5 Lessons on Business Resilience and Stakeholder Engagement From the Great Recession

May 20, 2020

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B Corp Leaders Who Made It Through the Recession Share How a Stakeholder Framework Helps Them Weather Economic Challenges

Businesses are dealing with busts, booms and everything in between amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment in the U.S. has climbed to nearly 15%, the highest level since the Depression and roughly double the number during the 2008 recession, and thousands of small businesses are scrambling for federal financial assistance.

The recession of 2008 and its ripple effects provide some lessons in how stakeholder engagement can build more resilient businesses and provide a solid framework for business leaders to handle tough times. B The Change sought the perspective of three B Corp leaders whose businesses weathered challenging economic times, including the 2008 recession:

  • Sharon Rowe, founder and CEO of Eco-Bags Products and author of The Magic of Tiny Business, has led her company through ups and downs during 31 years in business while maintaining its focus on sustainability. Soon after the sudden COVID-19 shutdowns, she shared tips on weathering business challenges in a post on the B Hive, an online resource for B Corps, and expanded on those during a recent webinar organized by We The Change, a group of women CEOs in the B Corp community.
  • Tim Frick, founder and president of Mightybytes, opened his company in early 1998. Mightybytes faced its first taste of economic adversity when the dot-com bubble burst, followed shortly thereafter by 9/11. In an earlier B The Change article, Frick wrote about how benefit corporation governance shaped his company’s turnaround.
  • Shawn Busse is founder and CEO of Kinesis, a strategy and marketing firm that hit 20 years in business in January. The B Corp has weathered several downturns, including the 2008 recession, which prompted Busse to compile lessons from that experience in his book, Marketing from the Inside Out. He recently shared his thoughts on recession resilience with B Local PDX, the B Corp community in the Portland, Oregon, area.

Below are their suggestions on staying resilient through the challenges of COVID-19 and the long-term future.

Stay Lean During Ups and Downs

Busse of Kinesis: Those who move quickly, get lean, and innovate are usually in a better place. But getting lean isn’t just a matter of slashing payroll: In one study, for example, companies that went through layoffs had a 20% decline in job performance among the survivors. Consider strategies that protect the culture you’ve built, such as furloughs or unemployment workshare programs, while investing in new offerings that meet the shift in market demand.

Frick of Mightybytes: I learned how important it is to stay lean by keeping expenses low and resources flexible. Because of constant workload ebb and flow, most agencies rely on independent contractors to fill gaps when needed. This served us well as the 2008 recession occurred. We were able to contract and expand as our workload necessitated.

Rowe of Eco-Bags Products: Stay calm and negotiate with every vendor, consultant and supplier to level out your available and potentially incoming cash and stretch it for as long as possible.

Narrow the Focus

Busse of Kinesis: The last recession was an unexpected opportunity to examine what we did as a business. We used that as an opportunity to apply the lessons from the book, Blue Ocean Strategy. We rebuilt the company to focus on helping small businesses grow and be durable, instead of working on low margins and offering the same options as many of our competitors.

Frick of Mightybytes: We have a mission-aligned client base, many of which are nonprofits. We found ourselves committed to doing good to the point of over-servicing clients and undermining the company’s own well-being. As a leader, you have to respect constraints and be crystal-clear about where you draw the line.

Rowe of Eco-Bags Products: As a business owner, you have to save the business first. It’s kind of like you’re in an airplane, and you have to put that mask on first.

Left to Right: Shawn Busse, Sharon Rowe, Tim Frick

Left to right: Shawn Busse, Sharon Rowe, and Tim Frick.

Find Right-Fit Partners for Your Team

Frick of Mightybytes: I learned to be intentional and focused regarding who Mightybytes’ clients should be. During those early years, I took on several projects that weren’t aligned with my personal values to put food on my table. It felt awful. As Mightybytes emerged from its cloud of financial uncertainty, I vowed that we would always prioritize values-aligned, mission-driven work.

Rowe of Eco-Bags Products: Say “Thank you” to your team and customers. Practice thankfulness. If you’re a mission-driven business, you’re still a business like all others. We’ve made a point as a smaller business to pay other small businesses first.

Find Balance While Thinking Long-Term

Busse of Kinesis: Family businesses tend to outperform non-family businesses in recessions. The thinking is when times get tough, family members are willing to sacrifice for one another. There’s a commonality between that idea and between businesses that are purpose-driven, where leaders are willing to sacrifice for their employees. I want to challenge folks to say, “How do I create an engaged workforce that’s not only loyal but is creatively inspired and motivated to help us through this hard time?”

Frick of Mightybytes: Austerity measures are important during a crisis, but they shouldn’t be considered business as usual for any organization. It is important to balance running lean with supporting all the things a company needs to succeed. As business leaders, it is our responsibility to communicate these decisions in ways our stakeholders can easily understand and act upon.

Remember the Power of Purpose and Mission

Busse of Kinesis: Recessions are a really great time to examine how authentic your mission is. An engaged workforce solves problems creatively; when things get hard, that’s what you need. We’re all facing the same shared grief. Being able to talk about that and coming together to support one another can be a real moment of energy, even among the challenges we’re facing.

Frick of Mightybytes: Lessons learned throughout the years have transformed Mightybytes into the more stable, focused, and resilient company it is today. Like most agencies, our business ebbs and flows with the economy. We have learned that times of prosperity should fuel potential economic challenges that might lie ahead, so we plan accordingly.

Rowe of Eco-Bags Products: One of the best ways we can help each other in this community is to work with and purchase from each other. Make B Corps your preferred supplier or business partner. The greatest value is knowing there’s a community of people with similar values.

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