COVID-19 and the technology shift for small businesses: ‘How do you take advantage of the opportunity as it exists now?’

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Procurement has been evolving technologically for years, but many small businesses haven't fully gotten on board. The COVID-19 disruption has accelerated this technological shift, and it spurred long-time entrepreneur Nell Merlino to revive her Count Me In organization, which helps woman-owned firms and small businesses to grow.

That's important because, as companies shifted their work-from-home operations online, it highlighted the need for strong technology infrastructures to sustain businesses, regardless of their size.

However, it can be harder for smaller businesses to leverage these technological advances. Brick-and-mortar or mom-and-pop shops might not have the funds or expertise to overhaul their systems to include more technology.

But a little guidance can help.

Merlino, also an author, activist and consultant who helped launch Take Our Daughters to Work Day, focuses on championing woman-owned businesses and has secured resources and funding for many small businesses over the years. She spoke to Spend Matters about her recent efforts and success that she has seen with two businesses.

While she has been a part of the industry for decades, she has seen the importance of adapting to the changes around you to find success.

“I would say your online sales, you really need to look at that and then you have to re-evaluate everything that you're doing,” Merlino said. “It is very important if you have not done this to sit down with your team on Zoom or however you are doing your work — maybe together at an outside socially-distant meeting — and figure out what you have and what you are doing that could be changed, eliminated or cut back.

"And emphasize that it is a thorough review of your goals, your mission, your employees. Whether you're in bricks and mortar. Whether you think you're going to go back to that or whether you will continue to work from home. How do you cut costs and take advantage of the opportunity as it exists now?”

Merlino sees an opportunity for small businesses to add a bit more technology and data to operations and see how it can flourish from there.

What are some risks companies face in their supply chain in response to the COVID-19 pandemic? This disruption map can tell you what to be wary for in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

A crisis turned into opportunity

While the COVID-19 disruption has led to massive changes in the world of procurement and business today, one of Merlino’s organizations took COVID-19 as an opportunity to revamp itself.

Count Me In, a charity founded in 1999, revived this year in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

The organization provides financial assistance, business coaching and consulting services to woman-owned businesses around the country that are in the market to grow and develop their companies further. Count Me In was one of the first online microlenders, but it eventually shifted its focus to providing education and resources for women to grow and find funding for their businesses.

Just like any successful business, Count Me In adapted to its surroundings and is now helping woman-owned businesses to use a critical eye and make improvements in light of the COVID-19 crisis.

Small businesses add more technology capabilities to their organization after COVID-19

Two companies that worked with Count Me In this spring are examples of how some industries might drastically shift in the future.

Merlino told the story of Corona Farms, a Central California farm that primarily functioned as a B2B organization, selling directly to restaurants and large food stores. However, they realized during the coronavirus pandemic that people were in the market for local produce because it was fresher and included less touching in shipping.

Corona Farms used their $10,000 Count Me In award to purchase new equipment to pack and move their produce boxes with minimal touching.

In the second example, a Miami-based speech therapist primarily saw clients that lived near her hometown because they physically came into the office for therapy pre-COVID-19. But the therapist learned how to move operations online and provide a new way of giving a service that can help people in light of the pandemic.

“Not only did they need to learn the technology right away, which they did, because they wanted to stay connected with their clients, but then it dawned on them that they needed a national marketing program as opposed to a local marketing program to sell their services across the country, which is a huge new thing for them,” Merlino said.

Both are examples of businesses that successfully found new income streams and a whole new way of working with customers as a result of the pandemic’s lockdowns. Customers have taken a stronger look at the issues of health and safety in light of the coronavirus, but that won’t change anytime soon. It is how small businesses use technology to adapt to the health and safety guidelines their customers are looking for.

COVID-19 and its long-term impacts on small businesses

Merlino said that for some companies, the COVID-19 disruption was a key indicator of how essential it is to use technology in today’s day and age. For some companies, it was as simple as creating a business website. For some, it includes keeping a documented list of sources for different products. For others, it might include the use of more contract or gig workers.

While each company faces different challenges to implementation, technology can provide a path forward to ease difficult functions of owning a business. Owning a small business is rooted in data — crunching numbers, running earnings reports — and technology can do it all without costing a small business owner an arm and a leg.

“You've got to look at all these different offerings that do CRM to see what gives you the data you need,” Merlino said. “And assess how much data can you handle? Do you need to make some of the purchasing, marketing and sales decisions? Finding a way to get data that you can read and use is a critical step in all of this.”

Merlino sees a shift for business to being both local and global in the future in response to COVID-19. She said people will always want to go shopping in a local store. It builds community.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the small shop can’t also provide a technology on their website where customers can try out a new top or pair of jeans to see what it might look like on them.

In that way, Merlino says a portion of everyone’s business will always be done online and virtually now. There’s just no way to fight the fact that COVID-19 has made us all turn to the virtual world to get work done. But at the same time, it has allowed much more innovation.

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