At IKKIVI Zine, we spoke with a few small business owners from India on the state of commerce, their individual experiences and the business reorganisations apprehended by them.The sharp declines in economic activity with the spread of the novel Coronavirus have commenced unprecedented losses across industries over the last several months. Having impacted all businesses and commercial undertakings profoundly, the economic deceleration – and in many instances, closure – that has extended with the onset of nationwide lockdowns has had an especially exaggerated effect on small businesses. With capital in its various species varying for small businesses depending on the particularity of their reach and concentration, more clearly, depending on the peculiarity of their field, on the state of development of their advancement and on the individuality of the products, small businesses are needing to retrace their steps to ensure business continuity in the present economic climate.
Discussing the impact that the pandemic has had on small businesses, Surabhi Chauhan, Founder and Director at the communications agency LoveStruckCow notes that “the immediate effect has been quite disruptive. Starting from a sudden drop in business activity, stalling of on-ground projects, breakdown of vendor supply chains to deferral of marketing activities and product launches, all these factors have come together to force a major relook at our yearly plans and projections.”
Traversing through similar arduous conditions, Anushka Sani, Founder of Thought Over Design, a user-centric design studio, mentions that they’ve learned that one can’t always trust people on their word or contracts. “Since it’s a sensitive time and we’re mindful of that – we’ve been understanding of delayed payments – but when it gets out of hand, as a small business – it’s really difficult to work around this when our work is based on mutual respect / trust.” Such multifaceted strains have also presented halts and delays in business activities and production processes, leading to indefinite defferals of many projects at small business firms – specifically of offline events, commercial campaigns, new product launches and installations, and a shift in business strategy.
Corroborating on the consequences of the lockdown on managing business, Rahul Singh Yadav, Founding Member and Design and Curatorial Head at Floating Canvas Company, an art-on-subscription service, outlines that one of their “biggest challenges has been the nagging sense of uncertainty about how things might stand a week, a fortnight or a month from now. Restarting operations on a full-fledged basis and aligning all teams, vendors and stakeholders is not a one-day affair. And in the face of directives by authorities at different levels – sometimes in conflict with one another – the challenges just multiply manifold.”
Reflecting further on these experiences and their influence on focus in the face of these sudden adjustments, he states that “the initial days were quite crazy. Coming to terms with the pandemic, its health implications, wading through all the information, misinformation and instructions, managing household responsibilities and facing new business realities on a daily basis; it all felt quite overwhelming to be honest.” However, being able to spend more time at home and around his family, he says, has also provided him the mental space to closely consider the things he should be focusing on, in both business and in the personal domain.
In developing conditions congruent for conducting business through this unpredictable period, Anushka emphasizes a revision in strategies to garner new business practices. “We’re actively considering a leaner model with lighter costs. One of our biggest expenses is a beautiful and large studio space in the heart of South Bombay. We’ve been discussing this as a team and are exploring what a #workfromanywhere model would look like.” Speaking of the alterations and shifts in their business trajectory moving forward, she adds that they want to be mindful of what projects they take on moving forward. “It’s become increasingly important to evaluate the businesses we work with. The focus on local is very interesting for us at Thought Over Design…so we’re excited to see how we can help build better, more meaningful homegrown brands.”
Elaborating on the same lines, Shakti Swarup Sahu, Founding Member and Strategic and Marketing Head at Floating Canvas Company considers it essential to diversify revenue sources and ensure that the financial shock from such occurrences is minimised henceforth. Matters that largely remain overlooked due to mainstream and competitive business dynamics – including unnecessary commute and travel in many sectors of the economy, and the subtle yet discernible effects of extended work hours on mental health – have also gained heightened attention amongst professionals during this period of economic lag.
Surabhi shares that “with the enforced pause, we were all encouraged to be home and do nothing at times. This is not all rainbow and sunshine, don’t get me wrong – there are phases of laughter, arguments, frustrations, and warm meals. It’s good to not plan too much…it’s great to think of who you are and how to nourish yourself…Now with more me-time and time with family (who also are homebound), I am able to connect with myself more while being productive at work as well.” Interconnected with these aspects have been developments in the personal realm brought forth by the pandemic. Anushka explains this to have become a time of strengthening personal relationships – “If anything, this has been a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with people both personally and in cohorts…I’ve also found conversations are so much more meaningful and you get to know people a lot better through a time like this.”
Contemplating the macro economic changes that have been fuelled by contemporary affairs, Aagam Mehta, Founding Member and Business and Finance Head at Floating Canvas Company believes that there is going to be a shift in how and what we perceive small businesses to be (doing) and the power that they (will) have in terms of driving ethical changes in the larger market structure with the rise of this global crisis. “There’s this narrative that has been developing for quite a while that transitioning into a mega corporation is the natural endgame for any business, that every small business is just a ‘way bigger business in the making’.
I think this narrative has taken a beating with the onset of this crisis. During peak lockdown, it’s our neighbourhood kirana (grocery and general) stores that kept us going, not mega malls and marts. And I sincerely hope more people appreciate this, that how crucial a role small businesses play in efficient decentralisation and distribution of capital and resources. Small businesses are sustainable, rooted in community, and – as this crisis has shown – downright essential.”
Echoing the same truth Surabhi thinks that only small businesses will have the liberty to bring about ethical changes from this crisis. “Small businesses are usually formed with the notion of doing things differently from how big companies function. They tend to be more sustainable and ethical in their functioning. It’s my belief that we will see new names emerge as stars who were able to think and act differently in the coming times. There will be completely new products and services which will become very relevant in the near future and the small businesses would be the ones who find them.” Considering reforms on the consumption spectrum, Rubeina Karachiwalla, Founder of Ruby’s Cosmetics, suggests that “people will be looking to spend more wisely, and on less…Conscious consumerism is about to become the future and we (as a small business) want to be that choice for people.”
“One of the biggest business learnings for us from this pandemic” reflects Aagam, “has been to look at everything we do through two crucial lenses: Resilience and Diversification. In the wake of the new normal…we have tried to relook at and reorient every business activity: starting from where and how we source a vendor to where and why to hire an employee. The key is to build a business that stays resilient even if a certain location or city goes under lockdown” These shifting directions in business practices indicate a refocusing primarily of, and on, values and emotions. Surabhi highlights this period to have encouraged her “to think of how to still genuinely connect with people/entities without physically being present.” On handling present dynamics, she adds that businesses should not rely on spending more money to work well. “Invest in people and businesses you connect with. It’s the connections you form and how you impact the world.” Speaking of their reform in terms of focus in business, Rubeina counts that “we want to focus now on creating more value for our customers and working towards creating an emotional relationship beyond the transaction.”
These shifts and reformulations are extending from business ideologies, merging into cultural and collective practices and support. On how we can partake in contributing as a community to the sustainable enterprise that small businesses are, Rahul points that “it would be great if more people start considering small businesses as their first choice when it comes to opting for a product or service. But there are many other small yet significant ways of showing your support as well. Follow small businesses on their social channels. Like and share their content. Spread the word about their offerings in your circle. Or just drop a mail or give a call to say Hi. Sometimes just knowing that you are listening and that you care are all that it takes to keep it going.” Advocating for greater revision in these areas, Anushka proposes that we “look to support not just homegrown brands and local businesses but those that are going one step ahead and looking into the entire ecosystem in which they exist…And I believe if as consumers we don’t change, we will only be fuelling the same system that brought us here today.”
From becoming involved in understanding the production and supply processes of small businesses by thinking of where our products and services are coming from, whom they are supporting and the means through which they are distributed, to engaging in mindful consumption, she appeals that we also prioritise taking care of those directly dependent on us. “Please do what you can to pay your drivers, peons, domestic help and other people dependent on you. We need to care for those who rely on us for their livelihoods.”
The development of emotional and symbolic relationships are now burgeoning between networks, small and independent local firms and individual consumers. Even though distinctive paradigms around emotions, personal values and the economy have not yet developed completely, as ideologies are refined and business frameworks renewed, the nature of these relationships and changes may in due course culminate into a model that is formally based on socio-cultural dynamics and exchange. While largely commercial and profit-bound business systems have governed the concerns of economic institutions andlarge businesses, it is the systematic engagement and adoption of more conscious, mindful and ethical operations grounding small businesses that are most plausible to affect analytic frames, generating advances in economic and social behavior in the global economy.