This is in reference to the local community store that offered fresh produce, baked goods, and plant-based meals; the new virtual shops that curated and offered home delivery of household supplies from soaps and disinfectants, light bulbs and batteries, to barbeque grills and children’s activity books; the village delivery fleets, errand runners and personal shoppers that kept people safe and sane within the confines of their homes and communities amidst the imposition of shelter-in-place measures.
With this context came renewed appreciation for local, for home-made or non-commercialized production, casual servicing and less formal transactions. Buyers embraced kitchen packaging, new modes of payment, long or uncertain delivery time, even exorbitant delivery fees. And despite being unfamiliar, the innovativeness and accessibility of these local goods and services amidst scarcity, capped by empathy and warmth that transcended the social distancing and mobility restrictions, was a refreshing experience that made it easy for people to adopt these new local micro-enterprises into their daily locked down lives.
However, soon the entire playing field will re-open. Bigger players forced to shut down will resume operations and woo old patrons back. The usual plethora of choices will be back, with the strongest players ready to raise the bar of quality, safety and convenience in the so called “new normal.” Vulnerability looms as the conditions that worked for local micro-enterprises begin to shift. How can they survive what might just be the ultimate stress test of their right to play?
If you are a local micro-entrepreneur facing the above-mentioned challenges, I hope to be of help by sharing a few important points to think about and quickly act on.
Rethink and fortify your value proposition.
Assess if the distinctive features of your product or service will continue to matter when the crisis eases out. If there is doubt here, it is best to rethink your offering now and strengthen, innovate or pivot into something that holds greater relevance in the longer term. Anticipate the bigger set of competitors you will soon be up against. Assume higher service expectations from an increasingly convenience-driven society and prepare to be competitive on that aspect. Understand what your current buyers love about your product, what you can offer that others cannot and deliver on that without fail.
Build a strong brand.
Choose a brand that is unique and memorable. As a new player, you need one that suggests credibility. And as people live and fight through lingering threats to their health and safety, emphasizing trustworthiness and quality in your brand name, language and visual identity will go a long way.
Be ready to diversify or find new modes of fulfillment.
Prepare for when buyers are no longer willing to shoulder cost of delivery. Is there a way to maintain cost-efficient localized distribution? How can you continue to be available when your buyers are no longer constrained to home delivery or nearby options? This is the time to anticipate people’s shifting purchasing patterns, study alternative distribution channels and pricing scenarios and work on necessary adjustments quickly.
Continue to be most accessible.
Build an always-on hub— a business page, a site, or a social media account where you can keep buyers informed, engaged and interested in your product or service even as the lure of physical shopping or the array of choices comes back. Be very easy to find and keep that warm and personal local brand touch upon which your current customer relationships were built.
Overinvest in quality.
This is perhaps the biggest imperative of the post-pandemic product and service landscape. Expect people to switch from tolerant to highly scrutinizing of the safety and quality of ingredients and sources, of processing and assembly, of packaging and delivery protocols and design. Think of how you can secure and communicate that people are making an uncompromised choice in your young local brand.
Ruthlessly seek out whatever it is that needs to be learned.
Never has the world so generously enabled learning the way that it does today. Almost anything can now be learned online, some even for free, through sponsored content or peer-to-peer advice. Keep learning whatever new skills are necessary. Read up and feed your mind with a steady stream of fresh inspiration that can unlock possibilities for your enterprise.
Embrace digital tools and platforms to strengthen your market presence and service delivery.
Digital is one ally every small business can count on to outsmart the usual disadvantages of a game of sheer size and scale and win in a fair game of operational efficiency, relevance and customer experience. Allow the many digital tools available today to help you operate faster and smarter— from making yourself available and reachable, to delivering a great buying experience every single time.
Perhaps the only economic bright spot in the time of COVID-19, this new cohort of business innovators called local micro-enterprises brought food on the table as jobs were taken away and as salaries froze. As supply chains broke down, their ingenuity in sourcing allowed small-scale producers and resellers, otherwise lacking access and bargaining power, to be found and given a fair chance. Home-based creative skills, previously not converting to monetized labor, were unlocked and allowed to create and capture economic value. Entrepreneurial thinking and practice built financial and psychological resilience in families and households.
To the micro-entrepreneurs reading this, thank you for keeping the economy moving while all else stood still. Great challenges lie ahead but nothing that cannot be beaten by the same resilience, ingenuity, and charm that brought your enterprises to life in the first place; and of course, ideally with a little help from government bodies, from the buying public and from the bigger business community.
And so, for the rest of us, I would end with this much-needed food for thought: think to yourself, “how might I support a local micro-enterprise today?”