Victoria Soelle, our Director of Partnerships at The DO School, shares her personal perspective on the impact this pandemic is having on SMEs, her family’s multigenerational business, and her growing sense of purpose.
According to multiple psychological studies we know that there are basic patterns of how people deal with crises. The common journey at a glance: shock/denial, fear/anger, depression/sadness, interest/departure, integration of the new. Is there a trigger that allows us to switch gears and move to the next stage in the cycle?
No, unfortunately not. After talking to several people across industries, there is only one thing their experiences have in common: all of them have found their way to align their purpose. That applies equally as much to the CEO, who is shepherding thousands of employees through this pandemic, as it does the employee, who is trying to cope with kids and working from home.
I come from a multigenerational family business based in the Austrian Alps. Personally, I am terrified by the idea that my sister and I at some point might have to follow in the footsteps of the four generations before us. And this crisis has certainly accelerated this notion becoming a reality. Witnessing my family rally together in light of this pandemic has inspired me to take a closer look at the strategies recently adapted by family-owned SMEs to not only weather this storm, but more importantly, to emerge stronger.
Hundreds of thousands of SMEs will not survive this pandemic. Those that do, will be entrenched in their purpose. Purpose coupled with financial prudency, will allow them to keep afloat. Many are availing of loans, because they can (thanks to governments), because they have to, but also because they have uncovered their “why” while reevaluating their what and how due to the changed circumstances.
When the shutdown began my family and I immediately asked ourselves if, in the current circumstances, we would have to begin an online shop. Is that the only way forward? It took us many conversations with suppliers, employees and family members to come to the realisation that online was not the answer we are seeking. What we need to do is together refine our purpose for the years to come.
Unlike the multinational corporations, few SMEs are data-driven. They might have a customer’s email and are potentially active on social media. However, their personal know-how and connection with the customer has been the determining factor driving their business, not the data points on the customer journey. This human connection is and will remain of tremendous importance.
What Covid19, however, taught many SMEs are the opportunities the digital sphere holds. Before this pandemic, many small businesses did not have time to look into digital opportunities because it would have meant an additional task to their day-to-day. Now that SMEs were forced to shut down, they have been granted the time to rethink the interaction with customers. Going forward with digital solutions and deep personal connections with their customers allows SMEs to emerge stronger.
For my family business, we plan to use this time to figure out how exactly we’ll embrace this digital sphere. Over the next few months, we will be testing some ideas, evaluating what works and feels right for us, and continue learning. There will be a digital element to the business, but we still have to define what it will look like. In the short-term we are using existing platforms where our customers are active; these platforms are not necessarily the Amazons and Zalandos of ecommerce, but also ones like Ebay and willhaben.at. There will be several iterations along the way but we plan to become more in sync with our purpose and grow closer to our customers. Every day in our small village, my mother is approached by someone on the street with “I saw on your Instagram that you have…”, further proving the local value of the digital sphere for SMEs.
Following the popular hashtags #buylocal and #supportsmallbusinesses, the most striking revelation to me is not the big support that comes from customers, but the evidence emerging that SMEs have started to think in ecosystems:
Over the coming years, we will witness a holistic transformation. One that is not limited to a single industry as was the case with the financial crisis. This time around everyone is affected and we will have to exercise adaptability and resilience to emerge stronger. As the vast majority of businesses in Germany are family-owned SMEs – 88% to be precise – we should pay more attention to how they are weathering the pandemic and learn from it. We will be surprised where we find the role models who will show us how to emerge stronger. Instead of handing cover page after cover page to the state rescue of the aviation industry, let’s put SMEs in the spotlight.
I want to end this blog post on a personal note. I have always tried to stay as far away from the family business as possible – geographically and emotionally. When Covid-19 suddenly arrived in Europe, the emotional and geographical distance between myself and my family business disappeared and I found myself in the middle of preparing loan documents, government support applications, etc. Working at The DO School, I have always emphasised the importance of purpose alignment and it is a bitter-sweet lesson that I am now learning: purpose is nothing static. Purpose evolves. This means, for me, that I am embarking on a new journey as the next generation of the family business.
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