How to thrive during economic uncertainty

So here we are, two months into a global pandemic - it doesn't seem to be getting any better, and things in your business are beginning to look a little... let's call it 'uncertain,' shall we?

You might have the luxury of the easy pivot - making masks - but you and I both know that this demand won't last forever, and individual mask sales aren't exactly giving you the kind of abundance you need to keep operating smoothly. I'm gonna talk you through it.

The truth is, no matter what you sell, your customers are dying to hear from you. To know things are okay on your end. To be told how they can support you. And above all, since they too are facing a lot of uncertainty, to feel seen and heard. But instead of connecting with your customers, your first instinct is probably this:

I get it - all of this is unprecedented. Some of us are caring for sick family members and the rest of us are trying our hardest to keep our families from getting sick. But for us business owners, we've got even more than basic health and survival on our minds. While you know you should be marketing, the hardest question is how. I caught a live stream this morning and A-ROD was there, talking about running his monster-sized corporation throughout COVID.

Rodriguez called it a 'rain break.' In baseball, rain breaks happen when the game pauses for rain, and the players go inside until it stops. What stood out was what he said about the players who hit up catering and made sandwiches on rain break. When the team goes back out to play, those players never quite got their heads back in the game. The players who waited on the bench, focusing on the game, were the ones who went back out and dominated.

A-ROD made a point of relating rain breaks to economic pitfalls like COVID-19 - a time when many are sitting on their couches, Netflixing-and-chilling, and thinking that the rest of the world hit pause on their ambition too. He stressed just how important it was to keep your head in the game, especially when you're not in-play. This uncertain time presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us creatives, whether it be to finally rest, or take advantage of downtime and create what you've always wanted to create.

If you're a designer, now is the worst possible time to be taking long weekends, sleeping in, and simply doing the bare minimum just to get by. In fact, I would argue that running a successful business during COVID-19 is going to require far more than 40 hours a week right now - or at least, a time investment of more than just the business that is organically coming to you. If this resonates, there's  something else you need to be aware of. 

I'm shocked at the amount of brands who've gone quiet in this season. Remember this: When something so loud and unmistakably huge happens, the brands who say nothing are saying the most.

If you don't know what to say, cruise through your five favorite brands social media presence and see how they've been communicating over the last few months. Take note of what's being said, the tone they're using to communicate (how they're faring, if the availability of their product/services  will be affected, what measures they're taking), and frequency that they're delivering these messages.

I get you - It's easy to feel fatigued from the news/noise, but remember, as a designer, your words aren't adding to it. If anything, people want to hear familiar voices and see familiar faces right now. The more quiet you become right now, or the more you post online without acknowledging reality, the more likely it is that your audience will perceive you as tone-deaf. Your brand will come across either clueless, or lacking empathy - and either way, it's going to be hard for you to make a healthy, safe comeback when all of this is over.

If you aren't routinely addressing what's going on outside in your posts, web content, live stories, TikTok videos, and mailing lists, then I hate to break it to you, but you're probably coming across as the tone-deaf brand online. Over the past few months, I've been plugging myself into new tribes of bosses, Ceo's, and strategists to learn and experiment in what's about to be a new economic landscape for a while.

It’s not the end of the world - just the end of things being easy. The past five years have been a cakewalk as a creative in America. A lot of people won't enjoy that fact, but given the internet's maturity, the amount of SaaS products out there that make the businessy/digital sides of your job effortless - it's true. Designers who launched brands in the sweet spot (2014-2019) had it SOOOO easy. It's been the peak of direct to consumer so the opportunities are endless, and you had all the tools in the world to ensure good margins, max reach, and a multitude of inspiration. 

Fast forward to 2020. Now, you’re experiencing what entrepreneurs did post-9/11. You’re realizing you had it good, and now, you’re having to work for it just to make the sale, and things feel uncertain. We're entering a new season of entrepreneurship - people love being fashion designers and playing Sex & the City when it's easy - no one wants to talk about it when it gets hard and you can't afford weekly photoshoots. Welcome to the thunderdome, my friend. It's time to work your a** off, be willing to get humble, be scrappy, and extend grace to your business.

Let’s stop and take one big entrepreneurial breath. It’s going to be okay. 

This can be salvageable, dare I say, profitable. If you’re reading this and thinking that your old habits will still work post-COVID, then what I’m about to say is going to frustrate you, because Im willing to invest time in showing you you’re wrong. Your old tricks will not work anymore - the world has changed and it changes linearly. It won't go back to how it used to be, so it's time - You have to learn new skills, adapt, and grow.

The first thing you need to do, after you’ve taken a breath, is to know that everything is figureout-able. And as long as you’re willing to go outside that comfort zone, things are going to be okay.

Next, it’s time to over-communicate. The designers who are suffering right now are the ones who don’t know what to say, but are still talking as if nothing outside has changed.

Next, let’s have a healthy dose of humility and if your product or service doesn't support this 'new normal' we've found ourselves in for the time being, look for ways to turn a profit using your current materials in a way that’s sensitive to the world outside that just changed.

For the longest time I've resisted small batch manufacturing because it wasn't scalable. Now that the pandemic has effectively shuttered every Chinese supply chain, and a major cyclone hit both India and Bangladesh, it's become clear to me that for the rest of the year, I'll humbly need to replace my costuming and softgoods divisions with small batch manufacturing to stay afloat. Not because I love it, or because I see it as a long-term trajectory, but because that's what I have to do to create security in my business to float through the economic uncertainty.

Look past what you do and what your major goals are, lend yourself a little grace & humility, and ask yourself what you could create for the time being that doesn't require a major learning curve. Whether it's repackaging what you know into a digital product, creating a community for the time-being, or launching a new design that lends itself to COVID comforts... whichever designer serves their audience best is the one who will thrive longterm in such an uncertain time.

Remember, the purpose of a small business is to serve. Focus on serving your customers the best you possibly can regardless of what you sell - because whoever serves the best throughout all of this, will be the brand that wins.

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Be paralyzed by panic,
and resort to 'Netflix-and-chill'

beware of being tone deaf (avoid addressing what's going on)

Over-communicate to the clients you have, and adapt your strategy for the clients you need

Things are going to look different for a while