Years ago, I was at my business school reunion. While talking with old friends about what we had been up to over the years -- new jobs, promotions, entrepreneurial ventures -- I was excited to talk about my recent accomplishment. I had just gotten a 4-way stop sign installed at a busy intersection near the high school in my town. While at first this might not have seemed like a big deal, it was a huge deal to me. Change in a residential town is never easy; it’s an enormous undertaking that requires a lot of patience and stamina. This project was particularly complex, as it required multiple meetings with various stakeholders, several analyses on traffic flow and consideration of many different points-of-view before getting it approved. Once I brought everyone to the table, we were able to make some real progress. And unlike many projects I had worked on as a consultant in my former career, these stop signs have had lasting impact. They promote driver and pedestrian safety around the school. Hundreds of people use them everyday, all day long, without even thinking about it. This endeavor was just as important to me as any of my professional career accomplishments and certainly one of my proudest moments.
I think about that reunion often. I had recently taken a break from my fast-paced career to spend more time raising my daughters. My interest in local government had led me to volunteer for causes that were meaningful to me. Some of my classmates understood my choice and I’m sure others did not, but getting that 4-way stop sign installed was a major win and impacted my road ahead. It showed me that perseverance always pays off and that even though I had taken a different path than the one I had initially envisioned, it was the right choice.
The 4-way stop sign has become a metaphor for the twists and turns my career has taken and the many challenges women face on a daily basis. We all stop at intersections like these often and must decide which direction to go. Should we go straight ahead, down the path that is familiar and comfortable, well-planned and expected, with a clear destination in sight? Should we go left, down a road that might not be clearly visible or paved, that is unpredictable and sure to challenge? Do we go right, on uneven, bumpy terrain hoping the rewards are greater than the consequences? Or do we stay frozen in place unsure of which way to turn, fearful of going the wrong way? Is it possible to take multiple paths at once? Can we go one way and then turn back and start again? The answer to all of these questions is yes! That is the beauty of the 4-way stop sign. It forces us to slow down, consider the route, weigh the possibilities and make an informed decision, despite the fear we may have of going in an uncertain direction. It gives us the flexibility to take risks and change our minds as often as we would like, perhaps trying out routes that are different from the ones we had once expected to take. Stop signs don’t simply control traffic and make the roads safer. They offer us a chance to pause and reflect. And they give us permission to start again.
Whichever direction we choose, we should slow down and stop before we go; think before we act. Many of us were brought up to believe we could only do or be one thing, but now we know we can have a first, second, third or even fourth act. So if you see me around town or at my next business school reunion, please ask me about that 4-way stop sign and then tell me about yours. Until then, pay attention to the signs and make sure to come to a complete stop before deciding which way to go.
6 steps small business owners can take to survive the pandemic
“I have often talked about the importance of pivoting when contemplating a career change, but this notion has never been more critical than it is now. In order for businesses to move forward, pivoting is essential.”
There’s no doubt about it. Life can throw some incredible curveballs. And while some are expected and even accepted, nothing could have ever prepared me for the curveball the entire world encountered just a few months ago. To call the current COVID-19 pandemic a crisis feels like an understatement. It is more like a tsunami whose ripple effects have thrown everyone and everything out of balance. In addition to the grave health concerns affecting millions of people around the world, businesses -- especially small ones -- have taken a beating. However, what has hurt us also unites us. No one is in this alone.
I have often talked about the importance of pivoting when contemplating a career change, but this notion has never been more critical than it is now. In order for businesses to move forward, pivoting is essential. The rules have changed. Businesses cannot operate the way they did before. Business owners have had to quickly take stock, get creative and spend time understanding the new consumer mindset in order to re-emerge stronger than ever. TAP’s mission has always been to help accelerate small business growth, providing underserved businesses with access to professional services they wouldn’t otherwise have. However, we, too, have had to pivot -- from helping businesses grow to helping them stay afloat and navigate uncharted waters. In some cases, they had to reinvent themselves to become as relevant as possible in this new world. In other cases, there was only a slight shift needed. Regardless of where your business fits in this paradigm, there are some best practices that can help during this time.
1. Mobilize Your Talent
When the world changed in what seemed like an instant, the TAP team quickly mobilized our resources, in the form of our talented consultants, to jump in and help both new and former clients in any way we could. We developed quick solutions to maximize cash flow, identify opportunities, brainstorm ideas, reduce and negotiate expenses and provide assistance with SBA loan applications and other grant opportunities. Ask key staff members or trusted advisors to take on new roles to help you address your most pressing needs. It’s important to re-emerge and develop new skills to become more relevant in this new environment, such as creating online/e-commerce if you don’t already have a presence or relaunching your business in a slightly different way.
2. Get Closer to Your Cash
As you manage your way through this trying time, take note of the things you’ve done well and what you can do better in the future. Liquidity is extremely important for the long-term health and survival of businesses even in the best of times. Think about building reserves. Cut unnecessary expenses. Make sure you have more cash coming in than going out. If you do have reserves, you might be able to afford to ride out the storm, but most businesses only have enough to cover 1-2 payroll cycles, so it’s important to leverage the good relationships you have with your vendors to try to get some breathing room as you adjust to this situation.
3. Take the Time to Reflect and Innovate
This pandemic has forced us all to slow down. Regardless of the state of your company, use this time to reconnect with your consumers. Build that database you never got around to creating. Spend some time enhancing your social media presence, as people are online now more than ever before. If you don’t have a website, create one now, as most transactions are being conducted online. Platforms, such as Shopify, make it easy to build your own, but consider asking a college student, who might be out of a summer job, to assist.
4. Communicate the Changes
If you have created enhancements to your business, flag it on your website, email your customers and post on social media. If you are a restaurant, perhaps you have implemented new cleaning and safety measures. Let your customers know. Consider utilizing videos to show the changes you’ve made -- pictures are stronger than words.
5. Nurture Relationships
Keep in touch with your clients, employees and customers. Check in with them regularly to see how they are doing and if you can assist them. Consistent communication will go a long way to keeping those relationships strong and possibly generating more business, as people are craving interaction. Survey your customers to better understand their needs and make sure you are meeting them. Keep talking to them and reminding them you are here. That personal connection is always important, but especially now.
6. Adjust Your Mix
Every business needs to adjust their offerings. Clothing retailers can focus on selling tops and accessories for the current Zoom world. Photographers can offer socially distant photo shoots. Exercise studios can offer Zoom classes privately or for groups of friends or hold classes in parking lots. Restaurants might ship products around the country for virtual dinner parties or start serving their customers outdoors. Businesses should all take credit cards instead of cash only. The common theme here is the pivot!
As daunting as it may seem, we will get through this one way or another and TAP is always here to help. Businesses that can be flexible, patient and responsive should persevere and will hopefully come out stronger on the other side.
People always ask me how and why I started TAP. How did I know this was an important business model that needed to be created? The answer isn’t as straightforward as one might think. While there was definitely a “lightbulb moment,” it occurred as part of an evolution of events starting many years ago, when I was at an important juncture in my life.
I had decided to pivot
At that time, I had decided to leave the workforce to raise my daughters. It had not been an easy decision after all of the years I had invested in my career. I had gone to business school after college and then worked in management consulting and marketing strategy at large corporations for years. Like many women, I had been on a clear career trajectory, but I ultimately determined that consulting didn’t provide the flexibility I craved once I had children. My goals had shifted. I wanted to spend more time with my family, so I took a chance and traded the professional boardroom for my town boardroom, fully immersing myself into volunteering for my local government.
I pivoted again
Eventually, my daughters got older and my mindset started to shift again. It suddenly occurred to me that I had spent so much time and energy preparing my girls for the world, I was now worried about getting left behind. I knew I had to re-engage professionally in some way. I started interviewing at firms, but wanted flexibility and control of my schedule that the workforce didn’t allow. It had become structurally impossible to work the way I had worked in the past while raising my daughters the way I wanted to raise them. I was conflicted, but knew I had to prioritize and find another way.
Around this time, in 2012, I noticed neighborhood small businesses starting to struggle as the internet and big box stores had transformed buyer behavior and expectations. Shop owners put on a brave face, but eventually admitted they were worried about paying their rent and being able to send their children to college. They were trying hard to stay afloat, but didn’t have the budgets to access professional advisors to help them grow and survive. This troubled me and I knew I could help them solve these problems.
The lightbulb moment
I recognized there was an enormous pool of talent in my own backyard -- successful women who had also left their fast-paced careers to raise their children or who had continued working, but wanted to give back to their community. Many were looking for a way back into the workforce. Then it hit me. What if I could leverage the talent all around me to help the businesses I knew and loved get stronger and not just survive, but actually thrive? This was my lightbulb moment! I co-founded The Acceleration Project.
Our vision was to bring Wall Street to Main Street; to identify and mobilize these accomplished female professionals who could use their formidable skills and experience to help solve the problems I saw among local businesses. And in turn, we would provide them with an outlet to re-launch their careers. It was a win-win proposition, but it didn’t happen overnight. We had stops and starts. We brought in volunteer consultants and tested concepts until we got the model just right. We ran focus groups to make sure our idea resonated. We started to build a team. We hustled to get sponsors and donors so we could launch and grow.
When we finally started, we had immediate impact, arming business owners with tools and action plans they wouldn’t otherwise have. Today, we have over 90 consultants and are serving businesses in 9 states and 40 cities and towns and have worked with hundreds of clients. Businesses have gotten stronger, many women have relaunched their careers, and I relaunched mine!
This experience has taught me that the path back to work -- or towards a career change -- isn’t always linear. It’s important to be open to new opportunities, think out-of-the-box, take risks and follow your passion to see where it may lead you. My time away from the workforce eventually led me to create TAP and I have never looked back.
Strategic volunteering enables women to select projects which utilize their skills to give back to the community while also providing valuable professional experiences. READ MORE