwardly. But for some, it is an inadequate word. “What does that even mean? To pivot? Sounds like a smooth dance move and not a fight for the life of my business.” “No we did not pivot. We struggled, cried, fought, scraped and clawed our way to the tiniest glimmer of light.” I quit using the word halfway through the interviews. It did sound too trite.
These questions revealed more about the nature of a local business entrepreneur than their technical answers. We’re a resourceful and resilient bunch. Entrepreneurs are, by nature, optimists. You have to be or you’d never strike out into the sometimes madness of small business ownership. The belief that we can create something of value, that we can build a manifestation of our dreams, that we can engage our communities in the act of providing what you need and want, carries us through hardships and easy streets alike. What is an easy street some ask—many entrepreneurs have never seen such a thing!
I watched, first in horror, then with great admiration, local businesses reinvent themselves in a span of less than a month. It wasn’t easy but so very many pulled up their “make it happen” spirit and, well, made it happen. Brilliance emerged from desperation. In the interviews, traversing the road they were on when Covid ran over them, came cries of loss, sighs of exhaustion and a shadow of hope.
Most that I spoke to received PPP loans that were forgiven. This was one government program that while not perfect, was a life saver. Many businesses used the time to create new systems, build new e-commerce websites, improve communication channels, remodel and more. We’ve never had a national time out before and many used it well. Those that could keep some paychecks and the rent paid. Many could not.
While all these questions led to interesting, real discussions, my favorite was the last question: Do you have hope? If you were to read a transcript, you would see a mostly consistent answer of yes. But what no survey can capture were the eyes that were saying ‘not much’ while the lips were saying yes. The optimistic entrepreneur said yes, of course, what else is there? But the hesitation of that answer spoke volumes.
The cost of that answer could be seen in their eyes. Weary, unsure, damaged in some, the eyes told the painful truth. Yes, we have hope but this has cost us dearly and not only in lost income. We grieve for our fellow local businesses that didn’t make it. We grieve for our business families split apart. We grieve for our customers who have also suffered. And yet the answer was yes, we have hope. We will rise from this and be stronger, more resilient, more resourceful. And yes, we will thrive!
Support and share that hope by shopping locally. Together we can rebuild a new, locally sustainable economy if you do your part.