The optimism for a small business comeback and the urgency for continued digital tool adoption is high, according to participants in a webinar sponsored by Bill.com and Square on May 11.
In “Navigating Year Two of the Pandemic: Insights, Advice and Digital Tools for Success,” the leaders of business groups from Atlanta, St. Louis, and San Francisco said SMB owners are poised to lead the national economy back to its historic strength barely a year after the onset of the coronavirus outbreak that upended many businesses.
Digital Tools are Here to Stay
Moderator Ramon Ray of Smart Hustle noted that many businesses expanded their use of technology during the pandemic.
“All of us have seen businesses do this reset,” Ray said. “The pandemic has forced us all to change, for good or for bad, and there’s definitely key technologies that we're all leveraging.”
In the Bill.com survey, 45 percent of respondents recently adopted or implemented new digital tools, and 57 percent deployed or considered new workforce models. Technology implementations included remote workforce support, digital infrastructure, internal communications, accounting software, and customer management systems.
Leaner and More Agile Small Businesses
Rodney Fong, president and CEO of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, said businesses learned they had to operate in a lean manner. “All of us who are still surviving are tightening our belts and making sure that we are financially healthy,” Fong said. “We’re going into the future here, so that’s a big reset. Everyone is getting leaner and more efficient.”
Hall said that his own organization is a small business, and as a Bill.com customer, having such high-level technology helped Greater St. Louis be more resilient and agile. He also cited new payment systems like Square. “Square is growing a lot of jobs in St Louis because those systems are just making it easier and easier for small businesses to reach their customers in new ways,” he said. “There are lots of opportunities for those who embrace that change mindset, learn about these new technologies and understand how they can power growth.”
Resiliency Strengthened yet Cash Challenges Remain
Conditions are still challenging, the panelists said, a point underscored by a Bill.com survey of small business owners in April and May. While 57 percent of businesses surveyed expect moderate to rapid growth in their business in the next six to 12 months, nearly half said they have less than six months of cash runway to help navigate another downturn.
Coleman said even cash-strapped businesses have a lot to be proud of: They survived. “My initial thoughts when I saw the responses from the survey went to the impact of the stimulus,” he said. “Did it put some of these folks in a place to even say, ‘Well, I have less than three months of cash reserves, but I could be done. My business could have gone under.’?”
Hall said possibly even more impactful than the stimulus was the Biden Administration’s push to get people vaccinated. “That’s helping reopen the economy and give people confidence to go out and patronize small businesses, and ultimately that’s driving demand back,” Hall said. “That’s what small businesses want. They want their customers back.”
Impacts Felt Differently Across Industries, Regions, and Minorities
Different panelists saw different industries leading the way economically depending on their region. In St. Louis, software was leading the surge, Hall said, but also companies bringing new methodologies to food—such as plant-based proteins. In Atlanta, Coleman said products and services that enhanced the stay-at-home experience did well, such as hot tub makers and pest control services. In San Francisco, Fong said the tech-based economy pivoted easily to working from home, but didn’t show any sign of slacking off in terms of generating new startups.
Ray noted that 64 percent of survey respondents plan to keep working from home, while companies are considering models featuring a hybrid of stay-home and in-person work. Fong said that makes sense: “Competitiveness, creativity, ingenuity—that all has to happen in person,” he said. He foresees companies reopening their downtown offices just two or three days per week, at least in the initial stages of the economy reopening.
The panelists also paid special attention to the particularly negative impact the pandemic had on minority communities. “Black and Brown people have been exponentially impacted by COVID in these communities, possibly the greatest depending on how you measure,” Ray said. Black people have died at 1.4 times the rate of White people, according to the COVID Racial Data Tracker.
“That same thing can be applied to the business community,” said Coleman. “The health of our businesses had pre-existing conditions. If you were already struggling, you were not in a strong position, and the pandemic took you out.”
Small Business Entrepreneurship Leading the Way
Coleman, however, remains optimistic. In Atlanta, he said, “there’s a rich tradition and legacy of entrepreneurship and small business ownership. I’m very optimistic about the resiliency of the community, because I know the infrastructure and the ecosystem that exists here to support the entrepreneurs and their businesses.”
Hall noted that the pandemic, and the movement sparked by George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, brought greater awareness to the problems of racial inequities. “We are radically embracing a new inclusive growth model, so that we can unleash the power of Black and Brown entrepreneurship,” Hall said. “The estimates are, if we can close that gap in St. Louis, there will be over 66,000 more jobs for everyone.”
Those are big problems, to be sure, but with an economy toughened up by hard times, and rebounding with a combination of government help, a can-do attitude, and new technological tools, Small Business entrepreneurs can lead the way to a bright future.