It's sink or swim

Should Small Businesses Shutter—or Soldier On?

Weighing the downsides of closing business versus revenue loss, layoffs, insolvency, and coronavirus exposure.

On March 16, Denver, Colorado announced all eateries must switch to serving only take-out and delivery amid the coronavirus outbreak, following a domino-effect of similar policies enacted across the country.

“It was like watching the entire restaurant industry just collapse in a single minute,” says Erika Thomas, chef-owner of High Point Creamery in Denver. Her award-winning ice cream business has seen scoop sales drop by 70 percent and she expects overall revenue to plummet by 65 to 70 percent over the next three months. And yet, despite the drastic drop, Thomas has no plans to shut down.

“I’m going to do anything I can think of to keep us open,” Thomas tells Supermaker. “I have 40 employees and about half are full time or [work over] 30 hours a week and I’m going to fight for them. I’m going to fight to keep them in place until it’s just rendered impossible.”

‘Most businesses won’t last two or three weeks’

Small businesses across the country are grappling with how to move forward in a time where their industries are rapidly losing sales. Like High Point Creamery, some shops remain open, while others have made the tough decision to shut their doors. TeaPop, a trendy teahouse in Los Angeles, closed indefinitely on March 20 after both the city’s mayor and California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered residents to stay at home. TeaPop’s founder and owner, Arlene Yuan, shut the café’s doors for the health and safety of her employees and customers.

“What’s my worst-case scenario? Is it losing business for two weeks or is it having one of my staff or customers get sick?” Yuan tells Supermaker in a phone call. “If they got sick...that would be on me.”

The advice from lawmakers and public health officials to socially distance has forced the food and beverage industry to restructure their business models, which has been particularly trying for businesses like TeaPop. “It’s like that ‘Cheers’ bar, tavern vibe where you come in and chit chat with everybody,” Yuan says. TeaPop’s foundation is built on community with long, wooden tables beckoning conversation and collaboration and a patio draped in string lights for intimate live performances. The atmosphere isn’t meant for people to stand six feet apart from each other. For now, TeaPop is only taking online orders—selling do-it-yourself bubble tea kits, merchandise, and loose-leaf tea.

“What’s my worst-case scenario? Is it losing business for two weeks or is it having one of my staff or customers get sick? If they got sick...that would be on me.”

“I’m just making sure we stay active on social media… and people still know that we’re here,” Yuan says. The entrepreneur doesn’t want to reopen until she understands how to conduct business that isn’t in a “gray area.” Yet between paying back deferred rent and dealing with lost income, Yuan’s not even sure she’ll have enough cash flow to reopen when it’s safe to do so.

For many who don’t own a business, it can be difficult to wrap your head around what some of these decisions look like on the ground. But the reality is that small businesses often don’t have enough funds to handle a severe financial crisis. Most of the public assumes businesses have more cash in reserve than they actually do, says Stephen Green, an economist and Director of Operations at Pensole Academy. “I’ve heard some people say that a lot of businesses won’t last two or three months of this,” Green says. “But the reality is most businesses won’t be able to last two or three weeks.”

Should you save your business or just shut down?

As some independent businesses vow to stay open and others halt production, Melissa Schulman, founder and owner of Yoga-urt, an organic, vegan frozen yogurt shop in L.A., wrestles with how she should proceed every day. “I really don’t know what the right answer is. I try to think about my team members, my customers, think about what’s best for Yoga-urt,” Schulman tells Supermaker in a phone conversation. “Every small business owner is struggling with this question.”

Deciding on whether to save a business on the brink of decline or call it quits often boils down to our own emotional connections. “People really need to do their cost accounting, but they also need to be aware of their cognitive biases,” Siri Terjesen, a business professor at Florida Atlantic University, says. “And one bias we have is we want to hold onto everything when sometimes it’s better to just let go.”

But letting go hasn’t been easy for Schulman. “I cried pretty much the whole weekend and thought, ‘Oh my God, this has been like nine years of my life, my whole savings, my 401(k), I’ve given it everything that I have and I’m going to lose it.’”

In deciding whether to save or scrap a business, economists agree that it really depends on the industry. David Audretsch, an economics professor at Indiana University, says the decision should rest on how long this crisis lasts and the proportion of a business’s fixed, sunk, and variable costs.

“I cried pretty much the whole weekend and thought, ‘Oh my God, this has been like nine years of my life, my whole savings, my 401(k), I’ve given it everything that I have and I’m going to lose it.’”

“If you need key talent, then you should think about staying in business. But if you’ve got the kind of business where employees are more interchangeable, then shut it down.” Audretsch notes that it doesn’t make sense to close up shop if the disruption is just for a few weeks. But if the crisis extends for months, then business owners should consider shutting down if they have more variable costs. If costs are more fixed, like brand reputation, then Audretsch advises to think carefully. Yet shuttering doors is never an easy decision to make—not just because of profits but because of the people it affects.

“At the end of the day these businesses are really built around people, where you can’t quantify the impact of being a boss and having to let go of an employee,” Green says. “When I’m talking to founders, employees are first and foremost the biggest thing on their minds.”

And that’s exactly what’s at the heart of Uli Nasibova’s decision-making. While her L.A. gelato shop, Gelateria Uli, is closed, she’s still paying her staff and doesn’t want to lay them off out of concern her employees won’t get enough from unemployment. “I might lose my business but my employees are going to be at the poverty level,” Nasibova says. “I’m going to pay them whatever I can until I run out and that’s just about the dumbest financial decision I’ve ever made.”

Finding solutions

Both Schulman and TeaPop’s Yuan are currently in problem-solving mode. They’ve taken themselves off payroll and applied for loans. While Yuan has laid off her staff, Schulman has given her employees the option to be laid off to receive unemployment benefits; none have requested this yet. The business owners are talking to their banks, landlords and anyone else associated with running their organization to find pragmatic solutions. Additionally, Green advocates communication as a key strategy for small businesses during this time.

“I don’t think many business owners understand the network of partners that they have that want them to be successful,” Green says over the phone. “Call your banker, call your lawyer, call your accountant, call your landlord. We need all hands on deck.”

As companies shift how they conduct business, entrepreneur experts recommend creative thinking and flexibility. “Rather than scrapping and restarting, consider your capacity to adjust your strategy and utilize existing assets,” Jaime Schmidt, Supermaker founder and author, says. “Now is the time to keep fundamentals intact when possible, but to aggressively explore new avenues to 1) reaching customers and 2) repackaging services that are designed to serve and motivate those spending more time in isolation. This could mean virtualizing services, producing content or online events, making stay-at-home kits, etc. You might be sitting on a business you never knew you had.”

“Businesses should think carefully before they say, ‘we’re screwed’ because actually there’s a lot of latent opportunities in this crisis.”

Economist Audretsch agrees with this notion of adaptability, citing the fact that consumers suddenly have new demands that businesses can leverage. One such example is Oceans 234 in Florida. The high-end restaurant transformed into a grocery store—selling food items they normally turn into entrees—to meet needs. “Businesses should think carefully before they say, ‘we’re screwed’ because actually there’s a lot of latent opportunities in this crisis,” Audretsch says.

Back in L.A., TeaPop’s Yuan remains optimistic despite the economic panic and uncertainty. “Being a small business owner in general, you have to be resilient and adaptable and know how to run a business on almost no money,” Yuan says. And, as entrepreneurs navigate the current climate, this innovative, out-of-the-box thinking may be the solution for survival.

Jessica Buxbaum is a freelance journalist currently based in Los Angeles with published work in The Independent, Prospect Magazine, and several other publications.

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