For all the tides of statistics that we have gotten used to during the Covid-19 pandemic – infection rates, positivity rates, hospitalisations, vaccinations, recoveries and deaths – there is a number that we will probably never know, but which represents one of the most heartbreaking phenomena of the crisis.
Hidden among the “excess deaths” count is a certain number of business owners who died, not of Covid-19, but of stress related to the struggles of their business and their workers. Even if the number is small, says René Botha, area manager at Business Partners Limited, who knows of at least one such case, it represents the tip of an enormous iceberg of mental and physical anguish that business owners have suffered over the past year and a half.
Although in some sectors entrepreneurs have been doing exceptionally well because of the pandemic, business owners in industries such as entertainment and education have been through agony, arguably even more so than employees.
While some salaried folk suffered the hardship of having to look for new jobs, some business owners have seen the destruction of all they have built. Not only have business owners had to take pay cuts like their workers, but they have had to scramble and scrape to make sure that they could pay their workers at least something. Very few businesses had a buffer to tide them over a crisis of this magnitude.
The usually benign and satisfying feeling of responsibility that business owners feel towards their workers and their families suddenly became a heavy burden of guilt. As bosses, they normally feel mostly in control of their lives and their businesses. Now they must cope with feelings of utter helplessness.
Much of business nowadays is of a stop-start nature, says René. Just as a project is about to get off the ground, one of the parties contracts Covid-19, or it is postponed because of new restrictions brought on by another wave of Covid-19 infections. For earners of corporate or government salaries these are mere frustrations. For business owners, each postponement is an existential threat to their business and their livelihood.
Loneliness is a problem for business owners at the best of times. They don’t have the advantages of collegial relationships. During the crisis it has become overwhelming for many entrepreneurs. Their networks among their fellow entrepreneurs and peers in the corporate world have all but collapsed together with the events and meetings that sustained it in pre-Covid times, says René.
And as the pandemic drags on, the sympathy for struggling business owners is running out. Loan holidays can no longer be extended, and even the most forgiving suppliers need to have their accounts settled. In turn, those struggling business owners themselves have to make hard-nosed calls on those who owe them money, no matter how much they empathise with their debtors’ predicament.
René says it is instructive to observe which entrepreneurs have proven to be most resilient in the face of such unprecedented mental pressure.
Generally, the super-organised types were able to hit the ground running when the pandemic struck. They had their financials and documentation ready to apply for various relief funds. They were also able to make very quick decisions about staying open, going dormant or cutting their losses and closing down completely before losing everything.
Innovative and highly entrepreneurial business owners were able to pivot quickly, turning their restaurants into take-aways, for example, or even into completely different production facilities.
Business owners with excellent communication skills also proved resilient, keeping channels of communication open with suppliers, landlords, financiers and, crucially, their staff.
Those with visionary leadership qualities coupled with strong communication powers proved almost indestructible as they drew their teams into strong survival units.
The enormity of the pandemic is such that even some entrepreneurs endowed with all of these characteristics might also find themselves on their knees. For them it is time, says René, to reach out to find professional help in the form of a coach, advisor, or turn-around specialist. By now they may be too battle fatigued to take strategic survival decisions on their own. It is probably also beyond the scope of the usual help from family and friends.
If money is a problem, which it almost certainly will be, they will have to draw on every bit of entrepreneurial prowess to make a deal with such a professional, even providing payment in kind or a promise of future earnings.
Chances are good that we are over the worst of the pandemic. The third wave is at an end. Summer, together with the roll-out of the vaccination programme, will ensure that the fourth wave will be lighter than the previous three.
Soon, hopefully, business owners would be able to look back on the pandemic as a distant memory, says René. But the way in which they look back on it will determine to what extent the whole experience would have made them stronger as entrepreneurs.
Those who are able to look back at it as a series of learning experiences are most likely to improve their business skills, flexibility and disaster-readiness for the future. Do not let guilt or shattered confidence stand in the way of such an approach, says René.
Forgive yourself for the inevitable mistakes made during the crisis, learn what you can from it, and look around you. After every crisis, especially ones that change the world, opportunities arise, also for those who have to start from scratch.