How to pandemic-proof your business

An employee adjusts the stock of alcohol at Milan's Convenience Store in South London, Britain. (Photo: EPA-EFE/WILL OLIVER0

A South African author has written a book on how to virus-proof your business in the time of Covid-19. He wrote it in less time than the lockdown has been in force.

While many business owners were reeling from the economic devastation left by the terrifyingly fast spread of Covid-19 across the globe, Douglas Kruger was busy writing a book.

A cynic might say that the rapid-fire production of ‘Virus-Proof Your Small Business — 50 Ways to Survive the Covid-19 Crisis’ was little more than an opportunistic way to capitalise on the fears of others.

A more generous view is that many small business owners are punch-drunk and reeling, and that any suggestions of how they can limit the damage would be welcome.

Kruger has written several business books, so when his publisher asked if he could produce another of his easy-to-read how-to guides tailored for the current situation, he jumped right in. He got in touch with contacts around the world, soliciting their input,  and put into effect one of the tips from his own book: work intensely in 90-minute bursts and then take a break.

In the first week of lockdown, he spent those breaks playing with his three-year-old child before heading back to his desk. He delivered the manuscript to Penguin Random House publishers within a week. The book took another week to edit and has been available internationally since the day after the Easter weekend.

There’s no fluff in the book. Kruger keeps the chit-chat to a minimum and the information is presented in bite-sized chunks. The advice is “industry agnostic” and much of it is fairly straightforward, but useful nonetheless, especially in situations where, one imagines, a small business owner is at a loss about where to start plugging the holes created by the lockdown. There are many practical ideas for emergency planning, working remotely, negotiating with banks and government institutions, and for using the crisis to steel your business against future knocks.

The book begins with “silver linings” — there aren’t terribly many – but they shouldn’t be overlooked. Then it dives straight into the hard stuff, of which there is a lot.

Daily Maverick had a few questions for the author.

You say in your book that “Fidelity aids everyone”. Can you explain?

Business, society, economics — none of them are zero-sum games. They are so arranged that if everybody participates in good faith, everybody benefits. What we’re looking at really, is human civilisation. It is made up of interconnected systems of trust.

If someone is paying you, please pay the next person along. If you are able to do so, do so. If everyone continues to participate then everyone continues to prosper. Business is not just ‘take for me, and I win’. The more you can share ideas that can help other people, other families, other businesses, the more you continue to exist in a prosperous society, and everyone needs that.

To assume that an economy is merely money is a mistake. An economy is a system of human beings working, creating value, trading with one another, raising their families. It’s us. We are the economy.

You say that “agonising and emotionalising” will not serve business owners right now. It is an emotional time though: anxiety, grief, fear, depression, hopelessness — these are human reactions to the current state of the world. How do you suggest people rein in their emotions?

There is a very powerful technique for dealing with decision-making in a non-emotional way. It’s so simple it almost sounds childish, but it’s immensely powerful. Think of yourself in the third person. Let’s say for example that I’m a solo practitioner, I could take a cup of coffee and walk to another room or into the backyard and say to myself: what’s the best thing a person in my situation could do right now? If someone like me was trying to think of new ways to expand during this time, or create a new way to do business, what would I tell them to do?

Gather your team and ask: what should a company in our situation ideally do? Let’s imagine there are no restrictions, no monetary constraints, what would be the best thing such a company could do to survive?

This encourages a form of bold thinking that you wouldn’t naturally engage in if you weren’t doing it as a hypothetical. You’re engaged in a very different pattern of thinking. It’s creative. It has vitality. It feels good. And that’s better than simply dwelling on all the negatives. It sounds like a cheap con but it’s immensely powerful for stepping off the emotional rollercoaster.

There’s also an escape trick that you have to plan in advance of the moments when you are going to get stuck [in your thoughts or your worries]. You have to have a plan that says: “When I get stuck, I’m going to …” and then do whatever you decided you would do. It could be to take a shower, walk around the house, make a cup of coffee. But whatever it is, you need it loaded into your mind in advance. What happens then is that twenty minutes into your doom-and-gloom, of sitting around feeling hopeless, you can reach for your escape button. You simply get up and do the thing that you pre-programmed for yourself. By preloading that simple escape clause, you’ve made a way out for yourself.

You talk about having to act like a Vulkan sometimes. What does that mean?

A lot of what you’re going to face right now is necessarily going to be unpleasant. Throughout the book, I try to provide ways in which you can retain staff and keep things going, because it matters greatly that you do. But we have to acknowledge that there are going to be scenarios in which someone is going to have to let someone go, for instance.

We have limited time right now. We are having to think very differently, very quickly. In addition to that, we have limited resources of personal energy, of motivation and of enthusiasm. And if you leave the unpleasant tasks hanging over your own head for a long time, they can severely deplete your ability to face difficult scenarios. So you have to try and move through them like an unemotional Vulkan. It’s unfortunate, but we are going to have to do some hard things and it’s better not to agonise for long periods because it will debilitate you.

You say in the book that the current situation for business owners is difficult, but you also say that this period could be “gratifying”. Can you explain your use of that word?

There are studies all around the world on human happiness and probably one of the most famous is the one that wealth does make us happy up to a point. A certain level of ease and luxury can actually quantifiably increase our happiness, but it caps there. Go beyond that and you find that more wealth does not make you more happy.

If that’s the case, then what does make people more happy? Very rarely do we find that ease and periods of low challenge to individual ability ever rank very highly in terms of making us happy. A degree of challenge is actually much more fulfilling. You have to draw the distinction there between what someone might call “giving joy” versus a deep sense of satisfaction.

What we’re going through now is not fun and it’s not funny, but in terms of drawing together, creating goals, working towards common purposes and doing good things — helping other human beings — there is much to be found there.

If you are part of a small community, like a family or a business, and you are trying to save money or try new things to survive, involve them. You’d be surprised at how enthusiastically people, even young children, can get involved in something if they feel that there’s a sense of mission and togetherness. That you’re all doing something and going somewhere together.

The worst approach is to do the opposite: to just let people flail and leave them in the dark and don’t tell them what you’re doing or thinking.

Your book ends on a strangely upbeat note. You don’t just say “everything will be alright eventually” – you predict a “tidal wave of work”. What makes you say that?

There are seven billion people on the planet. Our needs – for education, food, entertainment — have not gone away. They’re simply on pause. Things are going to come back in a hurry and some things are even possibly going to come back at higher levels than before, such as human interaction, events, entertainment. There will no doubt be a period when we will all be cautious and we won’t want to gather, but I suspect that on the far side of that, things will swing the other way. 

The simple principle is that none of the needs that our industry in the world previously serviced have mysteriously disappeared. DM/MC


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