Surviving COVID-19: here’s how businesses are innovating in a time of crisis

Now is the time for businesses to act fast. We’re seeing local businesses adapt their strategies with smart marketing ideas and operational gear shifts — while some are starting new endeavours altogether. Here are some tools to ensure your business survives the time of crisis while you keep connected with your customers, clients and tribe-at-large during this global pandemic.

Photo by David Hofmann on Unsplash

The world is in a panic and it’s easy to see why: countries have closed their borders, cities are shutting down, the economy is at a borderline standstill and some of us haven’t left the house in more than a week and counting. This is particularly scary for businesses that require physical interaction and real-world services to bring in money: restaurants and the hospitality industry, exercise and educational classes, anyone in the events industry and entertainment, production-heavy businesses with large teams working in factories or workshops. The list is long and businesses are shutting down at the mere possibility of a month without revenue. In South Africa where so much is hand-to-mouth, that is the reality many businesses face.

On the other hand, we’re seeing businesses innovate in ways they never have before.

Small businesses are pooling resources to set up local delivery systems, and setting up online shops. Big business is making massive donations or (in the case of Louis Vuitton) switching from cosmetics production to hand sanitizer. Yoga studios are broadcasting classes on YouTube channels. Musicians are live streaming concerts to their fans’ lounges. Art classes are running over WhatsApp groups. Museums are offering virtual tours. Farmers markets are putting together food boxes for collection. Tribes are knitting even closer than before over group chats and live streaming or conferencing platforms. The good news is, we are seeing an explosion of creativity as people try to use technology as a bridge across physical distances.

We are reminded: Content is king, in particular for people in self-isolation. Whether through video or blog, high-tech VR or humourous social media, people are itching for ways to stay entertained — and to use this time productively, whether it be learning, making, keeping fit or growing their businesses in new and innovative ways, just like you.

So, while we #keepcalmandstayathome, here are a few ways you can adapt your business today.

Ecommerce & Online Orders

Perhaps the most obvious is worth mentioning first. If at this time you are able to continue to manage the supply chain of your product and set up a delivery or pickup service, this is the time to set up that online shop you’ve been putting off. The best ecommerce options are WordPress (mostly free but requires a bit of tech-savvy to set up), Shopify (easier but takes a percentage of sales) or Facebook (if you don’t have the time or inclination to set up a website). Food sales can piggyback on existing systems like Uber Eats. Use easy payment systems like PayFast and Snapscan.

If you want to start simple, set up an email address to take orders, and respond with an invoice and banking details. If you can, follow up with an SMS confirming delivery details. Locally there are well-priced nationwide couriers like the Courier Guy, or Citisprint who deliver smaller items locally. You can also set up pick-up systems allowing customers to collect without leaving their car at a particular time slot. OZCF for example is taking veggie box orders by Wednesdays and allowing pickup on Saturday afternoon. Just be sure you have your staff onsite gloved, masked and sanitized to limit any risk during handover.

Importantly, guide your customers. As a business you’re in a position to make a bigger difference than you think. So be sure you set the tone and lead by example, encouraging your customers to stay home, suggesting ways to optimise their time spent at home and the way they interact with your product or business during this time, and making the process simple and clear.


An easy add-on that you can offer your customers as a way of supporting you in this difficult time, to buy for themselves for future visits or as a gift. Understand that your customers want you to be open at the end of the shutdown, let alone once the virus has finally left, so it’s not outrageous to think they may support you in this way. They may really want to!

Pre-bookings or pre-orders

While most restaurants are closing and events are being postponed, you can still take pre-bookings for a few months’ time and ask for a deposit, or sell tickets for an event that will take place later on. This is a particularly good offering for establishments with loyal customers who will want to support your business to ensure you stay open through this trying time, and for events who create something to look forward to — a light at the end of this post-apocalyptic tunnel! (And now you have even more time than normal to craft your offering!)

For product-based businesses, many people are struggling with order cancellations now that import-export is an issue or businesses have been forced to close, but maybe there are ways you can encourage longer term orders to keep you busy designing or making during this time? You could offer a discount on upfront payments or suggest a payment plan. You could do something special to customise the piece or find some other way to reward the loyalty of your customers at this time.

Start a YouTube channel

If you haven’t done an exercise class in your underwear yet you clearly haven’t been in isolation for as long as I have. For high-energy people, your greatest lockdown fear may be getting in your 10,000 steps or what to do without your gym/ocean/mountain/yoga studio/soccer club, etc. So I was more than stoked when I found Desha Home Studio, a local yoga instructor from Cape Town’s The Shala, and Durban yoga studio, Yoga Rocks, launch their own YouTube channels. Sure, there are 100s of videos online already (usually a Paula Abdul look-alike or a Boho teenage girl in Thailand) but local is sometimes just better, particularly in a time of heightened stress. The lesson here — sharing your skill is very possible remotely and it’s a great way to grow your following not just in times of insolation but all the time — and your reach is potentially much further too. The question of how to monetise: true, it takes thousands if not millions of views to generate a decent living off YouTube ads, and that’s unlikely to happen overnight. Some are asking for donations, in exchange for giving their service for free. Some are doing it for brand building… people will really appreciate your efforts! And some may be doing it just for something to do… we all need to keep on keeping on! In the long run, you may find this model so successful that you add it on to your existing business model in the long term. Just because it’s not bringing in money right now doesn’t mean it’s not an investment in your business and your own future.

Live streaming (YouTube Live or Instagram Live)

Similar but different because here you are asking people to join you LIVE. Whether you leave the video up afterwards is up to you. This is great for musicians, music venues and theatres, live interviews, or anything with a live component like a workshop or class that you’d like people to conglomerate around in real time. Locally, events venue 44 on Long live streamed a jazz ensemble. Violinist Hezron Chetty played a live gig from home as a fundraiser. In South Korea, they are even experimenting with remote clubbing. Silent Disco anyone?

Video conferencing (Zoom, Skype, WhatsApp)

Many of us with remote clients have regular group meetings over Skype and have all learned a few tricks to ensure professional etiquette (like closing the door to stop your cat walking over your laptop, or dressing in business attire from the waist up!). Now these tools are useful for people in self-isolation or lockdown too, whether it be Zoom strategy sessions with your business or life coach, Skype therapy with your psychologist, or singing lessons (well done to Woodstock Academy of Music for getting on to this so quickly!) The options are pretty limitless: you could do consulting, language lessons, cooking classes, property tours (provided travel is allowed), workshops, exercise classes, and so much more!

Source: Skype blogs

Newsletters & social media

Simple tools we have long had at our disposal, this is really the time to connect with your tribe using the means of online communication we have available to us.

As we read in the New York Times:

But if there is a silver lining in this crisis, it may be that the virus is forcing us to use the internet as it was always meant to be used — to connect with one another, share information and resources, and come up with collective solutions to urgent problems. It’s the healthy, humane version of digital culture we usually see only in schmaltzy TV commercials, where everyone is constantly using a smartphone to visit far-flung grandparents and read bedtime stories to kids.

Now is the time to level up on your social media and content creation!

If your business already deals with content on a regular basis, ask yourself now: with so many people bored at home, itching for a creative task, how can we make the most of that? At Good Wine Shop we’re asking winemakers to send us video wine notes from home, perfect for Instagram stories and TV.

Put out a call to action or creative challenge

Get your tribe involved. What kind of challenge, creative or other, could you put out there to get people thinking and doing? The Loeries just put out this problem-solving challenge, Wake The Nation, to connect innovative thinkers with business. Then there’s #21daysofArtSA by local artist @alice_toich. With Media Ten, founders of Clerkenwell Design Week and Design London, and — here in SA — Design Joburg, we’re getting behind their #DesignTogether campaign: it’s a call to share positive stories from across the industry during this time of crisis. “Share your stories relating to how you’re adapting to the current situation whilst remaining creative and collaborative. How have you adapted to working from home? What are you doing to remain positive? How are you planning product launches?”

Work on your own brand and your marketing

It’s great advice to treat yourself as your own client and ensure we carve out the time we spend on our clients to invest in our own brand too — but it very rarely happens this way. So if all else fails and you really cannot work this month, focus on that. Rethink your website. Write that article you’ve been putting off. Send out that newsletter. Work on a logo refresh. Hire a freelancer if that’s not your area of expertise. Focus on your business strategy and ask yourself the bigger picture questions you’ve been putting off.

Keep Calm and Stay at Home…

None of us know how and when any of this will end. The smart thing is to remain calm and move swiftly on. Adapt or die comes to mind, but it’s not really appropriate here, so I won’t…

The real positive in all of this is how creative people are becoming in being together apart. Because let’s face it, we kinda like each other! We’ll also be really good at washing our hands, much more discerning about distinguishing fake news on family groups, and know when a meeting could have been an email! It’s also a great reminder for us all to slow down, take stock, and connect with the people and things that are really important to us. So — go do that thing you’ve been wanting to do at home but never have the time. Get your granny (or neighbour or client) onto Facetime. Make a practice video for your YouTube channel. Write the great novel! As someone on Twitter said, let’s face it, we’ll never have an excuse to be this lazy ever again. Or, the way I see it, the opportunity to be so productive! Your pick 😉

From Twitter. Source unknown. Legitimacy unverified.

Related: Here’s a FREE DOWNLOAD of a “Wash your hands” infographic we designed for wash stations for the homeless at our local “soup kitchen”, Obs Pasta Kitchen.

Coronavirus wash your hands

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