To say that COVID-19 has taken a heavy toll on the small business community would be a serious understatement. All around the world, countless businesses are struggling to maintain their operations due to this pandemic. But, while there’s no way to escape the consequences of this devastating health crisis, there are several steps you can take to keep your small business up and running during these difficult times. In this episode, Gene Marks and special guest Anita Comisky share several strategies that helped protect her business from the negative effects of COVID-19.
0:35—Today’s Topic: What Can I Do to Help My Small Business Survive Covid-19?
3:23—Because so many retail stores have been affected by COVID-19, business owners need to think beyond traditional sales platforms if they want to effectively diversify their channels.
5:25—In order to navigate this health crisis, small business owners are encouraged to carefully assess their potential sales numbers and then, adjust their operating expenses accordingly.
6:14—While a PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loan can help shoulder some of your business’s financial burdens, it is only a short term solution. Small businesses really need to concentrate on revamping their marketing strategies and online presence if they want to survive this pandemic.
7:21—Rather than saving your cash reserves for future investments, use them to supplement your current working capital.
8:43—When evaluating your cash flow for the next few months, it is not enough to merely set new sales goals; you also need to create a realistic timeline for when you can actually collect those receivables.
10:27—Now is an ideal time to take a hard look at your current customer base and think about how you can broaden it. By targeting new audiences, you will inevitably open your business up to new sales channels and opportunities.
13:54—As cities prepare to reopen, make sure that your business is equipped to handle the “new normal,” both in terms of operations and marketing.
14:45—Business owners should prepare an extended cash flow in case there is a second wave of COVID-19 cases. This will prevent them from incurring any additional debt from unnecessary expenses.
Protect your business during a state-mandated lockdown with this checklist.
Gene: Hey everybody. Welcome back to the Small Biz Ahead podcast. This is Gene Marks. I am not joined today by Jon Aidukonis due to technical issues. We miss him, but he will be back, I am sure, on our next podcast. But in the meantime, I wanted to introduce my guest who has a really interesting story to tell about herself and her business. Her name is Anita Comisky. She’s the founder of Amelia Toffee Company down in Florida. Anita, first of all, let me ask you for an awkward, hello.
Gene: It’s always awkward when you get these things started. So listen, you and I, we knew each other from before and I kind of heard your story earlier, but let me first… Let me ask you to tell the crowd listening, what exactly does Amelia Toffee Company do? Give us a little history.
Anita: Well, we started about five years ago and we started because I’d been making toffee for 50 years and just like many other folks in the food business, everyone raved about it. And we thought that it was good enough to go to market. We started off very slowly and I thought it was going to be a seasonal business. Our customers just fell in love with it. And one of the reasons why is because we make a lot of unique flavors. We have a bourbon toffee that we make with a local handcrafted bourbon. We do a coffee toffee and we use a local non-profit survivor roasted coffee. We do a key lime and orange. It’s all dark chocolate and a little almonds and the public has fallen in love with it. And we’ve grown from just a handful of stores to over 550. In the last couple of years, we experienced real growth, maybe two or three years ago.
Gene: My favorite flavor of yours is the brussel sprouts flavored toffee. It’s delicious and more so than any of the others that you mentioned. So yeah, so you were going gangbusters and doing well and why not? Because you’re selling toffees. Who doesn’t love that? How big… About how many employees or people do you have and where are you located and what kind of a facility do you have? Just to give some perspective.
Anita: Sure. We are located out of Jacksonville, Florida. And a lot of you are hearing much news about Jacksonville these days because of the RNC Convention coming here. We’re located on an island next to Jacksonville. We’ve got our own production kitchen. This time of year, we’ve got five employees and then we bump it up to around 15 during the holidays. We have been affected just like many over the last couple of months with COVID. And we did go down to bare bones operation. My employees were furloughed for a very short period of time, but we are now back in action and we are very excited to have everyone back working.
Gene: You mentioned that you’re affected and I think to myself like toffee, we’re all at home watching Netflix and eating too much. It seems like you have the perfect company. You sell online. I would have thought you guys would have been going gangbusters. Why wasn’t that the case?
Anita: That’s a great question. We are sold in a number of specialty stores throughout the country and they had to shutter. So we lost that market. We had to pivot. We did have an online presence before COVID, but frankly, I hadn’t paid much attention to it because we were doing so well with the specialty retailers and it took a good lesson to learn. And we all know it’s not putting all our eggs in one basket and we have put a majority of our eggs in specialty retailers because we’re small crafted and handmade and that’s really what resonates with the public.
Gene: We talk about diversifying our channels so if you were to tell me like, “Hey Gene, do you know I’ve got hundreds of stores, specialty stores that I sell to?” At first, I’d be like, “Okay. Well, that’s good because you’re diversifying.” But actually, because your channel was like a specific type of channel. When that entire channel got shut down, that obviously hurt the rest of your business, correct?
Anita: Yes. And I never would have expected it. We thought that we were well-diversified in that channel too, because not only did we sell to small specialty stores, but we sold to a hotel chain and also some airport shop. And gosh, I never would have imagined that our hotel business and airport business would disappear really overnight.
Gene: Yeah. It was pretty sudden. So you mentioned about furloughing and cutting back. I’m curious to hear specifically, how did you navigate… this is good two months of declining sales. What were the past couple of months like? And then I’d like to talk about the future.
Anita: Well, we, just like everyone, had to really look at our numbers and we had to figure out what was reasonable, what were good forecasted sales numbers and to cut our operating expenses in line with those numbers. And just like many small businesses, we received some PPP money, but a lot of people don’t realize that that’s a short term fix.
Anita: That allowed us to get our employees back working, but it didn’t help us the following month. So you mentioned changing or revisiting distribution channels and sales channels. We spent a little more money on PR and also infrastructure for our website. So we really built more of an online presence so that we could keep our employees working the month of May and that’s worked out really well. We’ve added a couple of new distributors, online distributors. We’ve also gone out to our community and asked about corporate orders and because our communities all want to support small business, they were, I think, willing to spend the dollars locally and maybe they wouldn’t have done that a year ago.
Gene: So you furloughed some employees. You took some PPP money. You clearly had some cash reserves. Because of all of this, you reevaluated your channels and it looks like you did some investment in other places like online and places that could hopefully better diversify you. And it sounded like you also used the time to innovate a little bit marketing-wise by reaching out to the community. All of these things together kind of saw you through. During this period, were you scared?
Anita: Oh gosh. I think everyone’s still scared. I think that we’re wondering if there’s going to be a second wave. We’re [inaudible 00:07:31] a nice, I won’t say strong rebound, but every month has gotten better. April was very soft. May was better. June is not quite up to where we were last June, so that we’re probably 80% of where we were last June, which we’re thrilled with. And you mentioned having cash reserves. Yes, we’ve held on to our cash. We were going to make some capital investments and some machinery and some signage. And at this point we put that on hold and we’re using those dollars for working capital.
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Gene: You had told me before when we spoke offline that you’ve got a financial background. Tell me how you applied that to this period and how important your knowledge of finances and numbers were?
Anita: In the food business, everyone looks at margins and everyone talks about margins, but there’s a lot more to it than that. And we sat down very early in March and actually did a cash flow. And we looked out at least through June at what we thought we would be not only getting in sales so what our sales would be, but how quickly we could collect those receivables. And many small businesses had to push out payment. So we knew that the receivables that we were sitting on in March wouldn’t be collected in April, that they’d be trickling in April, and maybe we’d have all of it in by the end of June. So yes, that was key in when we made the decision to bring in employees back. It also forced us to go out and spend more time marketing and selling because we needed additional dollars and we knew that our current customer base wasn’t able to give us the dollars that we needed because many of them were shot. And we also cut our expenses down by not buying as much in raw materials, packaging, as we normally do.
Gene: As somebody who focuses on numbers the way you do, do you think you’re going to change any of your reporting going forward? I mean, the numbers are so skewed that in April of 2021, it’s going to be really hard for you to say like, “Oh, well, this April was much better than last year’s April.” Well, of course it was because you were shut down. Are you going to make any changes to your financial reporting?
Anita: Not so much the financial reporting, Gene, but what I’ve been doing and I think that this has been very useful for us and I’ve been talking to other business owners and sharing this, we’ve been really taking a hard look at our customer base and what type of customer they are and we talked earlier about channels. Well, we’re going to make sure going forward that we’re even better diversified in those channels than we were previously, so that we are better prepared if there is another downturn. And I mentioned corporate gifts, we hadn’t done much on that front prior to this. Now, we’re really spending a lot more time going after that market. And of course, we’re going to continue to make our online presence robust. So the thing that I’d say to everyone is sit down every week and look at your customers. Who are the new ones? Who do you think is going to stay around and be a repeat customer? And where are the opportunities to build new relationships?
Gene: Yeah. That’s great advice. Okay. So great, you survived it so far, putting aside any potential second wave, although we’ll talk about that in a minute. And here we are, the country’s beginning to reopen as you and I are talking. It’s in the middle of June. What is reopening like for your business? What are you doing for your employees? How are things different now than they were four months ago?
Anita: We’re very excited that we can say that we’re open. Of course, we’re doing all of the necessary and needed steps to make our employees safe and make our customers feel safe. We’re wearing the mask. We’re cleaning. We’re doing all of those things. And what’s interesting to me is that we were doing those things in the past, but now it’s even heightened. So we’re doing that. We’re making sure that everyone feels comfortable with us. We are doing more promotions right now. We’re doing those online.
And then we’re looking at ways of doing some things very differently. I think that the shop local is extremely important, but I think it’s falling on deaf ears. People have heard that over and over again, and I’ve heard small batch and handcrafted. You have to have a very different message now to stand out from the crowd. So for example, a group of women business owners in this area are getting together and we’re all working on joint marketing together and we’re going to be marketing to a very different group than had been marketed to before. So I think that there are ways of also making this positive now. We’ve all had a lot of bad news and there needs to be some energy and enthusiasm that, gosh, we are starting to get back to whatever the new normal or new routine looks like.
Gene: I have to say, I’m with the Republican Convention coming as well. That’s got to be a huge opportunity for you guys, right? Everybody should be getting a little package of toffees when they check in at the hotel.
Anita: Well, thanks. Actually, this group of women is putting together a welcome basket for some of our high profile visitors here.
Anita: It’s going to create a lot of traffic on our island and also in Northeast Florida. So we’re really energized about that. And it’s a real boost to our economy now when we really need it.
Anita: I don’t think there’s going to be a lot more waves of grants or funding available so small businesses are going to have to look at ways that they can go out and create some sales.
Gene: So Anita, as people talking about it, a potential second wave of the virus, you and I don’t know, no one knows if there is, but are you thinking about it? And are you doing any, making any plans for that now?
Anita: Yeah. One of the things that we’re doing is, I mentioned that we did a cashflow in March. Well, we’ve extended that out through the end of December. We typically start purchasing holiday packaging now, and we’re holding back on that. I understand from all of my suppliers that they’re hearing the same sorts of things. So we’re moving very cautiously. We’re not adding any hours to our employees. We’re not building up any inventory. In fact, I’ve never run our business with the inventory levels as low as they are, but I feel comfortable in that because I don’t have an investment that’s just sitting there. You and I talked a couple of weeks ago and one of the things that you asked me was, did I have a COVID-19 expense line on my PNL?
Anita: And I told you, “Yes, I did.” Well, one of the things that fell into that line was old inventory that we didn’t sell. And I think that there are a lot of food manufacturers then anyone with a shelf life product also ended up throwing away a lot of product because it just didn’t move. So we’re looking at that line. That line is glaring to me and that we have to make sure that we’re not throwing away anymore inventory. We can’t afford that at this point.
Gene: Anita Comisky is the founder of Amelia Toffee Company. It’s ameliatoffee.com. That’s A, M, E, L, I, A, T, O, F, F, E, E.com. I recommend the brussel sprouts flavor, if you’re not a fan and I’m just kidding, there is no brussel sprouts favor. Check out their website. There’s plenty of great stuff to buy as it continues, as Anita continues to expand their online presence. Thank you, Anita. That was a great conversation, a lot of lessons learned, and I wish you well going forward. Everyone, thanks for joining us for another edition of the Small Biz Ahead podcast. For the latest on small business trends, visit the Hartford Small Biz Ahead Blog. We’ve got articles and how-tos and videos to help you run your business more efficiently. Check us out at smallbizahead.com. My name is Gene Marks. Thanks for listening.
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