‘Widespread panic is setting in among small business owners nationwide,’ banking expert cautions


President Donald Trump speaks about the U.S response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic during an address to the nation from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., March 11, 2020.

Doug Mills | Reuters

Small business owners on Main Street now have an economic lifeline that can help them weather the coronavirus outbreak. On Wednesday, President Donald Trump announced that companies affected by the coronavirus will be given $50 billion more in low-interest loans federally guaranteed by the Small Business Administration. That would double the lending authority the government agency had in fiscal year 2019.

The move is an attempt to keep businesses afloat during a time when consumer spending is slowing and supply chains are tightening due to travel and cargo restrictions.

In another move that uses his emergency authority, the president said he will be instructing the Treasury Department to allow some businesses to defer paying their federal income taxes, normally due on April 15, for three months with no penalties. This would inject another $200 billion into the U.S. economy.

“While this is a great step to boost credit to small business, it will take three to four weeks before the impact is seen on the ground,” says Rohit Arora, president of Biz2Credit, a lending platform for small business that processes $1 billion in financing annually. Of the total, about $200 million are SBA loans. “That’s because it takes that long for these loans to be processed and money to get in the hands of business owners,” he explains.

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The announcement was well timed. “Widespread panic is setting in among small business owners nationwide across all industries,” Arora says. “I have seen a 25% increase in loan demand this week alone.”

“There is fear in the market that liquidity might dry up, so business owners want more cash in hand to weather a host of uncertainties,” he says. This could include a severe drop in customer demand, delays in payments and shortages of supplies they need to run their business. “I see this across all sectors, not just restaurant, travel, tourism, hotels and logistics. I see this even in the health-care sector. It’s scary, and it’s changing by the hour.”

The New York metro area and Washington state are the most impacted now, although this is affecting small businesses across the U.S., says Arora.

For business owners worried about how to sustain their businesses at a time when they are dealing with frightened employees, skittish customers, disrupted supply chains and a falling stock market, experts offer management tips on how to handle disruption. Actions taken now could make or break a business.

Not too late to plan 

Every business owner needs to develop a business continuity plan and figure out how to handle all this disruption. 

This wouldn’t have been an issue a decade ago, when American businesses mostly conducted business closer to home, but now many companies are global. “We encouraged small businesses to be more global and to export more, and now they’re more vulnerable to things like the coronavirus,” says Andrew Sherman, a Washington, D.C.-based partner with Seyfarth, a global law firm. 

Despite cases continuing to rise and markets sending people and companies in a panic, it’s not too late for businesses to set up remote workforces, communicate with staff and prepare for a worsening outbreak.

Here are a few things you can do now. 

1. Communicate with staff 

One of the most important things you can do is communicate with your employees. Many are likely concerned about their health and how they can continue working as more things get shut down. 

About 807 miles north in Seattle, Henry Albrecht, CEO of Limeade, an employee engagement software company, is utilizing technology to keep employees abreast of developments. His own Limeaid ONE platform comes with an internal communications feature where people can instant message each other. As soon as the outbreak’s seriousness became clear, Albrecht set up what he calls a “care and crisis” channel that automatically sends push notifications to staff whenever he posts. “There’s an intentional importance attached because the messages are coming from me,” he says. 

It’s in that channel where he provides updates on the virus itself — he’s posted a number of CDC videos on COVID-19 and how to monitor oneself for the disease; on recommended hand-washing and social-distancing procedures; on travel plans — most are canceled — and on ideas on how to work effectively from home.  

Employees can also post their own messages in that channel, which he says is key. “It’s powerful,” he says about the two-way communication. “We want to hear from our people as well. We also have the ability to ask people to take a quiz so they can tell us if they need more information on something.”

2. Invest in work-from-home technology

While most people likely have a phone, a computer and an Internet connection, some may not have enough bandwidth to do the kind of work they do at the office at home. Some companies may also not be set up with the right collaboration tools to allow for remote work. 

Ever since the coronavirus started infecting people in China, Eric Plam, president of Skyroam, a San Francisco-based company that creates and sells Wi-Fi-enabled hotspots to businesses, has been busy figuring out how to keep his staff safe and his business operating. 

The business has about 120 staff in Shenzhen, China, all of which were told not to come into work by the Chinese government soon after the virus started spreading. At the time, Plam didn’t understand what was happening. “I first thought it was the flu,” he says. “I was wondering why they weren’t going into work.”

With coronavirus cases surging, Eric Plam, president of Skyroam in San Francisco, told his employees to work from home.

Skyroam Inc.

He’s since called off several in-person meetings, told employees they can work from home and turned a board meeting, which was supposed to take place in Beijing, into a videoconference call using Amazon Chime, an online videoconferencing program. “It went really well,” he says. “Everyone was able to join without having to travel, and the program can translate live so people were able to speak in Chinese and English as they usually do.”

While Plam has only 20 employees in San Francisco, anyone who is feeling a bit under the weather is encouraged to stay home. At the moment, though, most are at work. If anyone does decide to stay home, whether in the U.S., China or in his other offices, in France and Germany, they can use Skyroam’s own technology, which creates Wi-Fi signals by tapping in local data networks. This gives them office-grade internet without having to pay for it themselves. 

His phone has been ringing off the hook over the last couple of weeks with more companies than ever wanting to find ways to help their staff work remotely. 

For Albrecht, Microsoft Teams is coming in handy. It’s a collaboration program that allows people to video chat and work on word files together from wherever they may be. Google’s G Suite, which comes with collaborative software like Google docs, sheets and hangouts, is another alternative.

3. Create a disaster-preparedness policy 

A lot of companies haven’t planned for a crisis on this scale, but, as many are finding out now, they need one, says Sherman. A good plan will cover a number of things, including procedures around remote work — spell out how people should work from home and what tools they’ll need to get the job done — how to handle travel, what to do about meetings and more.  

It’s also important to include things such as insurance coverage for business closures or trip cancellations – Do you have any and, if you do, how does it work? — how to get financing when no one is investing, what lines of credit are in place, supply chain alternatives and more, says Seyfarth’s Sherman.

While service businesses may be able to continue operating in some way, other companies, such as restaurants or local movie theaters, will have to think hard about how to manage staff and cash flows if people stop going out. “What is plan B?” he says. “If something were to happen, do I have the right alternative business models in place?” 

All of this should be documented, says Sherman, as it shows that people are thinking about what could happen in a worst-case scenario, and it acts as an easy-to-reference guide on what to do, how to communicate and how to keep business running in difficult times. “You need all the elements of a crisis-management or disaster-preparedness plan in place,” he says. 

No matter what happens, small- and medium-sized businesses will no doubt take some sort of hit to their bottom line. While the government has stepped in to help, business owners need to be proactive and do what they need to do to keep their doors open, even if their employees aren’t there. 

While COVID-19 appears to be getting worse in the U.S., Plam isn’t panicking. His staff are set up to work from wherever they can, and while he does anticipate busier times ahead when people start traveling again, for now it’s mostly business as usual.

“We remain optimistic that we’ll get past this and the economy will roar back to life,” he says. “We may have to catch up on some things, but employees are prepared.” 

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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.

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