COVID-19: A Litmus Test for SMEs Performance and Survival

By Najafi Auwalu Ibrahim

We are experiencing highest rate of changes in history, leading to a lot of disruptions, envisions, chaos and opportunities. Before the coming of notorious pandemic COVID-19, SMEs business failure is on the rise especially in developing countries like Nigeria. This has skyrocketed Nigerian unemployment rate from 5.5% in January, 2015 to 23.1% in November, 2019 with a projected rise to 33.5% in 2020. And it is expected to double as a result of COVID-19 pandemic.

The current situation has become entrepreneurs’ judgment day, when many debatable issues will be sorted, which might give rise to new ones. Previously, most people see entrepreneurship as “having excess money”, “a chance”, “about connection”, “just being born by nature” or “character”. But we are today faced with a problem which none of the above can save any business, hence, threatening many jobs, business survival and even economy of various countries around the world.

It is my submission that entrepreneurial journey requires more than what has been listed above; character inclusive. Don’t get me wrong, entrepreneurship requires wherewithal such as equipment, finance and passion to achieve success. But success in today’s entrepreneurial journey requires discipline and perseverance. Success is not a person, it’s an event”. These events are made up of very small stones developed and put together strategically over a period of time. We might not be responsible for the effect of COVID-19 on us and our businesses, but we will be responsible for failing to get back stronger and better. The choice is ours.

As we face COVID-19 and its effects on businesses and jobs, it’s an opportunity for “acclaimed entrepreneurs” to know where they stand. According to Michael Gerber “we have entrepreneurs, we have managers and we have technicians”. The entrepreneurs will from this trivial condition identify an opportunity and capitalize on it to remain relevant, ensure survival and sustainability. This is one of the major difference between entrepreneurs and others i.e. their tenacity and the absence of fixed success ideology. The entrepreneurs will not give up despite being faced by one of the adversity of the 21 century, but rather will persevere to redefine and reshape the purpose of their business to ensure its survival and growth.

What does this means?

It means we all, either as individuals or businesses would be affected by COVID-19, but that should not be an end to our life, hopes and dreams. We all need to think outside the box or even draw a new box to survive this trying moment. It’s possible, though not easy, hence, the need to fight valiantly to become victorious.

How can we do it?

Let me start by quoting George Bernard Shaw who says “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” For us and our business to survive post COVID-19 we need to do the unreasonable, change our strategy, make difficult decisions and also push ourselves. Normally, entrepreneurs are known to be proactive, flexible and self- educative among others. The current pandemic requests for more to survive and grow, hence, the following are some of the major to-do list needed by individuals and businesses in this trying moment:

i. We need to be aggressive with our plans: It’s ok to look foolish in the short term for us to win in the long term, hence changing our plans might result in short booing but will lead to cheering in the long run. COVID-19 has created a lot of chaos, and other new things which can be fun, except for people who are afraid of change. Let’s remember that it takes guts to make change, which defines how progressive we are. The fact is, most of our decisions might not be felt by our team, because they may look delicate as compared to when things were normal. At this junction, we all have to temporarily feel the insanity that comes with the situation, but most importantly we should carry our people along in taking any decision. That is, the decision making process should be collaborative and inclusive.

ii. Differentiate between controllable and uncontrollable factors: What we do always have consequences (intended and unintended), the decisions we make and actions we take all have weight. However, certain factors such as government policies, COVID-19 virus cannot be controlled, but our plans and decisions can. So, knowing the difference will give us the chance to consolidate and position our business solidly for the future.

iii. Spend money for the right reasons i.e. drastically reduce cost: We need to cut bait on our losses, we all know them, the ones we have been defending hoping they will come around but secretly we know they never will. This is differentiating between have and must have, doing this will give room for new ideas that win, for success to present themselves. More so money should be spent to either survive or to grow as to actualize new opportunities.

iv. Create certainty for yourself, the business and the customers: We should be beacon of hope to ourselves and also extending same to our business and customers. These include showing them that we really know how a business should be run based on our actions and inactions. The whole point is to keep them happy as well as assure them that the future will be bright. This requires more discipline, work ethics and the likes to ensure we create certainty at least within our business, industry and the community.

v. We should look deep into our existing customers: We need to carefully and deeply watch, listen and respond to our customers needs now, more than before. This will give them the assurance that we are still capable of adding value to them. Many will start looking for new customers, but the real entrepreneurs will focus more on their existing customers, making more contacts to know how their preferences, income and needs have changed and assure them of our readiness to serve them well. In essence, now is the time for consolidation and positioning for the future. Hence, our focus should find out how we can help our customers and make them feel that we are on their side. This will make the customers happy and more confident in us.

vi. Avoid putting more cash when it’s clear the business is sinking: though we need to withstand the pressure and tolerate a lot of risk when the shot is going against us, still we should never hold on to a loser. The moment it doesn’t feel right, you let it go and get away from it. Many will ask what happens to the notion that “entrepreneurs don’t quit”, to me is not quitting but jumping out of a ship, the moment it is actually going to sink. This gives you the opportunity to start a new challenge.

In conclusion, though the situation and the market is delicate, we need to be deliberate in our actions. So lets us all get out there to do what needs to be done. We all need to be game changers in our lives and businesses to survive post COVID-19.

Najafi Auwalu Ibrahim, PhD teaches Entrepreneurship and Venture Creation in the Department of Business Administration of Bayero University, Kano.

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