Turning that Frown Upside Down – Finding Opportunities in COVID-19

It was an honour to make a presentation as part of ECCB’s Financial Information Month on how we can continue to thrive despite current conditions.
Thank you to Ms Angela Estwick, Manager of the Montserrat office, the Department of Trade and ZJB Radio for providing the opportunity.
The following is an edited transcript. You can also listen to it below.

When I moved back to Montserrat in July 2009, I came home without a job lined up. Just me and my four children ranging in age from nine to four. I’d applied for the director of info post but up until that point I had no indication whether I would get it or not. I was blessed to get a short-term contract to help develop the government websites. It may have been around the end of August and I was walking out of MUL after having paid the bill and freaking out about how I was going to make it through September when I’d literally just spent my money on food, rent and electricity.
As I walked out to catch a bus, Mr. Galloway stopped in his car. He recognized me and asked about my parents. He then proceeded to tell me to take some. I looked down and he had a bucket filled with avocados. If I’d known then how precious avocados were, I would have taken more than the two or three I grabbed. But that moment filled me with a sense of confidence that my family and I would be provided for. It didn’t matter that I was out of money, I was living in a place of abundance. I claimed that abundance that day and I am declaring it for you right now.

You live in a place of abundance and you will see it and experience it, despite the current condition of your life, your business, and the world.

History has shown us that successful businesses are created during times of crisis. Netflix is having its best year yet. What began as movies by mail venture now allows us to sit in our home or on a bus and consume movies and TV shows from all over the world. I’m really getting into movies from South Korea, Turkey, and India. Zoom which was just another video conferencing platform before COVID is now the go-to space for meetings and events online.
Now eight months into COVID-19 and the talk has switched to fears of recession. A recession is when you have two successive quarters of economic decline. We have all tried to will the virus away, but the real implications are that further shutdowns will exacerbate current conditions. My prayer is that this will turn for our good and we will come out of it stronger and thriving.
We know how our island is able to continue to function albeit slower than we would like. However, we want and need more. Cuts in the government of any kind, means a ripple effect in the private sector.
I want to share some strategies on positioning yourself and your business for growth despite the times we live.
First thing I want you to know is you can change your mind. I want you to tell yourself out loud. I can change my mind.
Most of what we do, is what we have always done. The way we set up our business was how we saw someone else do it, what we learned in school or what we cobbled together…The make it up as you go along approach. The pandemic has shown that all of the systems we relied on are flawed and in many cases broken. The assumptions we made about how we make money and how others make money have been tested and found to be lacking.
I want you to tell yourself I can change my mind, every time you hear me say something that either makes you want to shout at the radio or you feel nervous and any kind of resistance to an idea that resonates with you or tests your beliefs and plans. Say out loud. I can change my mind. Let’s practice. I can change my mind.

You can change your mind

No more I’m not techie. I can change my mind. I don’t like sales. I can change my mind. Montserrat people won’t buy that. I can change my mind. I don’t have enough experience. I can change my mind.
We are bombarded with our mind filling in the blank every time we want to step out and try something new or different. Montserrat is now home to people from various countries and cultures. Your market is a lot more diverse than you believe. Maybe your ideal customer is not the average Montserratian. Maybe your ideal customer is from a particular economic bracket, culture and maybe they don’t even live on island. Be willing to let go of all of your preconceived ideas of how business works, what business you think you are running and search for new information that can show you options you have not considered before. Your mind is telling you that you invested a ton of money in building this place to do xyz. But is that the only kind of business that can operate there? You don’t need to have a personal attachment to your business. In that, it’s your life’s work. A business is an entity set up to generate revenue. You can have a successful business that is not a personal calling. You can change your mind.

Become Your Own Hero
We have a few go to excuses whenever we hit a block. We need more money from the UK. DFID didn’t give us what we asked for. We have been living under the shadow of a volcano and times are hard. Look around you. It’s hard for a lot of people right now the world over. We’ve run out of time to use the volcano as an excuse of why we haven’t improved our situation and changed the way we function. You don’t get a pass anymore. There are countries in worse situations than we are. We don’t have to look far to find them. Any country where their primary revenue is from tourism is having a tough time. Businesses which require foot traffic and are high touch are crying.
It is time to become your own hero. No one is coming to save you and put money in your pocket. What are you going to do to put it there? Adopting an approach of I can solve this. I am the superhero in my life shifts the energy from blame to problem solving. It’s no longer who you know who will open a door for you. It will be who you are and who you are ready to become to attract the customers and wealth you need. It’s a much more powerful place to live from. Knowing that you are in control of your own destiny.
Yes, it’s also scary because the buck stops with you. Out the window goes the idea that the politicians screwed things up. The person in the mirror looking at you has final say on what happens in your life. But guess what? When that life is the one you create and you can see the fruits of your labor, you get to keep the spoils as well, after taxes of course.

Do you have a business or a job? A business can run and generate income if you went on holiday. A job requires you to put in the work for revenue to come in. You work for yourself, but you are the sole income earner.

Whichever is your position, this is the time to take a hard look at it. The good, the bad, the stuff that you keep in the drawer or shoe box that you have not looked at for years. Take inventory/look at your numbers. What actually sold? What isn’t moving off the shelves? How many things in the shop have been there for longer than six months? How is your cash flow? What is the state of your receivables and expenses? You need to have intimate knowledge of your numbers so you can make better decisions.
This is one area where I have had to tell myself I can change my mind. I didn’t like math in school and was never great at it or so I thought. I eventually got better when I had no choice but to pass it. However, as it related to business, I used to think numbers were boring and complicated. But how do you stay in business if you don’t know what you are working with?
This is the time to make informed decisions about your business. All aspects of it.
Conduct surveys. You can do this whether you are a retail or service-based business. What do your customers like? What would they like to see you improve? Not every idea needs to be pursued. Which ones fit within the core assessment you have done of where your business is at and what needs to be the focus? Don’t ask a couple of your closest friends for feedback. Ask the average customer who walks into your store or you deliver a service for.
We often say Montserrat people don’t want to pay that or “people say I should start making roti”. You’re a Chinese restaurant. Why are you making roti? One person telling you to change your menu is not a good reason to do it. Find out what most of your customers want. Do they want you to start making roti or would they prefer you rather improve your chicken fried rice or put less salt in the food? I am using Chinese food on purpose as we don’t currently have a restaurant like that here. But adapt it to whatever it is you serve or the business you are in.
It’s easy sometimes to add something new. We can run off and say “yeah, we are now adding roti to the menu.” It feeds that part of us that likes starting something new and making progress, but the real work is in our ability to maintain and improve what we already have.
So do a deep dive into your business and assess where it is at. Get feedback from your customers. Their opinions are what matter. Just because you like it with the salt, recognize that they have stopped buying it or they tend to leave much of it on the plate. There’s a reason for that. Find out what it is and work to resolve it.
We saw during the lockdown how some supermarkets took the opportunity to create new ways for customers to place orders and manage deliveries to reduce exposure. What can you put in place so if another lockdown is required, you can continue to serve your customers? This is the time to work out what those systems will be and what is required of you and your team to execute it.

Make cuts

You’ve looked at your numbers and now you should have a better idea of where you are spending it. How much of your expenses is because of what you’ve always done? Is it still necessary? Can you reduce the amount of paper you purchase? Can you send invoices by email vs paper ones? Montserrat passed the electronic transactions act more than ten years ago. Emails are a legitimate communication and transaction process. Use it.
How about reducing your electricity bill by switching to energy saving bulbs? Is the staffing capacity you have necessary? You’ve looked at your data and you’ve seen the projections. What do you need to cut so you don’t go under? Letting off staff is never an easy decision but if it will allow you to pull through the current circumstances then consider it. If you are committed to keeping all your staff, what other cuts will you have to make to ensure everyone can remain employed? The cuts need to happen somewhere.
A side note to employees. Your boss is not obligated to keep you employed. How are you adding value to the company right now? This is the time to shift how you deliver for your boss to ensure you’re the last person they want to cut because you are contributing to the growth of the business. Invest in classes, take on a task that used to belong to someone else and show that you are a team player.
I want to pause for a moment and remind you the world is abundant. The late Dr Myles Munroe would say the wealth hasn’t left the planet. It is still here. It just is not in circulation in your environment, but it is working somewhere else. The goal must be to attract that money back into your space. If the world is abundant and the wealth has not disappeared into a black hole, then I must believe it is available for me to have and for you as well. I must believe there is enough for all of us to have. If I have my business over here and I want to be the only one with wealth, I won’t be in business too long. Because I need you to have wealth as well to come into my restaurant and eat, or to purchase groceries and other goods for your family. So rather than be jealous or upset with someone who may seem to be doing better than you, rejoice with them because it is a sign that wealth is increasing and there is more opportunity for you to gain it as well.
Your mind is giving you that yeah but Montserrat people blah blah blah. Remember I Can Change My Mind. You can change your mind about what you believe about others and do the work to bring that belief into how you serve and do business.

Collaborate

If you have a large retail space could you rent out a spot/kiosk to a small entrepreneur who needs the traffic but can’t afford the high cost of rent? Both can benefit. You now have help with your rent. An entrepreneur with marketing savvy can help bring traffic into your store and vice versa. Find people you can work with. Join forces to rent a space or purchase equipment. I heard recently of a couple of entrepreneurs right here who teamed up to purchase a piece of expensive equipment. They both are in the same business but couldn’t independently afford the equipment. Also, it is of such that it needs consistent use to remain viable. They worked out a way to acquire it together and both can use.
Make clear agreements on purchase, repairs. Replacement. In the case of renting space, have contracts that are fair to both parties and everyone should commit to honoring the agreements. I know we have heard old sayings like partnership is leaky ship but remember You can change your mind. You can choose to have a new mindset centered on collaboration not competition.

Focus

Back in the 80s, my first real job after high school on St. Maarten was at a landscaping and garden center company. My job was to assist with billing and we often handled large landscaping jobs with hotels, other commercial businesses, and private villas. I always remember this one man who would give me a blank check that I would have to fill in once the project was completed. The checks were always written closer to 100,000 than ten thousand. One day my boss asked me if I knew how the man made his money. He told me that the man made a car part. His company produced millions of the nuts that went with a bolt. He didn’t make the nut and bolt, just millions and millions of nuts. We can’t serve everyone, and you don’t need to. You can serve the customers who need what you provide better than anyone else. Serve them religiously and exceptionally and they will become your biggest salesforce and champions.
For consultants or people in the service industry, what are you known for? What do you want to be known for? What do you need to do to establish yourself as an expert in this area? If I said my car needs some body work, you want to be the first person everyone thinks to recommend to me. What would you need to do, to become the top bodywork mechanic on the island? The top chef, the top sales agent, the top hair salon.
We have a saying, the riches are in niches. Stop trying to be a jack of all trades or offering services and products that only one or two people want. Focus on what makes you unique and exceptional. If you must make cuts, cut away the things that are taking away time and resources from you being able to stand out in the marketplace. Look at added value opportunities that you can offer to your customer base.
We fear that if people leave the shop without buying something that we will go under. It is quite alright to recommend they try another business or service that you know specializes in that area.
Let’s consider this example of diving into your niche.
I love a good roti. My children and I disagree on who makes a good roti.
Let’s say for example you have run the numbers and you see that nothing else in your shop sells but roti. The data is there. It doesn’t matter that you sell fried chicken, patties, saltfish, fried fungi, you name it. All that really sells is roti and at the end of the day you find yourself giving away or throwing away food.
You have two choices, either spend more money trying to entice new customers to come and buy your saltfish and fungi or focus on what is working and do more of it.
In this marketplace we think we have to serve everyone. Everyone is not your customer. In fact, I know who makes a better fried chicken than you and go over there for that. But when I want roti I come here.
Let’s say my financial goal for the year is to make 100,000 with selling roti.

So hungry after writing this. Photo source: LoopTT

If I sold each roti at $12 then I would need to sell 8333 rotis every year to hit my goal.
This equates to 694 rotis I need to sell each month, 174 a week or 35 of them each day, if I was open five days a week only.
You have your data. The data you reviewed earlier showed that you only sell 15 rotis a day. You would need to increase sales by 20 rotis daily to hit your annual goal.
In the current market the forecast is not for increase. And a lockdown will make those 15 a day sales disappear.
Here are a couple options for how you can serve those roti customers and gain some new ones.

  1. Sell a variety of roti. So not just chicken but, saltfish, shrimp. Is there such a thing as a vegan roti? But still those all require people to walk into your shop.
  2. Consider making, packaging and selling the roti flour mix. Maybe a gluten-free version as well.
  3. Offer online roti making classes which you sell. They order your mix and then you walk them through it step by step. You can either teach the classes live or have them prerecorded and available so people can take the class whenever they wish. You get paid every time someone takes the class or orders your roti flour mix.
  4. Not only the flour mix is important to a good roti but the contents. The right mix of curry and whatever those other ingredients are is also unique to every roti maker. You can prepackage your blend and sell that as well.
  5. Pre-made roti skins that I can pick up at the supermarket or order in advance.

So you now have a few different ways to sell to your roti customers and going digital means you are not limited to only the people who can walk in your store.
Consider this for any business you have. What ways can you use digital experiences to enhance your business and keep and attract new customers? Farmers, hair salons, dressmakers can do this same thing. Look at added value experiences you can offer your customers.

Market Yourself and Your Business

If I were to ask you how much money is in your marketing budget, what would your answer be?
I’m in the marketing business and I know it is usually the first thing that gets cut whenever people go through tough times. Social media also makes us believe that all we need to do is post something and everyone will know about it. It takes a bit more work than that. It also is no way as easy as it was 10 years ago to gain attention online.
Marketing requires you to be clear on who you need to reach and what is the message you want them to receive. Create a message based on the platform you are using and your ideal customer.
But this is the time you need to market. And marketing is more than an ad or a flyer. It is how you operate. If I call and no one ever picks up the phone or I walk into the shop and your staff is frowning, this is a clear indication I should take my business elsewhere. We do business with people we know, like and trust. Show some warmth, be welcoming. You are in business to serve your customers and it should be a pleasure for you to do it. Answer the phone and return emails. Over the years, I have found many Montserratian businesses and even government offices have a dismal track record with emails. Add an autoresponder that tells me you will get back to me in x time. As a nation that relies on foreign revenue to sustain us, we must do better at communicating. It isn’t a stretch right now for people to go elsewhere. We’ve got to beat out the competition on service and our ability to deliver for our customers. You can have a fancy logo but if your staff is miserable and communication is poor, any promotional effort you make will have poor results.

So what of the opportunities from COVID-19?

The opportunities are found in what you already do. Refining your processes, eliminating excess, retraining yourself and your team to be better at service delivery. Finding ways to create digital experiences for your customers to continue to work with you.

The times we are in calls for curiosity and agility.
Your business data and customer and employee feedback will help you to investigate what is the true state of your business.
Once you know the details, you need to have a strategy for how you will pivot and how quickly you can do so.

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