Taking Your Business Online During The COVID-19 Pandemic
This is not a sales pitch. I've spent 12 years trying to help small businesses, just like my own, thrive by providing websites, IT support, bespoke software and marketing ideas. Coronavirus looks set to cause a dramatic financial impact on top of the emotional turmoil which many are already experiencing.
Under these unusual circumstances I want to try and help as many as possible navigate the rocky terrain of small business. I'm going to give some practical tips and suggestions for those who normally rely on face to face interaction with customers. Not all of these will work for everyone, but some may be helpful so have a scan down the list and if anything seems appropriate and achievable for you, in your circumstances then why not give it a try?
This list is a work in progress. I will update it as I have new ideas or see good ideas implemented elsewhere.
Last update: 18th March 2020
Firstly, here are some top tips:
- Avoid unnecessary meetings
- Recommend working from home where possible
- Trust your colleagues and/or employees
- DON'T send an email without good reason - if people are already stressed an ever-increasing inbox will only add to their anxiety
Tools for Running a Team Online
Google Docs is free to use. Make use of collaborative shared documents. Import from Word, Excel and Powerpoint. Make notes, share feedback, access from any device. Get started at https://docs.google.com.
Monday.com is a project management and organisational for teams. I use it every day to manage my work and keep other team members informed about what's going on, timescales, deadlines and so on. It isn't particularly cheap, but it is very good. Check it out at https://monday.com.
Dropbox and Dropbox Paper
Share files across multiple devices, great for those who need to keep up to date versions of things at home and at the office. Dropbox Paper is a new addition to their suite of tools, providing collaborative documents which teams can share - great if you need to keep people informed about stuff and also want to include relevant files and documents for your particular systems and processes. https://dropbox.com.
Notion.so is another collaboration and team organisation tool - they aim to be a kind of 'one stop shop', encompassing elements of Google Docs, Monday.com, Dropbox all in one neat and tidy system. I'm yet to try it, but it is highly regarded amongst those who have implemented it in their businesses. Have a look at https://notion.so.
Video Conferencing and Broadcast
Free video conferencing tool from Google. You can call multiple people using voice and/or video calling. Works on desktop, laptop, tablet and phone. Pretty reliable and easy to get started with. Have a look at https://hangouts.google.com.
Skype still holds it's own in the world of video conferencing. Now owned by Microsoft. You need to install the software on your computer, but that's straight forward. Head to https://skype.com.
A relatively new kid on the block, Zoom makes video conferencing with multiple people easy and also includes easy to use tools for presenting from your screen (for training etc) as well as remote support so you can take over control over another person's computer remotely if required (for IT support, for example). Go to https://zoom.us for details.
Pre-record and publish to YouTube, or broadcast live (which can then be played back later). If you need to deliver training, share news and information with a team and keep a copy for later, or need to get your message out to an unknown audience (i.e. outside of a specific team) then perhaps https://youtube.com is the way to go.
PayPal & PayPal.me
There's really no need to be handling cheques and cash in this day and age. Request specific payments simply via PayPal or setup PayPal.me which gives you a unique URL through which your clients can pay you any figure they wish which can be a great way to get paid small amounts or even take tips or donations online. Set it up at https://paypal.me.
Manage your company finances online, create invoices, check what's owed to you, import receipts, get live data from your bank directly in your XERO dashboard and make your accountant's life much easier all round. I use this and it's worth every penny. https://xero.com.
Like PayPal - request payments via BACS and you don't have to handle cash or go to the bank. Simple.
Get a contactless card reader starting from just a few pounds and then pay a small transaction fee every time you make a contactless sale. A small price to pay for not having to handle cash, go to the bank and take payments on the go. Pairs with a mobile phone. Go to https://squareup.com for more information.
Publishing and Printing
If you produce written or spoken content and want an easy way to publish your work in a physical format (rather than just online) then Blurb is a good place to start. They used to just to photo books, but now you can easily publish written works with a variety of paper and print qualities and sizes available. You can order physical copies to sell yourself, as well as selling via their Marketplace, giving you access to a larger audience than you might have otherwise. Go to https://blurb.com for more information.
I've used Solopress for printing for a number of years. Their online proofing tools and quick turnaround make life easy and they offer a wide range of products. If you're looking to publish a short book, a pamphlet of some kind, or perhaps a work of graphic design like a map of walks then they're definitely worth checking out. https://solopress.com.
Save trees and go digital. Create and sell your eBook directly through Amazon using their KDP programme. Go to https://kdp.amazon.com/en_US/h... for more details about this. They make it as straight forward as possible, and I believe it's possible to convert a Word document to an eBook automatically, which should make publishing an eBook quite straightforward.
If your work revolves around spoken word why not setup a podcast using https://anchor.fm? You can record your podcast directly into their app ony your phone and edit it using their tools. They provide free podcast hosting and you can even charge for access to your podcast, making it the perfect choice for those who rely on financial earnings from their spoken words.
These options are focussed on speed - you can get set up and start selling quickly, potentially helping to ward off a downturn in physical sales. If you want to add a bespoke online store to your existing website then there are better options, but they will cost money and take more time.
Big Cartel is an online shopping solution for small businesses - particularly aimed at artists and makers of things. You can get started for free and the monthly cost for the paid-for plans are good value. They provide free templates and you can link it to your PayPal or Stripe accounts for online payments. If you sell stuff you've made it's definitely worth checking them out at https://bigcartel.com.
If you're going for bulk, or sell things like antiques or second hand items then https://eBay.co.uk could be the way to go.
Likewise, https://amazon.com may make good commercial sense if you're selling something - though possible only for those who can offer really competitive pricing. More information here https://services.amazon.co.uk/...
Ideas for Small Businesses
What can you sell online? If you're a retailer of physical and non-perishable products which people are still going to want to buy even if they can visit you in person how can you setup online quickly and let your clients know? I'd recommend taking a look at one of the Selling options above and then use social media and your website to direct traffic through to your online store. You can use the Post Office website to produce and pay for your postage online, meaning you don't have to stand in a queue at the post office. Or, you could have a look at couriers like UKMail or DPD and explore the collection options available to you, further reducing unnecessary interaction with potentially infectious humans.
Stop taking cash. There's really no need. Get a Square Payments card reader (see above) or use PayPal if you don't take payments in person. Reduce handling of cash, reduce time spent in queues at the bank or touch cash machines and so on.
Can you offer a subscription for your goods or services? If you offer something that people need repeatedly, why not offer some kind of subscription service. Make your offer really simple to understand and offer a decent reduction in price for an ongoing subscription and you may well find people go for it. Subscriptions and repeat payments will also help smooth your cash flow and help you plan your finances a little easier in the long term.
You may not want to sell online, but can you offer a home delivery service of another kind? Take orders by phone or email. Take payments via PayPal. Work out your delivery charges and delivery area. This could work well for small food shops like health food stores and delicatessens who can't really ship food in the post but can drop it off on someone's doorstep.
Food and Drink
As people are unable to or less inclined to eat in cafes and restaurants consider how you might be able to offer a take away or home delivery alternative through your website or social media. Of course, this too may have to be limited at some point and it is absolutely vital that cafes, restaurants and bars do all they can to limit any spread of infection by following health and safety guidance and keeping everything spotlessly clean.
UPDATE: Here is the official Government guidance on trading as a take-away https://www.gov.uk/government/...
Attractions and Activities
Work Within Any Constraints
This is a serious situation and as much as we want to protect our businesses and continue to provide for our families we should not do that at the expense of the health of our fellow citizens. If and when constraints are placed on sizes of groups which can meet together, or locations in which it is acceptable or not, PLEASE follow the guidance. But, be thinking ahead. How could you operate if severed restrictions were placed on travel, where people can congregate or how many people can meet together as one group. How can you change what you offer to work within these constraints? How can you ensure the safety of your clients?
Don't Take Risks With Peoples' Health
As above, don't take risks. It is more important to protect the health of the vulnerable than to protect our bottom lines. Here in Whitby it's easy to feel like we're not affected by what goes on the other side of the North York Moors. But this not the case, we are just as at risk as any other community and must act accordingly. We are not immune.
Take Your Business Outside
Can you take your business outside? If you normally operate within a room, providing training or professional services, can you operate in a different way? We are not short of outside space here in Whitby - we have the beach, the moors, the Esk Valley. Can you think creatively about how you could operate in a way which will allow people to remain a safe distance from one another and avoid putting people together unnecessarily?
Put Your Business Online
What aspects of your existing business would still work online? Or, how can you adapt what you offer so that people can access your goods or services from their own homes? There are plenty of options for providing access to information, training and services online - with or without payment - but it may require a radical re-think of what you offer in order to come up with a plan which is viable.
Make Use of Online Video and Audio
Get setup with some kind of video conferencing system. Work out how you can run meetings, interviews, music lessons, counselling sessions or whatever else it might be remotely. If you do it now and begin offering it as soon as possible there will be less of a shock if restrictions are placed on travel or meeting together in a few weeks time.
Invest in Remote Support and Training Tools
Ensure your IT support staff can access your systems remotely and that you have robust backup solutions and file storage solutions in place. Take a look at some of the tools at the top of the page and see if any might work for your business. Work effectively as a remote team will mean ensuring information can be easily accessed by those who need it - do you current systems allow for this or do you need to make some adjustments?
Travel and Accommodation
You will likely have the hardest job over the coming months. What can you do to mitigate the effects of Coronavirus on your business as people are unable to travel?
Be Flexible and Generous
Refunds will be requested and yes, people should have travel insurance. But if they don't then be generous. It's not the individual's fault and people are rightly going to be increasingly nervous about staying in holiday accommodation. Can you postpone trips? Can you offer more generous refunds than normal to those who ask, whilst ensuring you can continue to operate a viable business? Those who have booked holidays may well be facing financial difficulties themselves, so be lenient and give people the benefit of the doubt. If you are continuing to take payments, or your guests are contractually obliged to pay, can you spread the payments by offering some kind of credit so that balances can be paid of in instalments over a longer period?
Think About the Long Term
This pandemic will end and when it does people will travel again. You want to make sure you're still around when things get better, so plan for the long term. Do what you need to do to keep your business operational, but keep your eye on the future. This may well mean short term pain for long term gain - people will remember the businesses who acted with compassion during a difficult a stressful time for many.
Here are some books which may help you adapt. Some are free or discounted as a result of the Coronoavirus outbreak, others are not but are definitely worth a read.
Mastering Freelance by Anton Sten