Ask your elders: how to be resilient in chaotic times

When it comes to adapting to and dealing with challenging macroeconomic risks, who better to ask for help than experienced business founders who've been there and done that?
ask your elders 16x9 hero

The following was first published in Thrive, a new limited email series by Courier, designed to help small businesses make some sense of the current economic climate. Subscribe here.

From the 40-year-old electrical supplies shop that claims to sell the best olive oil in England to an Arizona brownie business that's been around so long that it owns the URL brownies.com, we caught up with four veteran business owners who've stood the test of time to find out what goes into their secret sauce.

1. Don't be afraid to ask for help.

‘Asking for help is one of the things that I learned starting in college because I was at USC's [The University of Southern California's] entrepreneur program and there was an advisory council,’ says Eileen Joy Spitalny, founder of Phoenix-based brownie company Fairytale Brownies. ‘When my partner and I started our business [in 1992], I said: we've got to have people that we can ask for help.’

When the 2008 recession hit, an advisory council – initially paid in nothing more than baked treats – helped the company through some tough decisions. In particular, the council advised cutting staff numbers, which was a super difficult step to take, Eileen admits. ‘It was pretty traumatic. We had friends work for us, and we just had to let them go.’

The business pulled through and ended up rehiring many of those it let go. Today, more than one in three of Fairytale Brownies' staff have been with the company for a decade or more. Eileen recommends being open and honest with your staff about challenges and operating an open-book accounting system so that they know why difficult decisions are made – something that put the business in a better position for the pandemic, she says.

2. Stick to your guns.

Ann's, a specialist lighting shop in London's Kensington neighborhood, hasn't been immune to the struggles that have hit the wider retail world in recent years. But dogged determination from the owner, Mandy Goldstein, who's been in charge for 30 years, has kept it going.

‘We work in a very different way now than we did before Covid,’ Mandy admits. Footfall into the store is lower and therefore sales staff work harder to ensure customers feel that their visit is worthwhile. But sticking with Ann's niche – the business had existed for half a century before Mandy took it over – has helped the business thrive. Ann's has shunned online shopping, too, instead prioritizing the in-person experience. 

Mandy has declined to diversify the product range at Ann's over the years, sticking with what her customers know and trust the business for: dramatic reproduction lighting. ‘We're one of the last makers of handmade lampshades, which is a very cottage industry,’ she says. But maintaining its specialism has kept Ann's in business for 80 years – well, that and Mandy's force-of-nature personality. ‘Whatever challenge faces you, if you've got a heart for what you do, I think it helps a lot,’ she says. 

3. Know what people want.

In New York, bodegas play an important role in the life of the city. It's where you go to buy your groceries and your morning coffee; it's your pharmacy when you're sick and your hardware store when the sink breaks. For bodega manager Rafael Perez, who's run Chinese Hispanic Grocery in the ​​Lower East Side for just under 40 years, reliability is the name of the game. ‘We know what people need, and we keep it here for them,’ he says. 

Nearly everything about the Lower East Side has changed drastically since Rafael first arrived from the Dominican Republic five decades ago – everything except the store that he runs. ‘We're the same family-run business as in 1984,’ says Rafael. ‘The neighbors – they like us; we understand each other.’ 

Of course, it's not that the store never changes: the beer selection in the fridge has expanded to include craft IPAs, and the cigarettes behind the register are now accompanied by JUUL vape pods. It's also a social club and gathering place, which is why Rafael converted the store's basement into a makeshift cantina where, on any given night, you'll find 20 to 30 people shooting pool, playing dominoes and arguing over the sound of traditional Dominican music. But for many of his customers, Rafael's smiling face is the one consistent thing in a city of breakneck transformation. ‘He's part of the furniture here; he's family,’ says Jamal Salam, one of Rafael's regular customers. ‘This is community. If you're short a dollar, he gives you a dollar.’ 

On his success, Rafael says: ‘The store is old-fashioned, and that's the way people like it.’ In a city that often feels like it's out to get you, sometimes the best service a business can offer is making you feel at home.

4. Stay on the ball.

Mehmet Murat opened Embassy Electrical Supplies in London in 1980. It's an Aladdin's cave of electrical items – as well as the producer of some of London's best olive oil. The side gig came about when Mehmet's father passed away in 2002 and his son took over his olive oil business, which had previously sold most of its product to Cypriot co-operatives. Mehmet decided to bring some oil to London and bottle it himself, selling it from his store. ‘It seemed to take off,’ he says. 

But, as with any business, there were teething problems. The olive oil producer knows reputation is everything in business, and so he works hard to ensure customers are satisfied. ‘We send out loads of parcels by DHL and various other couriers, and I keep an eye on it regularly,’ he says. ‘Every day, I'm making sure they get to where they're meant to. That's what's kept our business going all these years.’

For more advice, check out Courier's special report, 25 big lessons from small business, where we spoke to a collection of inspiring business owners about the important decisions they've made and what they learned along the way.

A version of this article was published in Courier's Thrive newsletter. For more insights, analysis and inspiration, sign up here.

You might like these, too