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Pivoting in a pandemic: How COVID has opened doors for small business owners

Pivoting in a pandemic: How COVID has opened doors for small business owners

Our recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic starts and ends with business. In this blog series, we look at the different...

Our recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic starts and ends with business. In this blog series, we look at the different ways Canadian businesses have contributed to helping lead our recovery.

To say the past 16 months have been challenging for small businesses would be an understatement. 

When the first wave of COVID hit in March 2020, not only did business owners have to deal with the personal challenges of living through a pandemic, they also had to come to terms with the ever-changing health and safety standards, all while bringing in significantly less revenue. This difficult reality forced thousands of business owners into an unprecedented, all-encompassing transition. Almost overnight, they had to pivot from traditional and in-person transactions to digital and online methods in order to survive.

While the obstacles may have seemed insurmountable for many, there are numerous small businesses that have managed to survive. In fact, some have even thrived during this online transition by innovating, pivoting and adapting to their new circumstances. 

The pervasive uncertainty

Ginger Garner is the founder of Living Well Institute, a practice that teaches integrative lifestyle medicine and offers therapeutic yoga certification programs for medical professionals. She recalls the pervasive uncertainty that she, along with so many business owners, experienced in COVID’s early moments.

“I was in North Carolina, sitting in my home office wringing my hands because I knew that things were getting critical all of a sudden. I was scheduled to fly into San Jose to teach an extended four-day yoga course for licensed healthcare providers,” Garner explains.

“I remember being on that cross country flight when the whole world had shut down — it was very eerie. At that moment, I knew the way that I had done business for the previous 20 years was effectively dead. And so on that cross country flight, I crafted a plan to completely restructure everything.”

Vickie Boughen, co-founder of CG Masters School of 3D Animation & VFX, had a very similar drastic transition. 

“My business partner and I had been talking about doing a trial of these live online classes for about a year. And then all of a sudden it was like, ‘Wait a minute, everything is shutting down.’ So what went from being a trial, went to going live within a day.”

The silver lining

Despite the long list of challenges that came with pivoting their business models overnight, both Garner and Boughen have experienced new levels of personal and professional success as a result.

For Boughen, COVID opened up the door for various international business opportunities that never would’ve been at her disposal pre-pandemic.

“Because of COVID, we decided to put all of our training videos and live classes online, which is something that we wouldn’t have thought of doing before,” says Boughen.

“As a result, we’re currently training a studio in Hong Kong. As a business, we were able to pivot and start training professionals — a new market that we wouldn’t have gone for before. So this entire transition has been really great. It’s not huge in the sense that we’re making piles of money, but it’s huge for us in the sense of finding ways to continue to move forward until the onsite picks up again.” 

Garner explains that COVID allowed her to unlock a new level of productivity.

“COVID taught me to understand myself better. I love teaching in person, and sometimes, I would end up working 12 weeks in a row with little to no days off. That’s not really sustainable for anyone,” says Garner.

“COVID gave me permission to get insulated, to go inside, and to focus on what was most important for my business and my family. The new model that I had dreamed up on the airplane was to become more suitable than any other model I had practiced before. This new model taught me how to be more productive.”

The new reality

In going online, Boughen recognizes that the benefits of this transition extend far beyond her business.

“Overall, COVID has allowed for a lot more flexibility. It’s allowed people to be considered for local and international job opportunities who may not have been considered before because they didn’t live in proximity or in a large urban centre. So now there’s this trading of workers that didn’t exist before,” says Boughen.

“The whole industry has changed in its own way, and I think that it will never go back to the way things were because people are happier and they’re finding a better work-life balance.”

Garner agrees that it isn’t realistic to revert back to the old way of doing things post-pandemic.

“Once you’ve expanded your vision, you can’t stuff that back in the box. I truly believe that we’re not going to go back to the way things were. And I’m thankful for that because people who would not have been willing to learn online have now completely opened up to that possibility. It’s opened up an entirely new market that we wouldn’t have been able to reach and that needed help.”

The collective experience

Despite the many benefits of transitioning online, Garner realizes how daunting the process may seem for some business owners. However, she believes no obstacle should have the final word.

“Don’t doubt your gut instincts. If you’re in a profession where your mission has always been to help other people and empower them, make them believe they can. It will be hard to do it alone — you need a team, and even if it’s a small team on a shoestring budget, you can do it.”

Boughen echoes the importance of teamwork in an unprecedented time like this.

“We really couldn’t have made this pivot if we didn’t have everyone jump on board as well as they did — it’s a collaborative effort to make this possible. It’s not just me, it really is the team coming together.”

When reflecting on the past 16 months, it’s evident that it’s been anything but easy for business owners. Collectively, many businesses have been forced into survival mode with no end point in sight. However, in the most challenging of circumstances, business owners have been given the opportunity to reimagine their futures — ones defined by resilience and hope.

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