Coronavirus pandemic gives businesses lessons in survival, innovation

When the coronavirus outbreak forced Sean Giovanni to shut down his recording studio in for two months, he dropped off mobile equipment at staffers’ and artists’ homes. He hoped remote recording would bring in some revenue.

It did. Along with the income, Giovanni got an important lesson that will help his business long after the pandemic has subsided: The Record Shop doesn’t have to be limited to what it can produce onsite.

“Moving to strictly remote work over the past two months has birthed some valuable new ideas for how we can serve our clients in new ways,” Giovanni says.

From experienced owners such as Giovanni to others who just got started, the pandemic is testing their entrepreneurship and teaching valuable lessons about surviving and innovating, whether it’s doing more business remotely, grabbing the opportunity to make a new product or sacrificing some business to cut down on costs. Owners who are ingenious are learning how to survive the pandemic, and hopefully, to prosper in the future.

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Nishantha Abeyrathne’s Sri Lankan company, B&B Engineering, has primarily done construction work at garment factories. The work disappeared when the government imposed a 24-hour curfew in March, effectively shutting the country down.

Within a week, the government allowed factories to reopen, but they were required to install sinks so employees could wash their hands. Abeyrathne seized upon this opportunity and designed a sink with a foot paddle so workers wouldn’t have to touch the faucet.

He ended up producing about 500 sinks, saving the jobs of his 14 workers and temporarily making up some lost revenue. But when the nationwide shutdown ended at in late May, demand for sinks declined and Abeyrathne had no work.

“I am now feeling the real effect of the coronavirus,” he says.

But Abeyrathne has taken a lesson away from the pandemic: He needs to keep being creative to keep the company going.

“I have a lot of ideas,” he says. His next one is to manufacture electrical panel boards for solar energy panel manufacturers.

Restaurant owners have had particularly hard lessons, including the fact that social distancing and ultra-sanitary conditions are now as important as what’s on the menu.

“This is much more apparent than in the past, where most changes were made off consumer purchases,” says Daniel DeLeon, owner of Grumpy’s Restaurant in Jacksonville, Florida.

DeLeon also realizes that his new routine and focus will be standard operating procedure going forward. “These will all stay as permanent policies and practices,” he says.

Alex Van Tuijn, co-owner of four cafes in Brussels, has found that staying in business during a pandemic can mean sacrificing some of the very things a company is known for.

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Van Tuijn was forced to shut his establishments for nearly three months and reopened just last week. But Bar du Matin, a stalwart in the nightlife in the Belgian capital city, is no longer serving breakfast and lunch despite the fact “matin” is French for “morning.”

Because social distancing requirements limit the number of people the cafe can serve and in turn, its revenue, staying open all day is too expensive. It’s now open only from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m.

“We’ve limited the damage a bit by cutting back on the hours,” Van Tuijn says.

Steps like these are necessary to survive — half of Belgium’s 12,000 cafes may not survive the coronavirus crisis, according to an industry association.

Even in the easiest of times, many owners who are experts when it comes to their products and service must learn other aspects of running a company. Dentist Matt McGee found that operating during a pandemic required a different level of knowledge and skills.

Like other dentists and medical professionals, McGee has spent hours learning about the virus; while he’s trained in procedures to limit infections, the coronavirus has been new territory for him, and the information and advice about precautions has frequently changed.

Meanwhile, the staffers of his Nashville, Tennessee office, like all dental office workers, are at high risk for exposure to the virus. They turned to him for information and guidance, for example, on wearing masks and face shields, and he didn’t always have the answers.

“It frustrated me to not be able to give guidance, and as a business owner, you have to be able to deal with chaos like this and still remain calm and in control,” says McGee, whose practice was closed for two months.

While successful business owners are planners, always thinking about what’s next, the virus outbreak has taught them they need to come up with blueprints for survival.

Lina Mokrane spent France’s two-month shutdown trying to come up with ideas for keeping her Paris boutique going, knowing that when she reopened, established customers likely wouldn’t be shopping. Mokrane, who designs and sews her fashions, realized she should use her talents to create custom-made masks. In the process, she got 100 new customers to sell her clothing to going forward.

But if sales remain weak, Mokrane’s Plan B will be to partner with another business owner; for example, a tailor who just sold his business after 25 years in the neighborhood. She also has a Plan C: inviting another designer to share her studio.

If all else fails, she’ll close the shop but keep producing her clothes.

“I have to adapt, if I’m going to save the company,” she says.


Associated Press writers Lori Hinnant in Paris, Bharatha Mallawarachi in Paththanduwana, Sri Lanka and Samuel Petrequin in Brussels contributed to this report.