By Nompumelelo Sibalukhulu

Starting a business is not for everyone. It is not enough just to have a good idea, technical skills, passion, a vision, and a good plan. These might be sufficient to get an entrepreneur off the starting block, but not enough to get them through periods of adversity.

To sustain a business through crises requires qualities in the entrepreneur and within their support system which are not always top of mind when they start their business. And this is especially true for small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

The guest entrepreneurs at the recent Business Day SME matters in association with Nedbank present a good case study of what it takes for SMEs to navigate a challenging environment.

Like many small businesses, they were caught in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic. They have had to sail the choppy waters of uncertainty that took down approximately 40% of businesses.

Raghmah Solomon, the founder of Vortex Design Solutions in the building and construction industry, shared how she not only had to grapple with keeping her business afloat during that trying time, but how she had to do so while sick and recovering from the deadly virus.

“My biggest wake-up call was when I fell ill, and my husband fell ill. We were in the first wave of Covid…

At this point, Raghmah asked herself many questions. “What was going to happen to my business now? Who is going to look after everyone? Who is going to call the clients? Three weeks is a long time when you are the butcher, the baker and candlestick maker”.

Being sick and all alone, no one was liaising with clients and suppliers and ensuring that all the tasks that were necessary to keep the business running were being done as they should.

Solomon’s experience gave her pause. It helped her to reflect on what she had been doing well in her business and what she hadn’t been doing well. She committed that if she came out of her sick bed, she was going to listen more to understand what her clients wanted and needed from her.

Greg Walsh, CEO of G&G Productions, an events company based in Cape Town. This sector was knocked to its knees by the extension of lockdown from the initial three weeks to two years.

“What kept unfolding was this rampant anxiety and uncertainty because we realized that we do need to start making changes. So, it was half salaries for everyone, and our team were unbelievable, and they supported us through that”, he reflected.

As an entrepreneur, Walsh the cost of the pandemic came at a huge personal cost. While he continued paying his staff the little he could, he took no salary for two years. “I only put money into the business and took nothing out for 24 months. Luckily in my younger days as an entrepreneur I had listened to people, and that’s where mentorship comes in”, he continued.

Bankers have a front seat view of the entrepreneurial journey. They interact with business owners daily because many entrepreneurs rely on the infrastructure provided by banks to make and receive payments and to maintain up-to-date records to enable them to access opportunities for funding and growth.

Alan Shannon, the head of Small Business Services and Private Clients at Nedbank, shared his insights on the characteristics that differentiate businesses that survive crises like the COVID-19 pandemic and those that don’t.

“The passion is certainly one side of things. Having the resources to see things through is obviously important, and also the ability to make quick decisions.”

“Certain decisions were made by my two colleagues to my left with respect to the staff, and costs and trying new things. I think that ability to think about what else could contribute to the sustainability of our business is critical,” he said.

Shannon emphasised coaching as crucial to business survival. Commenting on Solomon’s and Walsh’s experiences he, added:

“…there’s something that both of them have touched on that I’m not sure has been emphasised enough and that was the access that they had to other people, in some cases in the form of a coach that was helping them see things that perhaps they were not seeing for themselves”.

Small and medium enterprises take their initiative from the owner who makes all the important decisions for the business. Therefore, the survival and growth of small businesses hinges largely on the tenacity and growth of the entrepreneur.

The panel discussion identified that access to mentorship, coaching and a network of support from those with more experience, skill and insight is an investment that all entrepreneurs need to make to navigate a challenging operational environment.

Image source: Arena Events