Whether you’re launching a new business or revamping an existing one, the pandemic is rewriting the rules of success.

While there’s no fool-proof formula for shepherding a healthy business amid COVID-19, serving unmet market needs and unearthing new sources of revenue have emerged as key pillars of a sound strategy, experts and business owners said during the sixth installment of CO— Blueprint, a biweekly video series dedicated to providing small businesses with the ideas and strategies they need to reopen their businesses successfully.

Here are five takeaways from their discussion with CO— content director Jeanette Mulvey.

Vet new business ideas by asking three critical questions

Small business owners who survive and thrive tend to share one trait: A questioning nature, said Will Adams, vice president, general manager of small business services for business consultancy Upnetic, Tarkenton Companies. “I have noticed that the most successful entrepreneurs are the ones who ask a lot of questions,” he said.

To determine if a new business idea is a solvent one, Adams advised entrepreneurs to ask themselves three questions: What are you most interested in? How can you translate what you excel at in a current or previous role into a new business? What needs, issues and problems are you encountering throughout the day in your personal life and in the community in which you live?

While many entrepreneurs get stuck on the what’s-your-passion question, “The best ideas arrive at the intersection of how you answer those three,” he said.

Brainstorm with other small businesses to cull winning best practices

Small businesses would be wise to form networking groups with a range of business owners in their community— be they gyms, hair salons or bakeries —that are navigating the same macro challenges, said Tom Mueller, vice president of client experience for ADP small business services and owner of Broadway Baker. The idea is to brainstorm on winning best practices, and “really get a sense of the creative ways everyone [is pivoting],” he said.

Meet your customers where they are

Yvette Jenkins, founder of Detroit-based boutique Love Travels Imports, which sells artisan, fair-trade goods from around the world, was forced to reassess her business model when the pandemic hit. “We had to think creatively: What can we do to try do generate some revenue?” Jenkins said.

Love Travel Imports then shifted, ramping up e-commerce to help offset the loss of in-store sales by selling items curated for the crisis like lavender sanitizer and hand painted face masks, while offering contactless delivery to consumers sheltering at home. It’s about “meeting your customers where they are, and where they are is at home,” said Adams.

That’s what Smart Health Clubs is doing, he noted. Partnering with other gyms in lockdown mode, the company brought the fitness equipment languishing in shuttered locations to consumers’ homes, creating new income for the businesses in return, he said.

I have noticed that the most successful entrepreneurs are the ones who ask a lot of questions.

Will Adams, vice president, general manager of small business services, Upnetic, Tarkenton Companies

Add products and services that address changing market needs

As pandemic-imposed lockdowns disrupt sales channels (or eliminate them entirely) for B2B and B2C businesses, companies ranging from gyms to retailers to auto parts suppliers are finding fresh revenue streams while paving untrodden paths to both new and existing customers.

It’s what Netresh Rege, president and CEO of International Wheel and Tire, was prompted to do. When business contracted amid the virus as plants shuttered, the B2B company, which supplies wheels and tires to the auto industry, literally shifted gears.

“We asked, ‘What does the market need right now?’” Rege said. Seizing on the sudden massive need for PPE (personal protective equipment), the manufacturer turned to automation, a core asset, to build machines that produce masks in high volumes, hoping to penetrate uncharted sectors such as healthcare.

“Foolishly thinking, ‘If you build it, they will come,’” International Wheel and Tire soon realized that it needed help reaching customers outside the auto sector. So it turned to resources such as its local chamber and economic development corporation Pure Michigan Business Connect for guidance. The lesson: “Make sure you have customers ready to go when your product launches,” Rege said.

Meanwhile, as grocery sales surged amid the pandemic, Mueller, of ADP and Broadway Baker, noticed mini markets popping up at restaurants, where consumers could shop for the fresh ingredients found in the eateries’ meals. The Santa Monica, California-based bakery followed suit, selling items like flour just as home baking took off, which diversified its revenue stream organically, he said. “Look for those natural opportunities to expand your sweet spot,” Mueller said.

Jump on a high-demand business opportunity

With the fear of contagion gripping the nation, many consumers replaced supermarket trips with digital shopping, sending online grocery sales skyrocketing. Drew Patrick, owner and president of Michigan Fields, moved quickly to get in on the heightened demand, launching the online grocery site — a business he’d been incubating for a year via Goldman Sachs’ small business program — in just three weeks. In short, Patrick saw a rising trend and quickly acted on it. “We fast-tracked plans for a grocery delivery service,” he said.

But before investing in a new business, do your due diligence, warned Upnetics’ Adams. “Do a feasibility study, which is a precursor to a business plan,” he said. A feasibility study assesses the financial, organizational and technical feasibility of a venture, as well as the industry dynamics of the business sector you’re considering.

Although the “monster of uncertainty” looms large over the economic landscape, Adams said, small businesses have a singular edge over big companies: “Our ability to be nimble.”

Published August 13, 2020