A problem shared is a problem halved

Katie Martel looks after the public relations for a host of small businesses in south-east Queensland, many of whom are involved in the hospitality and property industries. So, when COVID-19 struck, Katie’s clientele were very much in the line of fire.

“Everything needed to be changed,” Katie explains. “One of my clients is Haven Newstead – a precinct comprising of cafes, fine-dining restaurants, beauty salons and pilates studios. We had to find a way to help these people.”

Katie worked for nothing, generating as much publicity as she could about the threat the virus was going to pose to such outlets, and helping her clients work through ways they could pivot to continue operating.

“For example, e’cco bistro is renowned as a ‘destination’ for dining out,” Katie says, “and they had to pivot to take-away and deliveries.”

As some of Katie’s clients settled into their new way of doing things and others shut their doors to sit out the lockdown things quietened down, and Katie got used to having children at home 24/7. However, desperate to keep herself and her clients busy and in with the best chance of coming through the pandemic intact, Katie came up with a plan.

A community solution

“I was talking to my friend, Rachel Callan, and we determined we needed to pull the small-business community together,” Katie says. “We were craving connection, inspiration and support – and a much-needed laugh – and we figured there are a tonne of others out there wanting this, too.

“The one thing bringing us all together was, sadly, the coronavirus – no one was immune. We wanted to bring as many of us as possible together, to share our stories, help us realise we’re not alone in how we’re feeling – and offer help to those where possible – because it’s an incredible way to stay motivated no matter, how you’re affected.”

The outcome of this discussion was the Thriving through COVID19 Facebook community. Rachel runs Flamanko Social Media on the Sunshine Coast, and, like Katie, had a long list of clients unsure about where to turn. The Facebook community group was an opportunity for them to share stories about how they had been affected, and soon after launching in early April over 180 small-business owners had joined the group.

“We contacted all our clients and our friends,” Katie explains, “and people from all kinds of locations and industries – including gin production, bedding manufacturing, café owners, tourism and holiday accommodation owners, photographers, plumbers, physiotherapists, psychologists and personal trainers – came on board.”

A rich mix

One of the people who joined the group is Ash Thallon who lives on the Sunshine Coast and is the owner of bedding label Garzie + May, that sells handmade products imported from India. Ash’s team stopped production three weeks ago after India went into lockdown.

“I’m just trying to stay positive about it all and finalise new designs and new products to add to our range, as well as use this ‘spare time’ to clean up my list of ‘I’ll do that tomorrow’ and enjoy the time with the little ones at home,” Ash says.

Kerrie Carucci is a stylist who went full time in her business only a few months ago.

“The pure nature of my business – like offering personal services and creating shoots for editorial opportunities – have been impacted with the social distancing limitations,” Kerrie says. “But I’ve seen this as a great opportunity to diversify my services, build my virtual offerings and create content and support my community.”

Another member includes former Queensland Bulls cricketer, now owner of Outside Edge Adventures, a fishing travel company and Nathan Reardon Cricket Coaching.

“Obviously these times are very different, for not only myself, but everyone involved in this group who own their own businesses,” Nathan says. He joined the group in order to offer a helping hand to any fellow business owners who needed it.

And the group now includes a number of emergency health workers sharing their stories.

Kate and Rachel developed a series of resources so that the initiative could go beyond being a sympathetic ear and provide practical assistance.

“Rachel and I launched a free online book to help businesses with mindset, communication advice and do-it-yourself social, PR and digital marketing tips for anyone – even those who’ve closed and have no income coming in,” Katie explains.

They also started hosting live “Bring your vino for a Thriving through COVID chat” every Thursday night – giving the members the opportunity to talk to the whole group about how they’ve been impacted and the strategies they are adopting to keep “thriving” through the pandemic.

Breaking down borders

One session focused on the experiences of Amy Alexander, who cofounded pre-bottled cocktail and beverage catering company JMR Cocktails. Based in Wellington, NZ, which at the time of her talk was facing Level-Four lockdown, Amy’s team weren’t able to operate, and her 2020 global expansion plans had to be put on hold for the foreseeable future.

“Amy’s choosing to stay positive through supporting her stockist and consumer communities via her social channels, and look at building out her e-commerce offering,” Katie says.

Amy is not the only international member of the group, with people learning about the initiative on social media and joining from locations as far-flung as London and Sri Lanka.

Facing an uncertain future

The excitement business owners feel about starting to be able to reopen comes with anxiety, so members of the group are now sharing their fears and their thoughts on how they can get back to business in a safe way.

“In the short term we plan to offer advice on the new way people will need to operate, focusing on ‘evergreen’ content that accentuates the positives of helping out fellow business owners,” Katie says.

In the longer term she hopes the group will evolve into a business support group that provides referrals and a forum for the sharing of advice on running a small business.

This story first appeared in issue 29 of the Inside Small Business quarterly magazine