As we start to see the light at the end of the COVID tunnel, how are you handling planning for the coming year for your small business?  Have you been able to convince yourself that it’s worth the investment in time to set goals or develop a strategy, when all of that went completely out of the window last year?

The past 12 months have been an excellent reminder about the challenges of the “best laid plans”.  Whether your business saw a huge drop in sales, a giant pivot to online, supply chain snafus, or rapid increases in demand, we all went through a year that was, according to virtually everyone, (yeah, I’m gonna say it) unprecedented.

The New Normal?

After all that craziness came the subsequent warnings that we aren’t going back to normal, but that there will be a “new normal” as a result of changes that have taken place over the past year during the pandemic.  The workplace of the future (and by future, I mean 2022, not way into the future) is going to look very different than the workplace of 2019. 

According to a recent Greenbook research report, only about 20 percent of workers have returned to the office, but most expect to return to some extent over the next several months.  Many people are missing in-person meetings and the general office atmosphere, including socialization time with their co-workers.  However, “the overwhelming majority feel the future of work will include a hybrid model.”  Only about one-quarter of workers want to return to the office five days a week.

Clearly, those who work for an employer are starting to see the benefits I’ve seen all along as a solopreneur, in terms of much better work-life balance and some sense of control of your day and work schedule.

What’s Different?

So now most of us are starting to think forward a bit more and we know that the post-COVID world won’t be the same as the pre-COVID world.  How do you as a small business owner start to plan again? 

Do you need to change your sales & marketing plans?  Recruit for different skillsets or using different methods?  Re-assess your financial situation for future pandemics or other unplanned activities? 

According to Entrepreneur magazine, some of the top small business challenges after a year of COVID include transitioning to a digital world, missing out on in-person networking events, and planning for an uncertain future.

We may be suffering from Zoom fatigue after a year of virtual meetings, but it seems clear that they are not going to disappear even as more people come back to the office.  And travel to clients and trade shows might be impacted as well.  As a matter of fact, “93 percent of event professionals plan to invest in virtual events moving forward”, according to an outlook report of event planners. 

Clearly a virtual trade show doesn’t provide the same opportunity for networking and conversation as an in-person one, but the budget is much smaller too.  And if your customers are making more and more decisions online, perhaps it makes less sense to put so much of your budget into a once-a-year in-person trade show.  As a matter of fact, a recent survey of B2B companies showed that 85 percent of companies agree or strongly agree that the pandemic has forced them to look for new methods of lead generation.

What’s the Same?

Some worries never go away, and they don’t change whether we’re in a pandemic or not. 

According to the most recent survey from the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the number one concern of all business owners for the last 29 years has been the cost of health insurance.  This survey polled business owners in February and March of 2020, so it’s certainly possible that the ranking has changed, but it continues to be a persistent concern for business owners.

Many of the other issues in the top ten are related to taxes and government regulations, such as federal taxes on business income, property taxes, government regulations, state taxes, tax complexity, government paperwork, and changes in tax laws.

These issues may be longstanding ones for small business owners, but other than lobbying or voting, there isn’t a whole lot an individual business owner can do to change or control them.

Another issue that seems to stay on the top of this list of small business problems is dealing with uncertainty, both in economic conditions and government actions. 

Connected to that, employers are concerned about finding and keeping qualified employees, projecting future sales changes, and competing with larger businesses.  These seem to be evergreen issues for small business owners in general, shifting slightly in their ranking of importance based on the state of the economy. 

What’s the Point of Planning?

Notice that one common thread in the list of small business issues – whether pre- or mid-pandemic – is uncertainty.  We don’t know what will happen next.  That is true both for our business and our personal lives.  As much as we try to plan for the future, too much is beyond our control.

As a result, it can be easy to just focus on the day-to-day operations of your business, and short-term sales – quarter by quarter.  Who knows what the next few years will bring?  What’s the point in even putting financial projections together or trying to plan for new products, services, or customer types when we can’t predict the future?

Well, I’m here to tell you that the Fortune 500 companies are doing their best to plan for a future where they continue to be Fortune 500 companies.  They have VPs of Long-Range Planning, corporate strategic planning retreats in exotic locations (in non-covid years), and they can even hire giant consulting firms and professional futurists to help them map out their future.

So what about us small business owners?

Do you want to continue to be in business in five years? In ten years?  Do you hope to grow your business?  Then it’s time to embrace uncertainty!  It’s time to look at what’s going on around us and think about what might change in the next five or ten years.  What does the future of your industry look like?  Can you envision a future where you are successful?  Where do you even get the information you need to do this?

It comes down to being on the lookout for signals of change that indicate to you that something is going on that could affect your business.

Where do you Find Signals of Change? 

Signals of change come from news stories about new concepts or ideas that are being tested out.  For example, this story about 3D concrete printing and robotic brick layers impacting the construction industry. Or this press release about an autonomous zero-emission container vessel, that will be sure to not get stuck in any canals!  Or this business article about a German company entering the U.S. market to offer “hardware as a service” – in other words, renting phones and laptops to consumers.

Might any of these newsworthy events or inventions impact your business? 

It’s important to be on the lookout for what is changing so that you can plan for a future where your business is still relevant.

Start out by doing an online search: “the future of x”, where x is your industry – or your customer’s industry.  See what pops up in the search. 

Consider subscribing to journals or blog posts or email newsletters that might provide some of these signals.  Compile your news stories in folders using an app like Pocket or Feedly. 

Then, set aside some time each week or month to review the stories you’ve saved and make note of the ones that seem most relevant.  How can you plan for a future where your business is successful because of, or in spite of, these news-worthy items? 

Don’t let the big companies control all the innovation!  Plan for a successful future by looking for the opportunity before others find it. 

 

Intrigued by the idea of looking for signals of change and using them in your strategic planning process?  I am offering a pilot of my “Future Proof Your Small Business” workshop this summer.  Learn the tricks to finding the information you need to connect with new customers and with new information that could impact your business.  Be sure to subscribe to my blog so you don’t miss out!

 

Follow Along

If you are enjoying reading what you see here, sign up to receive these posts directly in your email In Box.