Almost a year into the COVID-19 pandemic striking the U.S., the business landscape for agencies and freelancers is still practically unrecognizable. Newly remote teams are learning how to communicate differently, brands are reining in their budgets, and global economic uncertainty makes it difficult to plan for the future.
Navigating the stress of a crisis is challenging on its own. Surviving it as a business can feel impossible—but it doesn’t have to be. We asked 3 entrepreneurs who’ve lived through personal and economic crises for their advice on how to take care of yourself, your team, and your business during the toughest of times.
Embrace a new way of doing business
In 1999, Scott Hardigree’s digital marketing agency, Push Interactive, was winning awards and working on projects with premier clients. Then, the terrorist attacks on 9/11 happened. Business dried up overnight.
At first, Hardigree and his team tried to cling to the old ways of drumming up business. It didn’t work. “I was at a crossroads,” he says: Do we go for bigger clients through bigger agencies, or do we focus on smaller clients at a higher volume? He decided to take the latter path, transitioning his agency into a high-volume shop.
His agency’s days of flashy decks and $50,000 bids were behind them; instead, Hardigree and his team sought out smaller jobs, and lots of them. Before 9/11, “we had a certain strength, but that strength didn't work in the world we were living in now,” he says. “So, we pivoted.” The resulting work didn’t win the agency the prestigious awards they’d won before, but it did result in a major victory: surviving.
Santiago Melluso, founder at TakeFortyTwo, found himself in a similar position at the onset of COVID-19, which caused a 50% plunge in business for his agency. “It changed our offer, and it changed our demand,” he says.
Instead of big, sprawling, months-long jobs with high-profile clients, the agency sought out smaller, quicker-turnaround projects with small businesses and startups. “We're trying not to commit to large, challenging projects, because we have no idea if we're going to have the same team in 3 months,” he says. “So we started scaling down the kind of project volume to take things we could do in smaller chunks, that at the same time might be even more impactful for our clients right now.”
Adapt quickly, and often
As Push Interactive grappled with the economic aftermath of 9/11, they had to become more nimble in the process. The agency, which previously shipped a couple new projects a month, was now meeting that volume nearly every day. By necessity, processes and roles had to change. “Before, we could be clumsy, because we were making money despite ourselves,” says Hardigree. “Now we really just had to execute fast.”
In this “all hands on deck” mode, roles shifted based on strengths and immediate, strategic needs, not titles on business cards: Hardigree took over sales, while their former sales lead switched gears into project management, and a creative director with technical prowess focused on development. “In the end, what it did for us is it really improved our process,” Hardigree says. “We learned a lot of lessons about process, which we didn't have to learn before, and we applied those in the future.”
“Back then we called it, just being flexible, doing whatever it took,” he adds. “Now I’d call it adaptability.”
Figure out what you need
Adapting can involve reorganizing your whole team. Other times, it can be as simple as a new piece of furniture. Rolling with the punches took on a slightly different form for Amy Hall, a marketer who moved in with her 92-year-old father at the end of his life. Hall continued running her business while simultaneously taking care of her dad. Things got off to a rocky start when her father wandered into the background of Hall’s video calls with clients, mostly naked.
So, Hall adapted. She transitioned from the kitchen table to a desk, and bought a folding screen for her own privacy. It sounds simple, but assessing her immediate challenges and proactively meeting her own needs became crucial for Hall to make it through this tumultuous period. “Instead of complaining about it, I said, ‘How can I make this a workable situation? Where does the opportunity lie? Does it work, or does it not? And if not, what do I need to do to make this an environment that works well for me?’”
Redefine your victories
Before 9/11, Hardigree and his team celebrated winning major awards and inking high-profile clients. In the aftermath, the agency’s definition of a “win” looked drastically different. But recognizing and celebrating those “mini victories” helped keep morale from flagging, says Hardigree. “Even if it was a small deal, or a project they cranked out, we were celebrating the work.”
It’s not just about feeling good, either — Melluso says those small victories give his team the energy they need to carry on through a really challenging time. “As soon as you start having a little bit of business, getting good feedback from people, helping your customers and relying on them at the same time... that positive circle is what pushes you forward,” he says.
Give yourself (and your team) permission to grieve — then, keep going
Melluso has navigated a handful of business crises over the years, including near-fatal growing pains and, later, surviving the European financial crisis of the late aughts.
When the pandemic hit, Melluso found himself moving through the same familiar stages he’d experienced before: denial, panic, self-doubt. (He even had a dream recently in which his accountant recommended he fake his own death.) “But eventually, after all of that, you have to take a deep breath and realize you don't have another option but to move forward and fight for it,” he says.
Written by Gray Chapman
Gray Chapman is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, and Atlanta Magazine, among others. She lives in Atlanta with her husband, son, and two poorly behaved but very loved dogs.