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A Call-to-Action to Help SME's Recover from COVID Lockdowns

The FREE Business Health-Check is made possible by Northern Beaches Council and the COVID-19 Community Response Grants for COVID Business Recovery Training.

In 2020 Northern Beaches Council, Executive Manager Community, Arts and Culture, advised SEVENmile Ltd that our application for a Grant had been approved. The scope presented was for SEVENmile to conduct a  

FREE Business Health-Check for six local businesses from diferent industries and to write a report and a recommended plan-of-action.

Expressions of Interest were sought from local business owners and SEVENmile Directors selected six that represent a good cross-section of industry segments.

The 

Directors of SEVENmile extend their thanks to Northern Beaches Council.

Background Research Report by SEVENmile Ltd Directors

Australian small businesses have been forever changed by COVID-19. Businesses closed, jobs were lost, and far too many communities were badly hurt by a pandemic that caused massive upheaval. But even as small businesses continue their struggle, our northern beachces community can learn from their fight. Their experiences over the past year should be lessons for the future that will help speed communities’ recovery and make their futures more sustainable.

Across various measures of business success, the smallest businesses of under 20 people struggled the most during COVID-19. Older, and female-led SMEs, saw worse revenue declines than younger and male peers.

A Call-to-Action

First, it is very clear that digital tools are critical for small business resilience. Second, for digitally advanced small businesses, digital tools have provided the flexibility to pivot quickly, maintain more pre-COVID revenue, and hire more employees. And third, there remain too many obstacles to broad adoption of digital tools by small businesses, particularly due to uncertainty about how to leverage them to solve their business challenges and allocating time to understand the value of technology in their business. Our Call-to-Action is to ask how we address and solve this challenge.

For small businesses that embrace digital tools, the benefits are clear: greater revenue, stronger customer base, and a significantly improved outlook in an increasingly digital world market. To assist the digitally uncertain, policymakers and business leaders must create solutions, including investments that increase education, training, and small business access to a range of technologies that solve specific problems.

This is a perfect opportunity for all SME leaders to reset, pivot, and think big in order to evolve their businesses to match the digital expectations of a post-pandemic world. They should aspire to be skilled digital professionals - learning, experimenting with, and implementing digital tools as a part of their strategy. SME owners should identify gaps and opportunities within digital strategies, toolsets, and skills, based on their business’s unique needs, and invest time in learning about tools before investing significant capital in the hope of a good outcome.

Fixing this pervasive problem is indeed a significant challenge and the problem won't be solved in the short term.

However, the solution is within the power of our Northern Beaches community; a community with a depth and breadth of talent that is unmatched in the Sydney basin.

Troubling Trend

That said, SEVENmile has observed a troubling trend: at least 50% of SMEs, likely higher, are struggling to overcome a “digital inertia” and have not only failed to become more digitally-inclined during the pandemic, but on average they have become somewhat less so. We believe that they are failing and closing during the pandemic more than technologically-driven, digital-savvy SMEs. Put bluntly: SMEs NOT embracing digital tools increase their risk of going out of business permanently.

As the pandemic (hopefully) winds down, small business owners of all kinds will need to work within a post-COVID “new normal” fueled by digital tools - services, platforms, and marketplaces - that power efficiency, growth, and financial security for their businesses and families. While a small subset of SMBs can persist with analog business practices, most of them cannot over the long term, whether they realize it yet or not. Thus, a detailed understanding of how digital tools impacted and transformed small businesses during the economic disruption of the pandemic, could provide a general framework for future action.

Making Time for Other Important Work

It's also clear that SME owners are spending more time than ever before working in their business and as a result have zero time to devote to working "on" their business. This impacts their ability to devote any time to buidling their knowledge of digital technologies and how they can realize the  benefits of transforming their business operations using digital technologies.

The business owners we worked with can't remember the last time they attended any kind of networking event (virtual or in-person) that was focused on them as business owners.

SEVENmile believes that Local Government can play a role to enable confidential events that focus on SME owners emotional well-being.

Adaptation, Resilience, and Innovation

The further downside of this lack of time is that SMEs will often hire external "experts" who do little more than take money and deliver poor outcomes that further alienates the SME owners and dilutes their enthusiasm for using digital technologies. SME owners are sitting ducks for exploitative social media experts who literally prey on SMEs who are generally ignorant of the design and workings of most digital technology and SME owners naively think if they pay an "expert" they will see benefits.

In Australia there is no formal certification of people and companies offering digital solutions and consulting. SMEs in particular are at high risk of spending money and receiving no benefit which erodes their confidence in digital technologies.

SEVENmile recommends that Northern Beaches Council consider ways in which digital consultants residing in the NBC Local Government Area can be vetted and endorsed as genuine digital experts that local SMEs can trust. SEVENmile would be delighted to assist NBC to develop and implement this concept.

Common Themes of SME Post-COVID Challenges

There are three significant business challenges that are common to the six businesses we assessed and it's very likely that a large majority of SMEs all over Australia have identical challenges. It's fair to say that I could have listed ten common challenges, but I have restricted my list to the underlying challenges for SME owners.

Firstly, SME owners generally have little or no time to work "on" their business. In other words they have no down-time when they can think strategically. COVID has greatly exacerbated this issue because SME owners are generally working much longer hours than ever to keep the business viable.

Secondly, SME owners are generally ignorant of the scope of digital technologies and how they can be applied in their business. This is compounded by a lack of budget and funds to hire suitably experienced consultants to plan and support a transformation from outdated technology to current state-of-the-art technology. The inability to transition to the latest digital capabilities will greatly inhibit growth.

Thirdly, it's surprising, but nevertheless a fact, that SME owners tend not to have a mentor they can access as a general advisor and coach. It's true that mentors often wish to be remunerated, not always through high fees, and it's possible to find mentors who will take that role on a pro-bono basis. Given the pressure that SME owners are under, SEVENmile feels this is an aspect of small business life that could be enabled by stakeholders like Local Government.

How to Start

In fact, it's likely the best intervention for SME's is to start with the third issue and work back. Attaching an SME owner to the right mentor is the best first step we can take to ultimately enable business owners to work less "in" their business so they have the time to work "on" their business.

~~~~End~~~~

The FREE Business Health-Check research project was made possible by Northern Beaches Council and the COVID-19 Community Response Grants for COVID Business Recovery Training.

For questions or feedback please contact the author of this report via email Greg Twemlow

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