Although she’s without a doubt the person responsible for bringing Ice Cream Jubilee into the world, Victoria Lai hesitates to use the phrase “my business” to describe it.
Based in Washington, D.C. with three locations and 30-some employees, Ice Cream Jubilee specializes in creative, handmade flavors like Thai Iced Tea and Banana Bourbon Caramel. It’s the kind of growing company that National Small Business Week was designed to uplift and celebrate — and for Lai, the 2021 theme of “resilience and renewal” certainly resonates.
“What really happened in the last 18 months is, I became so aware of my gratitude for the people who make this business that I founded successful,” says Lai, a former attorney who worked for the Obama administration before launching Ice Cream Jubilee. “It was all our staff, all our managers that got us and are getting us through this.”
By “this,” Lai is of course referring to the ongoing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. The impact on small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) has been captured in several studies, including Facebook’s first ever State of Small Business Report, which surveyed more than 35,000 SMB leaders across 27 countries in 2021. Of small businesses around the world, 55 percent reported a decline in January sales, and 24 percent suffered store closures as recently as February.
But these hurdles aren’t stopping the majority of SMBs from adapting to the next normal. Among 2,400 SMB owners surveyed in the annual Small Business Trends 2021 study conducted by Guidant Financial and the Small Business Trends Alliance (SBTA), 78 percent said they expect to survive. Almost half (49 percent) said they feel confident or very confident about their post-COVID future.
Here are a few steps that SMBs can take to help ensure they not only survive, but thrive:
1. Enhance (and extend) the customer experience
In their Business Revival report, consulting firm EY suggests that businesses consider “reinvention activation,” or business transformation programs that will prepare them for the next wave of growth. Lai calls this concept “endless experimentation” in meeting customers where they are in order to deliver great experiences.
The homepage of Ice Cream Jubilee now focuses on digital processes, such as in-store pickup, local pint deliveries and nationwide shipping of other items like sundae packs.
“So many people have been staying at home, but we realized you can still grow within that environment, because people were interested in offering each other gifts,” Lai explains. “If you’re looking to send a care package, we have all of these flavours to give them a taste of Washington D.C.”
Action item: Make sure you have access to as much data as possible about your market’s wants and needs, as well as actionable insights. A wealth of tools are available to SMBs, whether it’s a cloud-based CRM app or mobile POS platform.
Using mobile devices to monitor data analytics — on sales and supply levels, for instance — has been vital to Lai for developing her business strategy. “Just being able to have that information at my fingertips has made running a business so much easier — and more fun,” she says.
2. Pair policies with programs for a better employee experience
As local economies gradually reopen and recover, the “daily grind” has taken on new meaning. In its most recent Employee Experience Study, insurance company Willis Towers Watson found that 92 percent of organizations are now prioritizing ways to make their teams’ jobs easier and more engaging. This figure is up from 52 percent pre-pandemic.
This data isn’t specific to SMBs, but employee experience can be particularly important in smaller firms, where resources are often spread thin.
At Toronto-based insurance firm Dundas Life, for example, co-founder and president Greg Rozdeba says he introduced flexible working schedules, but continued to see the pandemic taking a toll on morale.
“To counter this, we continue to invest significantly in mental health and wellness programs for our employees, many of which are now conducted remotely,” says Rozdeba. “We are also in the initial stages of implementing a paid time off policy for our employees as another measure of combatting burnout.”
Action item: Beyond programs and policies, look for ways to reduce manual or repetitive tasks. Automation, e-signature and other tools that simplify work processes can make a big difference. And a foldable device like Galaxy Z Fold3 5G makes it easier for employees to multitask and connect with the rest of their team.
3. Recast remote work from a pivot to a long-term plus
Market research from Gartner projects that by the end of 2021, 51 percent of knowledge workers worldwide will be working remotely, up from 27 percent in 2019. Remote work has been a boon for Bospar, a San Francisco-based public relations firm, where 100 percent of the team is virtual.
As the director of HR and accounting at Bospar, Jessica Orsini says embracing remote work has been enormously beneficial for both revenue and recruiting.
“As people adapted and adjusted to remote working as the new normal, they sought out companies who embraced it and excelled,” she says. “That’s benefitted us by attracting highly qualified, talented employees and acquiring marquee clients.”
Action item: To ensure remote work feels as structured and empowering as being in a physical office, Bospar has implemented virtual book clubs, fitness groups and a virtual open door policy for leadership and added more “Summer Fridays” (company-wide holidays) through the end of the year.
Remote should be synonymous with flexible. SMBs can now offer their teams the tools they need to connect from anywhere.
4. Build values and a purpose-led brand
In a recent survey of more than 25,000 consumers, consulting firm Accenture found that the pandemic has caused 50 percent to rethink their purpose, and 42 percent realized they need to focus more on others.
You don’t have to be a large enterprise to connect with your customers on a personal level. At Ice Cream Jubilee, Lai and her team brought out Asian-inspired flavors for the Lunar New Year and donated proceeds from their sales to a local charity focused on the Stop Asian Hate movement.
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“We have an ability to highlight cultures and causes that are very important to me and the rest of the staff,” she says. “I know that as an ice cream shop our reach may be limited, but we can use the platforms we have.”
Action item: Explore how you can authentically connect to issues that matter most to your community, whether it’s offering your team time off to volunteer or amplifying diverse voices through your digital channels.
The next normal is still taking shape, and this National Small Business Week is an opportunity for all SMBs to reflect on how they can influence the direction it will take.
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