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Small Business Agility: Adapting to Survive and Thrive Under COVID-19

All small business owners know: being a Jack-of-all-trades just goes with the territory. From sales and advertising to billing and tech support to HR and janitorial work, small business owners do it all. Finding a niche and selling the value of a service or product aimed at that market is what sets a successful small business apart and makes or break small-business longevity. Particularly now, under COVID-19 closures and sometimes severely limiting operating restrictions, small business owners have to be even more resourceful as a matter of pure survival.

Since the start of school and business closures in Washington State in March, I’ve witnessed some of my small-business owner colleagues close up shop in this state and elsewhere while others have actually thrived under COVID-19 restrictions. What was the difference? Why did one small restaurant go under while another see expanded profit margins and increased customer demand? Why, was one longtime martial arts school forced to shutter its doors while another, as in my case, continued to get new enrollments? The major factor that I observed was an innovative vision combined with the agility of being a small business.

Take the martial arts business as an example. COVID-19 mandates here in Washington State forced martial arts schools to close in March for several reasons: 1) they were classified as gyms and fitness centers, so, therefore, non-essential, 2) physical distancing restrictions directly affected martial arts teaching and training methods that required constant physical contact, 3) initial scientific research findings pointed to forced vocalization or breathing, such as singing, laughing, or, more pertinent for martial arts, the kiai (loud yell), as transmission vectors for COVID-19.

In January, the first known case of COVID-19 in the U.S. was reported right here in Washington State. In February, when the first public schools in Snohomish county and colleges in the state preemptively closed, some martial arts schools in the area followed suit out of an abundance of caution. My martial arts school held off for a little longer since we also had an After School Program that serviced students in the neighborhood schools and surrounding community. But, once the Seattle Schools district officially shut down on March 12th, this, coupled with the other mandates, meant we couldn’t justify staying open any longer without appearing to be ignorant, or, worse, flatly defiant, of the public health safety recommendations.

At that time, Seattle schools were slated to reopen in late March after a 14-day closure. In the end, Seattle schools remained closed for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year. During this time, new statewide mandates enforced non-essential business closures statewide, and many small business began to close permanently after stimulus money ran out. For our part, we used the two-week closure to evaluate our options. We, like other small businesses, were determined to find ways to work within the mandate restrictions and survive through what we all hoped would not be a prolonged economic closure. After much research and trial and error, we offered our first online karate classes on March 26th. In retrospect, I had always intended to implement some type of online offering for karate years ago, so, in a sense, the idea has had some time to germinate, but it was the COVID-19 mandates that spurred the idea out of sitting in the abstract ether and into action. Today, we offer online karate classes as part of our expanded regular karate program offerings. Next up, the ideas that have been developing out of offering online classes.

The response to offering online karate classes was far beyond what we had anticipated, but we also knew that we would need to figure out a way to grow our business since our After School Program was, for the foreseeable future, no longer an option. My Facebook feed was full of disgruntled business owners who couldn’t find a way to adapt under COVID-19 restrictions. But, I was intrigued by the small alcohol distilleries that revamped and redefined themselves as essential business when they began producing much-needed hand sanitizer to address the national shortage. It turns out that there was a little gray area in the restrictions that exempted childcare and daycare operations since they were considered essential businesses because they supported essential workers. This information, however, was buried deep within the multitude of regularly-released documents, sometimes daily, delineating the closures and explaining the restrictions.

Because we already had extensive experience with our After School Program, we were able to redefine our program, initially, to at least continue our 2020 summer camp offering. While other summer camps had announced cancellations in response to the closures and restrictions, we simply waited, not wanting to react and over commit too soon. This allowed us to keep our options open for as long as possible and to take advantage of the state mandates that eventually and quietly listed daycare and childcare programs, including summer camps, as exempt from closure and essential.

My academic background in creating programs and working with students along with our combined teaching experience, After School Program, summer camps, and online karate classes allowed us to test and refine our continually-developing operating procedures and to resolve the technological glitches for what would eventually be our newest program: the Washington Karate Remote School Program (WKA RSP). In June, when Seattle Schools hinted, then officially announced in August, that the district would be moving to online schooling for the Fall, we were ready as an essential business to support students with online schooling allowing parents to work. A few days ago, Seattle Schools announced the district would continue with online schooling for the rest of the first semester, and without a national plan for reopening, we anticipate this to continue for the second semester as well.

We don’t know when things will go back to “normal,” but as a small business, our size and resources, things that could have otherwise been limiting factors, turned out to be our most valuable assets for innovation and agility in surviving COVID-19. We consider ourselves fortunate and are thankful that rather than laying off employees, were were able to hire and grow our team at at a time when other well-established small businesses were closing their doors for good.

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