Save Your Small Business
10 Crucial Strategies to Survive Hard Times or Close Down & Move On
Overcome economic obstacles
Bethany K. Laurence, J.D. and Ralph Warner, Attorney
July 2009, 1st Edition
Stay in business even through tough times with these simple, quick steps to small business survival.
Small businesses are vulnerable in tough economic times. Undercapitalized and with little experience coping with the legal and practical issues that come up during recession, many businesses fail as their profit margins drop and clients pay late -- if at all.
Save Your Small Business, written by a business owner who has survived three decades of challenges and economic downturns, provides 10 no-nonsense strategies designed to protect your personal assets from creditors and survive the current recession. You'll get practical advice to tackle such concerns as:
- Can my business be saved?
- Which are the most immediate and effective cuts I should make?
- How do I pay bills, negotiate debts -- and still make sure everyone in my office is paid on time?
- How can I creatively and effectively market my business on the cheap?
- How can I sell high-margin goods or services to get back in the black?
- How do I make sure my personal assets aren't vulnerable to my business' creditors?
In these tough times of falling demand, impatient creditors, tight credit, and fierce competition, staying in the black is a constant battle, requiring smart moves and decisiveness under pressure. Save Your Small Business shows you how to weather the economic storm, including how to proceed when going out of business is inevitable.
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Table of Contents
Your Small Business Companion
1. Can You Save Your Business?
- Stepping Back to Plan for the Short and Long Term
- Selling Your Business
- Putting Your Business in Hibernation
- Saving Your Business
- Special Considerations for Different Kinds of Businesses
2. Don’t Ignore Bad News
- Why You Can’t Wait
- Cut Costs, Change Direction, Quit, or Sell
- Decide How Much to Cut Expenses
- Act Slowly to Reverse Cutbacks
3. Control Your Cash Flow
- Keep Paying Your Bills on Time
- How to Create More Cash
- What Not to Do
4. Minimize Liability for Your Debts
- Are You Personally Liable for Business Debts?
- Liability for Jointly Owned Debt
- What Can Creditors Do If You Don’t Pay?
- Prioritizing Debt Payments
- Staying Out of Deeper Trouble
- How to Protect Yourself From Further Personal Liability
5. Concentrate on What’s Really Profitable
- Getting a Quick Profits Plan on Paper
- Making Money in a Service Business
- Making Money in Retail or Manufacturing
6. Innovate on a Shoestring
- Making Innovation a Continuous Process
7. Identify Your Customers
- Aiming at the Bull’s-Eye
- Filling in Your Target
8. Don’t Waste Money on Ineffective Marketing
- Market the Right Products or Services to the Right People
- Don’t Spend Big Dollars on Advertising
- Ask Long-Term Customers for Support
- Encourage Customers to Recommend Your Business
- Use Paid Listings Effectively
- Market on Your Own Website
- Hold a “Trying to Stay in Business” Sale
9. Handle Layoffs Fairly – And Keep Your Best People
- Making a Wise Layoff Plan
- The Logistics of a Layoff
- Keeping the Great People You Hire
10. Don’t Work Too Much
- The Importance of a Sane Schedule
- How to Work Less and Make More
11. Work With Your Best Competitors
- Treat Competitors With Respect
- Getting Business From Competitors
- Working for Your Competitors
- Working With Your Competitors
13. Dealing With Debt: Bankruptcy and Its Alternatives
- Negotiating With Your Creditors
- Hiring Help: Assignment for Benefit of Creditors
- Filing for Bankruptcy
- What’s Your Best Strategy?
- More About Chapter 7 Personal Bankruptcy
- More About Chapter 7 Bankruptcy for Business
- If You Might File for Bankruptcy
Appendix A: How to Prepare a Profit and Loss Forecast and Cash Flow Analysis
- Profit and Loss Forecast
- Cash Flow Analysis
Can You Save Your Business?
Stepping Back to Plan for the Short and Long Term................. 4
Selling Your Business................................................................. 7
Putting Your Business in Hibernation.......................................... 8
Saving Your Business................................................................. 9
Special Considerations for Different Kinds of Businesses....... 12
Wholesalers and Importers................................................... 22
“In this business, by the time you realize you’re in trouble, it’s too late to save yourself. Unless you’re running scared all the time, you’re gone.”
The economic tsunami that has engulfed America and much of the world means that the revenues of many small businesses have dropped precipitously, in some cases 40% or more. Because most small enterprises are marginally profitable in the best of times, and only a miniscule number have the chunky financial reserves necessary to survive a significant period of losses, it’s obvious that many will close.
But the good news is that many businesses will survive—and some will emerge from the economic downturn stronger and better positioned to thrive. Here let’s look at your main options: selling, hibernating, or hanging in there until better times return. If one of them will work for you, you won’t have to close your doors.
Stepping Back to Plan for the Short and Long Term
As a crucial first step toward creating a survival plan, your business’s key stakeholders should take an objective look at its prospects. No question, in the middle of an economic meltdown, it can be tough to take the time to plan. But just as you’ll never grow a garden by pouring more and more water onto sand, you won’t turn around a failing business simply by working 15 hours a day and worrying the other nine.
To decide whether or not your business has a future, it’s absolutely essential that you separate your personal hopes and dreams from your business’s honest prospects. If you don’t, you will likely end up throwing good money after bad while needlessly dragging yourself (and your family) through an extended period of unhappiness. In short, this is a good time to repeat this book’s mantra: “I am not my business, and my business is not me.”
After you have your objective hat firmly on, create an advisory committee of experienced businesspeople. This is important because, even if you do a reasonable job of separating your ego from your business’s problems, your advisers are likely to be more rational and, if you choose well, collectively more experienced and business savvy than you are. In other words, this really is an instance where a group can arrive at a better decision than an individual.
Creating Your Advisory Board
There is no one-size-fits-all rule for establishing an optimum advisory group, but we favor keeping it small, with three to five members. If your business is incorporated, some or all of the people on your board of directors may be well positioned to play a role as an adviser. If board members don’t have the necessary skills, or you don’t have a board because your business is a sole proprietorship, LLC, or partnership, you’ll need to look elsewhere. Try to find:
• Experienced small business people in your community who you know and trust and who, in turn, respect your business.
• A loyal customer with deep business experience who values your business and is willing to help. Every business worth saving has supporters. Don’t be afraid to enlist yours.
• An objective, business-savvy family member with the time and desire to help.
• SCORE, a nonprofit organization that provides free in-person and online mentoring to small businesses. Check out what they offer at www.score.org.
It’s best to approach each potential mentor personally and explain that your goal is to have a group of objective advisers who will meet with you periodically to review your business and financial plans. If you’ll need a considerable time commitment in the beginning (for example, a full-day meeting followed by monthly two-hour sessions), make this clear up front. Offering to pay a small stipend per meeting or per hour will be appreciated even by people who don’t need the money, because it tells them you value (and won’t abuse) their time. If your finances are too tight to afford that, consider offering some other form of compensation, such as free products or services, or, if you are incorporated, a small stock grant.
Now let’s focus on how to decide whether your business is savable. You wouldn’t be reading this if your sales hadn’t dropped, probably steeply, so we’ll begin with the assumption that your business is performing poorly. Recognizing that you are undoubtedly trying to make sense of a confusing, overlapping, and perhaps contradictory array of business and personal issues, it will help clarify matters if you think about how to proceed over the short, medium, and long term.
Short term: one to six months. In the short term, your job is to either develop an objective and realistic plan to get the business back to breakeven or, if that’s not possible, to close or sell it. In general, you shouldn’t allow losses to accumulate beyond six consecutive months. The only major exception to this rule is when a clear-eyed investor is willing to put new money into the business under a long-term turnaround plan.
Medium term: six to 18 months. If you can make the cuts necessary to get back to breakeven in six months, you’ll need to return your business to profit, usually through a combination of more cost cutting, adopting effective new marketing initiatives, and, if possible, pivoting your business so that its goods and services are more desirable to penny-pinching customers. But if your locale or industry faces a deep recession, the best you may be able to do during this next year is to continue to break even. As long as you can pay your household expenses, and you and your advisers conclude that the business has a bright future, sticking with it may make sense.
Long term: beyond 18 months. Your long-term plan must return your business to profit. No matter how much your ego is tied to your business and how much you believe it will eventually succeed, there’s no long-term future for a business that doesn’t make money. Cutting costs and increasing marketing may keep your business alive for the short term, but chances are good that to return it to solid profitability, you’ll also need to adopt a series of business-enhancing innovations.
To plan for the short-, medium-, and long-term future of your business, you need to do some basic financial work. First, complete a profit-and-loss statement and a cash flow analysis. (The appendix tells you how.) Second, read the rest of this book with special attention to the chapters on innovation and marketing. And third, run your conclusions past your advisory board.
Selling Your Business
In good economic times, it can be tough to sell even a profitable small business. When times are tough and a business begins losing money, arranging even a bargain-basement sale is usually impossible. But as with anything, there are exceptions. A business with a great reputation, market position, or excellent location might be salable even when profits have disappeared.
The key to selling anything, including a business, is that it must provide value to the buyer that the buyer can’t get in another, cheaper way. A copy shop or Thai restaurant that’s losing money probably can’t be sold, because it would probably be cheaper to start from scratch, assuming anyone wanted to enter a highly competitive business where an existing enterprise was doing so poorly.
But businesses that have well-established local brands and have been historically profitable retain at least some value even when they don’t make money. Take, for example, a well-established plumbing supply company that suffered significant losses when the recession dried up new construction. It might be salable based on the value of its brand and the loyalty of its customers. This would be even more likely if a competitor saw buying it as a chance to corner the local plumbing supply market, gaining significant pricing power.
Example: Randolph Colocation Services provides the infrastructure necessary to support e-commerce websites. This includes ensuring that a site has stable and redundant electrical power, enough bandwidth to work fast, good security, and other services.
When the recession hit and business suddenly dropped 20%, Randolph, which had just committed to build two new facilities nearby, lost both a key investor and a major line of credit. Suddenly, instead of dreaming of becoming a large and lucrative market player, Randolph worried about scraping up enough money to make the next payroll. Seeing that Randolph was in trouble, two well-funded local competitors called with offers to purchase. Both realized that grabbing Randolph meant picking up hundreds of existing business customers and becoming well-positioned to dominate the local market—even though Randolph would continue to lose money until the new facilities could be successfully integrated or dumped.
Information on selling. The Complete Guide to Selling Your Business, by Fred Steingold (Nolo), is an excellent step-by-step guide. It will help you decide whether it makes more sense to approach likely purchasers yourself or hire a business broker to do it for you. It also takes you through a typical sales contract clause by clause, identifying the key issues you’ll need to negotiate.
Cut expenses while planning to sell. A deal to sell your business isn’t final until the ink on the signatures is dry and the money is in the bank, things that can often take several months. In the meantime, it’s crucial to limit your losses by cutting expenses hard and fast to avoid losing as much money as you reap from the sale. (More on this in Chapter 3.)
Putting Your Business in Hibernation
Some money-losing businesses that are likely to have bright prospects once economic times improve can sensibly be put to sleep for a period of time rather than killed. The idea is to cut costs to the bone and keep the business functioning at a minimal level, while concentrating your entrepreneurial energy elsewhere.
Example: Chuck and Samantha, young architects with just a few years’ experience at a large firm, open their own shop, C&S Design, to specialize in designing cultural centers, museums, and public safety spaces for small cities. After quickly getting two decent commissions, business dries up as cities facing depleted tax revenue delay new projects and bigger architectural firms, losing commercial work, increasingly target this niche.
Less than a year into the recession, Chuck and Samantha are out of money and out of hope. Their last chance for survival hinges on their belief that new commissions will quickly materialize after the two innovative buildings they have designed are finally built. But when municipal funding cutbacks delay both projects, it’s clear that C&S is not going break even, to say nothing of make money, anytime soon.
They decide to close down. But after talking to their advisory board, one of whom is an older architect who has been through several boom-and-bust economic cycles, they instead decide to hibernate their business. To this end, they give up their way-cool loft and, at very low cost, rent a corner of a friend’s studio to keep a business address and a place to meet any prospective clients. And they decide to limit themselves to submitting three public sector proposals per year and entering one large judged competition—just enough to keep their firm’s name out there. In the meantime, both take temporary contract jobs with larger architectural firms to earn enough money to keep their kids fed. With the help of employed spouses and supportive parents, they plan to put C&S Design to sleep for a year or two and then recommit to it full time when the economy picks up.
Saving Your Business
Chances are that, like most small business people, you are an optimist—pessimists usually work for someone else. It follows that when a recession wallops your business, you are likely to be overly sanguine about the future. Even if your business is melting down in front of your eyes, you might too easily conclude that sales will pick up next week, next month, or next spring. Sorry, but when economic times are bad and threatening to get worse, the opposite is more likely to be true. Just as in boom times your happiest projections may consistently be surpassed, chances are that when many things are going wrong, more will. To make changes and cutbacks fast enough to bring income in line with expenses, we not only recommend that you take off your rose-tinted glasses, but that you step on them.
Every small business rests on a set of fundamental and often simple commercial assumptions such as these:
• When dogs get sick, owners take them to a vet.
• When cars are filthy, people wash them.
• When people are hungry at the beach, they buy food.
This much is obvious. But what can be less obvious is that when a recession hits, the assumptions behind many successful small businesses become invalid or lose much of their power.
Example: Pam operates an upscale children’s clothing boutique in a trendy resort town. Her fundamental business assumption is that grandparents on vacation will pay top dollar for cute outfits to take home as presents for their grandkids. But six months into the recession, Pam realizes that this is no longer true. Because only about half as many older tourists are visiting the town as previously, and many are traumatized by their shrinking retirement plans, the days of free-spending grandparents are plainly over.
So, with her sales down 50% and her lease expiring, and no reasonable prospect of returning to profitability in the next six months, Pam has a big sale and closes down. She knows she’ll eventually open another business, but for now she’ll spend more time with her own grandkids.
Once you honestly face up to the fact that boom times may not return for many years, you need to either close down, sell, or quickly develop and implement a realistic plan to turn your business into a survivor. Almost always this means identifying your business’s profitable core and shucking off all or most activities that are not part of it. For instance, a publisher of regional guidebooks with a dozen well-established, profitable titles, and many others that barely break even, might be hit hard when a recession cuts into the area’s tourist business. It will need to quickly redesign its business plan around income produced by the core titles that still make money. This is true even though it will mean laying off valued employees, canceling speculative new titles, and pruning the backlist.
Example: Jack owns Racafrax Roofing, a company with 32 employees, when the recession hits and orders dry up. Immediately laying off 20 employees, moving to a tiny, cheap office, selling two of his four trucks, and hiring a local lawyer to send threatening but very effective letters to his past-due accounts stops the worst of the bleeding, but Jack is still losing money. Realizing most residential and commercial customers are putting off major roof replacement work, Jack focuses on repairs, a fussy lower-profit business he used to avoid. But now, every time it rains, Jack leaflets entire neighborhoods. With water pouring in, Racafrax gets lots of emergency calls, most of which he can deal with before the next rain when the process starts all over.
Although Jack misses the days when big jobs produced big profits, he can return a much smaller Racafrax to modest profitability just seven months after it began losing money. Then, six months later, when two other local roofers who haven’t hustled as hard go out of business, Jack realizes that Racafrax is back in the black for good. True, the local economy will have to recover before significant profits return, but he knows he’ll be there when they do.
Once you and your advisers decide that your hard-hit business has a decent chance of survival if you act fast, you’ll want to follow these often overlapping steps.
Cut costs. You must urgently slash costs to fit your new lowered income projection. Depending on your situation, this can involve cutting every possible expense, moving to a less costly location, laying off employees, aggressively collecting past due debts, and a host of other penny-pinching techniques discussed throughout this book.
Change your strategy. You need to promptly face up to the fact that your business’s current strategy is failing and then fundamentally change it. There are as many ways to do this as there are small businesses, but when times are tough a common theme is to pivot a business so that it’s more in tune with the recessionary environment. To attract the newly frugal “recessionista” customers, you’ll typically want to convince them that your business is all about providing value, reliability, and frugality. For example:
• Millie’s Way Cool Boutique might devote half of the store to “Way Cool Vintage” clothing.
• Ihara Marine, which offers full-day charter trips, might add lower cost half-day fishing trips priced to fit shrinking family vacation budgets.
• Elegant Lighting of Lakeport might reconfigure itself as the Lakeport Green Lighting Center, offering environmentally conscious choices.
• James & Cirelli, a small business law firm, might start handling business bankruptcies, lease workouts, and bad debt collections, and tell clients that fees will be $50 per hour less until the economy recovers.
Come up with new marketing ideas. You’ll need a low-cost and highly effective marketing campaign to reach out to recession-shocked customers. Your strategies must hinge on understanding who your best customers are, how to reach them most effectively, and how to provide incentives for them to purchase goods and services on which you make a decent profit. (Chapters 7 and 8 discuss this.) Here are a few examples:
• A yoga studio that offers existing customers a 10% discount for bringing in a new student.
• A boutique that offers periodic “Present-Buying for Guys” classes (husbands and boyfriends), along with a 15% after-class discount coupon.
• A roofer who advertises low-cost gutter cleaning in affluent neighborhoods, letting him at the same time give each homeowner a free roof assessment highlighting areas that need immediate attention.
• A hardware store that features low-cost holiday lights to attract people to the store’s high-margin Christmas ornament section.
• A jewelry store that features three watch battery replacements for the price of two and, in the process, attracts thousands of dollars worth of higher-margin repairs on jewelry that customers bring along.
Special Considerations for Different Kinds of Businesses
Okay, now that you have begun to come to terms with what you’ll need to do to rescue your business, let’s look more closely at the typical problems and opportunities faced by the most common kinds of small businesses: retail, service, wholesale, construction, and franchises. Although you may be tempted to read only the material most relevant to your business, many ideas overlap, so take a moment to at least skim it all.
Even when the economy is strong, it’s hard to make a decent living running an independent retail business. The long-term trend that makes it tough for the little shop owner to survive began way back in the mid-19th century, when department stores began selling a wide variety of mass-produced consumer goods. It hugely accelerated in the decade after World War II with the advent of large discount chains, and went into hyper-drive in the last two decades with the marriage of computerized “just-in-time” inventory systems to low-cost but highly reliable foreign production.
Today there can be little doubt that if for no other reason than price, most Americans prefer to shop at the huge, low-cost megastores that have all but taken over the retail environment. The proof can be seen both in the empty storefronts that line the main streets of America’s small cities and the crowded parking lots of the Walmart, Home Depot, Staples, and other big-box retailers. The main exceptions to the inexorable march of the megastore have been niche businesses that sell products not available from the big players: luxury goods or specialty items such as Balinese imports, fly fishing gear, or high-end bicycles.
Unfortunately, when times are tough, specialty goods retailers are extremely vulnerable to a devastating drop in sales even as their fixed costs, including rent and insurance, remain high. For example, stores that sell fancy kitchenware, lingerie, or wine all offer goods that newly frugal customers can do without or replace with less expensive alternatives. (When times are hard, lingerie is called underwear, and women wear last year’s or shop at Target.)
In all but the most upscale neighborhoods, these businesses face the double whammy of many customers who can no longer afford boutique shopping and others who, even though they still have money to spend, find that it’s suddenly cool to consume less and patronize consignment stores. And then there is the increasing competition from online niche retailers, who because of their nationwide reach can often offer a huge array of specialty goods at extremely attractive prices. The upshot is that many retailers, especially those that sell upscale items in areas hard hit by layoffs or a drop-off in the tourist business, have little chance of survival and are best abandoned early.
Example: Frederika owned Fancy Food, a store that featured organic and other upscale food for dogs and cats. But with half a dozen local competitors, Fancy Food never made more than a modest profit. Then several large local employers cut workers and closed facilities, hurting her customer base. Almost immediately, Fancy Food’s monthly sales dropped, first 25%, then 35%, and finally more than 40%.
To try to turn the situation around, Frederika, who by this time was almost out of cash, came up with a plan to increase her marketing for lower-priced brands. But after talking to her advisory board, she realized that even if sales fully recovered (unlikely given that Costco and Walmart were nearby), the far lower profit margins on budget food would still result in a substantial loss. Facing this truth, Frederika closed down.
On the other hand, retailers who have kept overhead low while providing convenient access to essential products may do just fine when times are hard. For example, people who do fix-it projects themselves rather than hiring a contractor might actually buy more from a local hardware, electrical supply, or paint store, especially one with deep community roots and the marketing savvy to compete with the discounters. True, some shoppers will be tempted to switch to the big-box retailer at the edge of town, but local providers who have lasted this long have learned how to emphasize service, convenience, and marketing to keep most customers loyal.
Enough generalizations. To get a good idea as to whether your store has a chance to survive until the economy improves, do these two things:
• Identify the month your sales suffered a significant drop. Then find the average sales for each month since, extrapolating for a full 12 months if the decline is more recent. For instance, if sales started to decline eight months ago and have averaged $15,000 per month since, figure that yearly sales will be $180,000, unless you have a good reason (for example, that sales are still declining) to adjust this number up or down.
• Run a profit-and-loss statement and a cash flow analysis based on your new sales numbers (see the appendix for instructions).
The results should give you a pretty accurate confirmation of what you may already know—whether or not your business is savable. If, even given declining sales, you are still within shouting distance of breakeven, chances are you can cut costs and increase marketing to get back in the black. But if a huge sales drop has decimated your balance sheet, trying to keep going until business eventually improves may be as unwise as it is impossible.
Example 1: John and Becky run a wine shop specializing in high-priced imported wines not available at mainstream retailers. Last year they made $50,000 on sales of $450,000 and hoped to improve significantly on this in the current year. Then, as America’s financial system began to melt down, sales started dropping 5% to 10% per month, finally leveling off at an annual rate of $350,000. John and Becky do a detailed profit-and-loss statement and cash flow analysis based on this lower sales number and find that they are now losing $20,000 per year.
After checking with their advisers, John and Becky decide to take a number of steps to get the business back at least to breakeven. If they can, they have an assurance that Becky’s dad will lend them money for their personal expenses for the next year, an amount that will be subtracted from Becky’s eventual inheritance.
Here are the steps Becky and John take:
• They contact their landlord and show him their balance sheet. In part because he fears having an empty shop if they go under and in part because he likes their spunk, he agrees to lower the rent 10%.
• They lay off their one part-time employee and go to a five- instead of six-day schedule.
• They increase the number of moderately priced but still unusual wines. This is not so much calculated to make money (lower priced wines are less profitable), but to bring customers into the store, where at least some of them would also buy a more upscale and profitable tipple.
• They adopt a number of low-cost marketing techniques (see Chapter 8), the first and most successful of which is to write a forthright letter to everyone on their mailing list explaining that they are on the edge of insolvency and asking for help. They also include a 30%-off coupon good for any bottle over $20. Hundreds of people, concerned that their favorite little wine shop might close and wanting to help the nice couple who ran it, respond, with a surprising number purchasing a case or more. The result is that John and Becky have their best month of the year.
Example 2: Phyllis runs an upmarket women’s clothing boutique called Festoon, out of a hole-in-the-wall shop near a large university. After making money 20 years in a row, Festoon suffers six consecutive losing months. When a larger boutique goes out of business around the corner, Phyllis considers moving and turning half of the new shop into an upmarket vintage clothing store.
But after talking extensively with her advisers, she decides that with her house paid for, some money in the bank, and Festoon’s lease running out in three months, her best bet is to have a three-month going-out-of-business sale, put her store fixtures in storage, and consider reopening at a lower-rent location when the recession finally exhausts itself. Fortunately, when her long-term customers hear Festoon is closing down, they flood the store and all but demand Phyllis stay open through the holidays. The resulting profit from the going-out-of-business sale is much larger than Phyllis’s previous losses, meaning that she has a nice nest egg to cushion her temporary retirement.
A house painter, roofer, electrician, lawyer, or other service provider whose overhead costs are only a small percentage of gross sales—and who cuts back quickly after experiencing a significant sales drop—usually has an excellent chance to survive. That’s because in a service business where overhead is low (and can usually be reduced), even a small sales uptick resulting from a properly targeted, low-cost marketing campaign will mean a substantial fattening of the bottom line.
Another way of saying this is that if you can charge a substantial hourly rate, with little or no overhead, you’ll normally be able to hang in there even if sales initially plunge as much as 40% to 50%. Of course you still need enough income to put bread on the table, and may even need to take a part-time job to do it, but especially if your business is both established and historically profitable, it will probably survive. That’s because for most quality service businesses, continued success depends on the accumulation of positive word of mouth. That’s something that in hard times you might be able to leverage as part of a marketing plan to reach out to long-term customers, asking them for both their personal support and their help in recruiting others. (This may not be true if your business is the new kid on the block.)
If your company provides services that can easily be put off, however, you can face a customer meltdown in tough times. So if you paint houses, detail cars, install garage doors, landscape gardens, or cater business events, no matter how hard you are willing to work, you need a convincing survival plan. It might involve repositioning your business to deliver services that penny-pinching customers still are willing to pay for—for example, a veterinarian might contract with a city to provide services at the animal shelter.
You might also have a difficult time if, by industry tradition, your company does the work first and bills later. That’s because when times are hard, inevitably some customers will pay late and others not at all. That’s why it’s often crucial to quickly revisit and tighten credit policies before bad debts mount. One way to do this is to require a substantial up-front deposit as well as appropriate progress payments. To help long-term customers adjust to your new rules, it’s helpful to also extend a discount.
Example: The Myers & Pedroilla law firm informs its clients that in recognition of hard economic times, it is lowering its hourly fee by $50 per hour. But because it’s impossible to both charge lower prices and wait to be paid, M&P is simultaneously moving to a new billing routine in which clients are asked to pay half of the estimated cost of their legal task up front and the other half within seven days of completion. As a result, M&P loses a couple of significant clients, but when one of them goes bankrupt a few months later owing its new law firm $35,000, M&P knows it made the right choice.
A sales meltdown is more difficult to overcome if you run a service business with a relatively high overhead such as a hair salon, car repair shop, dry cleaners, car wash, or bed and breakfast. Like retailers, the cost of keeping the doors open and the business staffed can gobble up all of your declining income and more, resulting in a substantial loss. In Chapter 2, we discuss how to make cuts quickly, something that all businesses with substantial overhead must do.
Because in our 21st-century commercial world it’s a lot easier to make money selling services than goods, most service providers have many local competitors. Always remember that you’re not operating in a vacuum. Recall the old joke about the three hikers who, while walking in the forest, encounter a huge, hungry tiger. The first slumps to the ground and says, “We’re as good as dead—no one can run faster than a tiger!” The second, who can’t argue with this, collapses next to him. But that’s when the third, who is already running away as fast as she can, shouts over her shoulder, “I don’t need to run faster than the tiger, only faster than you two!”
If you equate hard times with the tiger and your direct competitors with the hikers, the point is simple—chances are your business will survive if you outlast at least a good number of the other businesses that provide similar services. Even in a declining market, lots of people will still get their hair cut and colored, have spots removed from their clothing, or get their nails done. Lucky ones will even be able to afford a few days’ vacation. It follows that if your business can stay open until others close, you may even do better than you did when times were good.
How can you outperform your rivals? Start by making a list of your direct competitors. You have doubtless known most of them for years. But don’t forget that when times are hard, many cash-strapped consumers look for cheaper alternatives. So if you operate an upscale hair salon and never previously thought of the local Supercuts outlet as a competitor, you may need to think again, depending on just how depressed your local economy is.
Then make a short list of the strengths and weaknesses of each competitor. This might include their customer base, reputation, employee relations, cost structure, and marketing savvy.
Finally, come up with a realistic plan to outperform and outlast a percentage of them. (We discuss the possibility of lowering your overhead by combining operations with a favorite competitor in Chapter 11.) Once your plan is made, run it by your advisory board. Here are some examples:
• Cedar Cleaners, whose business is hard hit by the recession, decides that it has the financial resources to survive two years of low, or even no, profits. Accordingly, to keep its long-time customer base loyal, it runs a sale per week (sleeping bags, drapes, formal wear, quilts, and so on) to keep volume up, even though profits take a hit. When, after a year of deepening recession, two other dry cleaning establishments close, Cedar is able to regain pricing power and return to solid profitability. Once the local economy finally improves, Cedar has its most profitable year ever.
• Two bed and breakfasts in the same seashore town combine marketing efforts, sending “three nights for the price of two” offers to their combined mailing lists, merging their websites, and even taking turns doing breakfast. On the website they provide loads of information to make it easy for people organizing weddings, family reunions, and small business getaways to book both inns at once.
In a deep recession, tiny construction outfits with good marketing savvy and energy often survive, and some even do well. That’s because a fair number of home remodels and other smaller jobs tend to go forward even when new housing and commercial construction is put on hold. True, small construction outfits may have to shrink even more, but because most already operate out of a home office and have little overhead, they can cut costs by simply hiring less labor.
Slightly larger construction outfits in the 20 to 70 employee range, however, often face severe problems. Not only is their overhead higher, as a percentage of sales, but they also typically rely on suddenly iffy bank lines of credit to smooth out payment cycles. Some fail for a combination of reasons, the most important of which is that much of the new residential and commercial construction they typically rely on grinds to a halt at the same time that they don’t cut expenses nearly fast enough.
Example 1: Six months into the recession, new business at J&B Concrete begins to drop precipitously as residential and commercial construction severely contract. At the same time, payments to J&B for cement jobs begin to slow down as everyone from prime contractors to several municipal governments begins to hoard cash. Out of loyalty to longtime office workers and estimators, J&B is slow to cut overhead, hoping against hope that, as it always had, business will soon pickup. As a result, monthly payments for rent, equipment, and staff exceed income.
J&B turns to its bank with a request that it increase their line of credit. Instead, after seeing that J&B’s negative cash flow already violates an existing loan covenant, the bank cancels the credit line. J&B immediately lays off 60% of its staff, tries desperately to collect on past-due receivables, and asks everyone from their landlord to trade creditors to accept late payment. But even though some of these efforts show promise, J&B runs out of money two weeks after the line of credit is canceled. They’re unable to pay even their diminished payroll, so the state labor commissioner closes them down, and a bankruptcy filing follows.
When you realize that from start to finish, J&B’s crash from solvency to bankruptcy took just five months, you’ll understand just how financially fragile many construction outfits are. Nevertheless, had J&B moved faster to shrink overhead, it might have survived. So in, let’s give J&B a second chance.
Example 2: When J&B has its first bad month, the owners meet with their experienced advisory board and explain that with construction drying up everywhere, business is only likely to get worse. Following their advisers’ good advice, J&B immediately cuts office staff from ten employees to three. In addition, it sells $100,000 worth of equipment, using the receipts to pay off several equipment loans. Telling the landlord they plan to move in six months when their lease was up elicits a counter proposal that they sign up for another two years at a 25% rent reduction, which J&B accepts. Applying an aggressive full-court-press strategy to their lagging accounts receivable, they collect many of them and sell several more to a factoring company that specializes in collecting from municipalities and other public entities.
Then, with their balance sheet more or less in order, Jim and Bart meet with the bank and present their plan to further shrink the business as necessary with the goal of quickly returning to profitability, no matter how deep the cuts need to be. Their loan officer, saying that he appreciates J&B’s determination to take the steps necessary to operate in the black, renews their line of credit. When several other local concrete outfits go under, J&B’s business stabilizes. After several months of savvy, low-cost marketing efforts focused on smaller home remodeling projects and solar panel installations, business actually improves.
In most parts of America, there are at least one-third more restaurants than the local market can support. In hard times, when cutting back on eating out is near the top of most people’s “spend less” list, in some areas up to 50% won’t make a profit sufficient to sustain themselves.
Established eateries, especially those whose equipment is paid for, have the best chance of survival. Fancy new restaurants that borrowed heavily to pay for upmarket kitchens and pricey décor are the most vulnerable, because they have little room to cut prices. Even a small dip in patronage can make it impossible to meet debt payments, to say nothing of making a profit. For those restaurants lucky enough not to have high fixed costs, closing down a couple of the slowest days of each week may be the best option, since it will avoid paying out more in staff and supply costs than it takes in. But this strategy won’t work if you’ve got $1,000 a day in fixed costs whether you’re open or not.
Start by asking yourself “How do I make money?” Is it mostly on the weekends, on nights when the curtain goes up at the local theater, on the á la carte side of the menu, or on fancy coffee drinks, or does 80% of the profit come from the bar? (See Chapter 5 for more on how to answer this question.)
Assume for a moment that, like a lot of restaurants, you make more money selling alcohol than food. If so, the strategy for a midpriced community-based restaurant might be to create specials and events—even some that reduce profits on food to zero—that keep the place full, figuring that once folks come in they’ll order their two glasses of wine (or whatever). Although we discuss marketing in detail in Chapter 8, examples and ways to bring in diners include:
• A Beggar’s Banquet Tuesday, where you cook up only three entrées, but cut prices in half.
• Kids’ Night, where you provide free kids’ meals in your banquet room along with free babysitting.
• Thursday Singles’ Night, where women eat free—the idea here of course is that where single women go, men will follow. And organized as a buffet where people can grab some food and sit at communal tables, chances are your booze profits will more than make up for the cost of the women’s food.
Obviously these strategies won’t work for a restaurant suffering from a dearth of tourists or a drop-off in business at the nearby convention center. But the questions you must ask remain the same: “How do I make money?” and “What can I do to preserve and build on this most important part of my business?” Hopefully you’ll find some good ideas in the rest of this book in the chapters on making a profit, innovating, and marketing.
Wholesalers and Importers
By definition, wholesalers, importers, and other middlemen face a number of risks when the economy seizes up and their customers suffer. There is little new we can suggest by way of survival strategies if your entire business is rapidly shrinking. For example, a wholesaler that provides a wide range of sealants to the commercial construction industry may simply no longer be viable if local construction all but stops, and an importer of handwoven Indonesian fabric may go under if decorators are no longer willing to pay its premium price.
But, if despite a short-term sales decline, yours remains a viable field, here are the survival strategies you’ll want to consider.
Quickly reduce overhead to fit your reduced sales volume. As part of figuring out how to do this, consider combining warehouse operations with another wholesaler.
Sell only to people who pay their bills on time. This means staying relentlessly current on your customers’ economic situations and may mean cutting off some previously good customers. But as a middleman who operates on a relatively thin profit margin and who must pay suppliers on time, you simply can’t afford to be in the collections business.
Reduce inventory. Turning over inventory too slowly and tying up precious cash is the bane of all wholesale operations, so get rid of some inventory so that precious cash is not sitting in your warehouse. If slow-selling goods have already accumulated, offer whatever deals you need to move them, even at a substantial loss. Wishful thinking won’t serve here. No matter how little your excess inventory is worth now, it will likely soon be worth less.
Consider adding hot-selling product lines. Even in a severe recession, some things sell well. So while the market for expensive sweaters may take a big hit, sales of yarn to make sweaters may boom, meaning that the first regional sweater wholesaler who adds knitting supplies may do well. In short, take the time to think hard how you can reposition your business to be in better tune with the times.
Improve your marketing. Cutbacks alone will rarely return a business to profitability. To do that you’ll also need to adopt the marketing strategies necessary to move more product. So hit the phone, hit the Internet, hit the bricks, and do whatever else you must to keep sales humming. (See Chapter 8 for ideas.)
The biggest problem with many, if not most, franchise operations is depressingly simple: Franchisors charge too much for a business that doesn’t have enough value to justify the high up-front and ongoing costs. In a recession, many franchises won’t have enough income to cover the cost of capital and ongoing franchise fees. If yours is a typical franchise, you’ll have agreed to pay the franchisor 3% to 6% of your monthly gross revenue (big-name fast food operators, such as Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Burger King, and Subway typically charge between 8% and 11.5%), plus a few more cents on your sales dollar for the franchisor’s marketing efforts. You may also have obligated yourself to buy goods and services either directly from the franchisor or from an approved supplier, meaning you’ll almost surely be paying more than if you bought them on the open market.
Add it all up, and you’re likely sending the franchisor eight to ten cents of every dollar you take in. This is obviously a huge added burden if your business has begun to lose money, because unlike an independent business you need to make not only an operating profit, but also enough extra to pay the franchisor.
What to do? As with any business, cutting payroll and other expenses is a priority. But even here your hands may be partially tied if you have agreed to buy pricey goods and services from the franchisor. If cost cutting isn’t enough to get your operation back in the black, there may be little else you can do. That’s because, unlike independent businesses where you are free to tinker with the product, prices, and marketing strategy, your franchise agreement may contractually obligate you to follow a paint-by-number business plan. Targeting your best customers and engaging in your own guerilla marketing techniques to reach them, whether technically allowed by your franchise contract or not, is probably your best hope of reversing your sales decline. (See Chapters 7 and 8.)
If, given your best effort, your operation is hemorrhaging money, think about selling. (You’ll probably need the franchisor’s approval.) Obviously, selling is difficult when a business is losing money, but you may have some hope if there are successful operators of the same franchise in your area, you have a good location, and you sell cheap. That’s because a franchise operation with a number of outlets may have the management savvy and deep pockets to succeed where you could not.
If you can’t make a quick sale, your only choice is usually to shutter the business, add up your debts, and move on. (See Chapter 12.)