When Small Business Gets Smaller
The past month has been a resounding chorus of “hardests” and “firsts” from entrepreneurial rookies and veterans alike. Second only to the week of March 16th, this past week was the hardest week I have ever known as a business owner.
Whether or not you have a foot in the door of small business in this country, you’ve likely heard that there is government funding available to them. The reality of its availability is no more hope-inducing than the crisis that prompted it. Like many business owners, this was the week that I learned Ware would receive none of the funding from one source (unless Congress refunds it) and 1/10th of the “grant” funding from the other Federal program.
That doesn’t even cover the taxes that Ware currently owes to that same entity. I don’t know yet what will be offered by the Small Business Administration in terms of debt, but like anyone pushing off payments and bills as a result of current financial hardship, the prospect of adding to the pile of debts owed is less than enticing. There seems to be no easy fix at any scale these days.
Even with all of that in mind, frankly, Ware is still comparatively lucky. By nature of selling soap, Ware is considered a necessary business, and has therefore been allowed to limp along through the battlefield that is this current economic climate. The doors may be closed to the public, but I get to go in every day and pack up online orders. I am poignantly grateful that Ware is not a restaurant, bar, music venue, or hair salon – all businesses that are understandably closed, but terrifyingly underserved by any federal program or financial stimulus currently being offered. I see the bleak irony in the fact that major airlines are being bailed out while the independently owned businesses that make destinations worth traveling to may not be there to visit when all is said and done.
Ware is a Sustainable Lifestyle Store. I am indeed passionate about sustainability, but since opening Ware, I have become considerably more passionate about its ability to create employment opportunities that are both professionally challenging and morally uplifting. However, among the first and hardest decisions I had to make in an attempt to shrink this business to be lean enough to possibly survive this ordeal, was laying off one employee that helped me come to realize that passion.
It’s so common that people walk into Ware (in a pre-Corona world) and say something like “why isn’t every business doing this?” The honest answer is that it’s arguably unnecessarily difficult. Running a small business is hard enough under typical circumstances, but when you cut the margins by half to make quality more accessible to customers, pay employees competitive wages because a living wage should be the baseline, and spend more on just about every input to ensure that the tools with which operations and administration function are in line with the business’ ethics, you invite a whole host of additional frustrations. All of that leaves even less financial cushion when catastrophe strikes. Shamefully, I have asked myself more than once how sustainable a business can claim to be if it cannot support its employees when it is most important.
Like many, I cannot confidently say that Ware will be around to open its doors to you all “on the other side”, or that, if it does, it will look particularly like the Ware you knew before. For better or for worse. As someone whose entire business model is built on hope – the hope that individual actions can have worthwhile impact – I find myself having to search for sources of hope on a daily basis. But then I remember that the ramifications of a pandemic are not wholly unlike the other challenges Ware has faced from the beginning.
Sustainability is complicated because it is holistic, nothing is safe from its lens. I urge you to pay attention to who is supporting the causes you care about right now, whether that’s the existence of small local businesses, the rights of factory workers, or the safety of healthcare professionals. Look critically at politicians, businesses, and those with significant influence, and then take it upon yourself to acknowledge the ways in which your actions support those people and entities. Vote with your ballot, your money, and your attention based on what you’re seeing in the world right now. And, when life regains momentum, do not forget who was left to fend for themselves during this time - and by whom.
Be well. Be aware.