Francesco and Manuela own an Italian restaurant called Vespucci in San Mateo, California, where my wife Rachel and I dine at least once a month. When we walked in not long before the mandated shift to takeout only, we saw nothing but empty tables. They had dropped from 90 reservations to less than 10 overnight.
I've been a business owner for over 20 years and have learned to face every kind of crisis imaginable. Here are three suggestions for entrepreneurs to consider in a troubled time:
1. Know that you're not alone.
COVID-19 is affecting everyone. It's a bizarre situation nobody could have predicted, and for once we're all on the same page.
In 2013, my company, Nav, hit a rough patch. We were only about a week from not being able to make payroll. I reached out to our seed investor, who referred me to a man I'd never met. I put together a big presentation about why he could trust us with his money. He didn't ask to see any of it. Instead, we had this short dialogue:
Him: How much do you need?
Me: Uh, around $300,000?
Him: Listen, I was referred to you by [Nav's seed investor], and if they trust you, I trust you.
He then pulled out his checkbook. The fact that he was willing to write a check on the spot filled me with gratitude and convinced me I wasn't alone.
Nobody wants you to go out of business. Your customers, suppliers, vendors, and lenders are rooting for your survival.
2. Reach out to your creditors.
The dumbest thing you can do right now is not answer calls from people to whom you owe money. It'll make them nervous, and nervous people do irrational things. You want your debtors to be reasonable in their dealings with you.
Get ahead of it. Do you think your landlord will be shocked if you call to tell him you can't afford rent this month? He's reading the news like everybody else. It isn't in his best interest to evict you. Nobody else will be rushing to fill that space. He'd be much better off working with you, and this is true of your vendors and suppliers as well.
I owned a commercial sign repair company in my mid-20s. There were months when I had a half-million dollars sitting in accounts receivable, and I couldn't touch it.
I wasn't broke--I just didn't have any money. I was also terrified. I remember calling a supplier who was usually my biggest monthly bill.
I said, "People owe me money, but they're not paying." I prepared a sob story. I was ready to beg. None of it was necessary, because my supplier told me not to worry, it happened all the time. He didn't even charge me interest.
I had to do that maybe a dozen times during the years I owned that business. My suppliers saw me as a valuable customer and that it was in their best interest to work with me.
This logic may even apply to your bank. If you can't afford to make a payment this month, it can't hurt to ask them to let you pay late. The last thing they want to do is foreclose on you. They don't want bad loans or the headache of liquidating assets any more than your landlord wants the headache of trying to rent your space right now.
Be honest and direct. You'll eventually have to dig yourself out of whatever hole your creditors' leniency puts you in, but at least you'll live to fight another day.
3. Reach out to your customers.
You're probably so grateful to your customers that you don't realize they're just as grateful for you. Francesco and Manuela took a huge risk leaving Italy to open a restaurant here. But they pulled it off, and my wife Rachel and I have enjoyed date nights there every month. When they posted to Facebook recently asking customers to order takeout and gift certificates, we jumped at the opportunity to help.
Make a similar request of your customers. Treat it like a Kickstarter campaign, where entrepreneurs ask fans to pay for a product in advance. You've worked hard to win their loyalty; it's time to put that loyalty to the test.
You'll get through this. It isn't the first time that the better angels of our nature have been tested, and it certainly won't be the last. You don't have to pass the test alone. You can raise your hand and ask for assistance. You won't know how many people are listening until you open your mouth and find out.