For Small Business, It’s Not Just About Money
The Media, Government Agencies, and your friends are missing this essential reason this global crisis is so hard for small business.
I started a small business because I wanted to help people and I wanted more control over my own life and how much money I could make. Owning a business meant I could work harder, work smarter, help people, solve problems, and have more control over my income. It meant hope.
My guess is, that’s a story that feels pretty familiar for you. And it’s not about the money.
Since the shutdown started, the media, your friends, and government agencies have all talked about how hard this is for small businesses. But it seems almost as if they think that you can put our businesses on pause, throw some money at the problem, and then open things up when it’s safe, and it’ll all go back to normal, like a dream sequence in a movie. But that’s not how it works. Not even a little bit.
It feels like your entire existence as a small business owner has been added to the coals, and you’re slowly shriveling up in one slow burn. There’s a lot more to this than just the paycheck we’re not able to collect.
In order to understand where your feelings are really coming from, you have to go further back to why you went into business for yourself in the first place. For me, I grew up with a strong amount of instability and struggle. An uninvolved father and a single mom with the weight of the world on her shoulders will give you that.
She worked so hard to balance the bills, maintain some sort of self-identity through work as she built a career, and keep a roof over our heads. I remember once, she was trying to get our house appraised so she could refinance it. As we were rushing to clean the night before the appraisal, a pipe burst, and what began as a consistent drip became a steady stream of water that poured onto our kitchen floor. The look on my mother’s face was a mixture of horrendous anger and pure terror. She was constantly putting out fires, but somehow she made it work. Her greatest wish for me was to be prepared for struggle so I could get through anything. Hope for the best, plan for the worst.
That willingness to take on struggle and responsibility got me to where I am. That’s something small business owners usually have in common. For us, owning a business isn’t about just one thing. It ties into your soul and prepares you for the highs and lows. It’s about the successes, but it’s also about the struggles. Right now, we’re in one hell of a major struggle.
I was ready to take on the struggle when I started my business. I was ready to learn my way through it, figure out what I didn’t know, screw up, be responsible for others, and just… do whatever I could to be helpful. I wasn’t ready for this. I keep reading stories about small businesses struggling, big businesses taking money away from small businesses, how the economy is barely hanging on by a thread. And then I look at my business. The books, the bills, the balance sheets, trying to figure out how to take a square peg and fit it in a round hole. As humans, we experience the world through emotions, but we communicate and justify through logic. The easiest way that we can communicate about the dumpster fire we’re going through right now is to just say, “There’s not enough money.”
But that’s not the whole story. Not by a long shot.
Your business has become a part of your personal identity. I know mine has. Like so many other business owners, I am overly responsible, for myself, my clients, my family, and anyone I hire. It’s my job to take care of others. When our businesses came to a halt, there are real logistics to that. If you pay yourself last, it means you’re less likely to be able to feed your family or pay your bills.
But even when you have the runway, even when you’re doing everything right, you still feel grief. Why? It’s because we’re grieving ourselves. We’re grieving what we’ve worked so hard to build for 5, 10, 15 years, maybe even a lifetime. We’re grieving our lack of control. We’re grieving our identity. We’re grieving the fact that the situation has caused us to be less reliable than we should be. It feels like a universal call to tell you that you can’t. To tell you that you failed. To tell you that you’re unprepared, irresponsible, and out of control.
The money is important. But it’s not just about the money. It’s about everything you’ve worked so hard on, the years you put in, disappearing in a matter of days or weeks. It’s about your hope and happiness drying up with your ability and belief that you can get through this.
It’s about the anger you feel when you read that publicly traded companies took $1,008,336,617 in small business grant money (and counting)… money you applied for, not because you wanted it but because you needed it. Money that was kept from you. Money that wasn’t about money, but was about paying your people for another 14 days, staying in business for just a little longer. Having an extra week to plan. It’s about feeling “less than” when your bank decides not to process your application, but instead processed applications for a hedge fund or hotelier. If we vote with our dollars, banks and those who make “the big decisions” have voted with theirs. Results are in: you, dear small business owner, do not matter. That’s worth getting angry about.
It’s the anger that, to others, sounds like it’s about money. But it’s not. If money is a tool to help you accomplish goals, the work you’ve put into building something, then it’s about what it means when your entire toolkit bursts into flames and catches on your coat, lighting all of those around you on fire. You have to watch the infrastructure collapse around you, and then you have the burden of deciding what to do with the broken pieces when the fire clears. That’s how it feels.
There’s a lot of talk about managing this situation mentally. Mindset, by Dr. Carol Dweck’s, is a book I like to lean on for this subject. One of the chapters compares the experience of depression from students who gave a growth mindset vs. a fixed mindset. Fixed mindsets typically don’t waiver from their deep-set views and opinions, while those with the growth mindset are more open to accepting change.
Both groups faced depression and a change in brain chemistry. Students who held a fixed mindset avoided facing their failure by giving up. Students with the growth mindset trudged through failure by continuing to show up, even if they were miserable, and eventually make their way out.
The difference was the simple act of showing up, even when they didn’t want to. It’s not about avoiding the problem. It’s the reaction when the problem arises.
Sometimes showing up when things are hard is the best thing you can do. Even when you feel like a failure, even when you’re worried that the world is ending, the difference of long term success is: keep showing up.
I keep thinking about that chapter. Small business owners don’t give up. That doesn’t make this any easier, it doesn’t mean there’s light at the end of the tunnel. It means the captain goes down with the ship. And sometimes, that ship becomes a lifeboat. It means fighting for hope.
Considering Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a lot of us have seriously regressed. You haven’t just floundered on the top needs of self-actualization, esteem, and love, you’ve potentially seen a dissolution your ability to care for yourself and others. The structure of safety is gone.
Recovering means rebuilding some semblance of safety while grieving what you’ve lost, what you’ve spent a lifetime working toward. It’s not flimsy emotional waffling, it’s a complete loss of who you are as a human. We start to wonder if our businesses have a real place in the world, as we know it now and as we knew it back then. We’ve been knocked out of equilibrium here. I lost 90% of my contracts, so I’m no different.
My therapist keeps telling me that the pandemic acts like a magnifying glass. It shines a light on all of the dark places you hadn’t cleaned up, makes small things into big things, and when the sun shines through just right it starts to set things on fire.
Now that this dumpster fire is here, what’s going to be left when it burns out?
I’m doing whatever I can to turn the situation into an opportunity, for my team, my clients, and others, because that voice my mom instilled in me is in the back of my head, telling me that if I don’t pick things up, no one else is coming. I think a lot of business owners feel that way.
There is no right or wrong answer here. Every business is going to have their unique perspective on their needs. The best place to start is knowing where you are, and where the people who depend on you are. On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where do you actually fall? From there, understand how to show up and what it means to be useful when you get there. Know that it’s okay to be scared and do it anyway. Take the approach of “I have no idea what I’m doing and I’m going to risk it anyway because that’s the world right now.” Because sometimes just showing up is the best answer.
Part of me still feels like I’m watching the pipe drain onto the kitchen floor. I don’t have all of the answers, but I know how to get a bucket, mop up some water, and patch a ceiling. At this point, we just have to get started, one step at a time. And. Keep. Showing. Up.
Hi there, I'm Cat Bradley
Founder of SewEthico, systems enthusiast, marketing expert, and nonprofit career alum. I help women founders build their first marketing departments and structure their company around their clients, so they can grow, prove traction, and gain funding for their mission-driven businesses. Get my support to grow your business.