“Hey Marcus, can you write a piece about what the business is doing during the Pandemic? How we are coping and the new ways we are working? Regards Rufus, your Marketing Director.”
That was the brief, but the answer to running a business during lockdown is complex, emotional, fraught with danger, uncertain and exciting. It is all these things, whilst dealing with the day-to-day fallout of home schooling, toilet roll shortages, tears for those dying alone, pride for our health workers and a desperate urge to find a bigger, human spirit that forgives, tolerates and accepts everything that is happening.
As I said to the kids who work in the business (generally anyone in their early 20s) - instead of canoeing up stream, sometimes we have to turn the canoe around and follow gravity. And if following the path of least resistance is our only choice, then we have to embrace it, with all the twists and turns.
In just a matter of days, www.BusinessesForSale.com - the company I founded with my brother Andrew in the 90s, one of the original dot.com start-ups, lost nearly 50% of its revenue. Business agents and brokers who represent pubs, restaurants, hotels, hair salons, gyms, bars, florists, coffee shops, nightclubs and so on pulled their advertising.
Many of these agents and business brokers themselves have been forced to make large lay offs and redundancies, as deals, very much like estate agents in the housing market, fell through. Yes, this will be temporary and yes, the market will rebound but no one knows when.
That lost revenue will take our business, which has made healthy profits since 2003, into instant loss-making territory with potentially ruinous consequences.
The good news is that buyers are still looking to buy businesses. Our traffic, which normally generates around 1.3m unique visitors, was instantly halved in the immediate aftershock of the lockdown and the stock market collapse.
I did joke that we still had half a business and I wondered where this appetite to buy a business was coming from in such turbulent circumstances.
Perhaps the answer is that BusinessesForSale.com, a global marketplace of over 60,000 small businesses for sale, is in fact a mirror of the real economy.
Whilst deals for pubs and restaurants were falling through – we saw a dramatic spike for tech and e-commerce businesses, work from home opportunities and even laundrettes, as well as businesses that had been listed by governments as “essential” – such as convenience stores, pet shops or gas stations.
And in the last 24 hours, our traffic has gone up dramatically (from where it fell to) and now stands at 30% less of what it was before the Covid-19 crisis.
We are not out of the woods by any means. And if a business can still say that, then it is doing well. Some businesses would still love to be in the woods, searching for a way out.
My job, as founder and Chairman of the company, is to find a way out, for all the stakeholders in the company – for clients, for site visitors, for the staff and the suppliers we use.
In my other life, I am an independent filmmaker. My debut movie was Papadopoulos & Sons, starring Stephen Dillane, about a wealthy entrepreneur who loses everything and moves back into a chip shop. Someone joked about the irony. But I prefer to see it as a blue print to success – even in a crisis.
In those first Covid crisis days, which were only a few weeks ago but seem like another time, we had to move the business offsite – all 30 of us. This was successful because most of the people that work at the company are set up to work from home (if they are not already working from home).
One of our chief coders has been working remotely from Mexico for over a decade. One of our designers comes in from Norfolk two days a week. One of our directors, who manages the USA business broker community, works mostly from home doing US hours – with a later start and finish.
Rufus, the Marketing Director, and instigator of this piece, took a paid sabbatical for a year, so he could go travelling in New Zealand, where he skied and sailed, whilst also running the marketing team on reduced hours.
At various times in our lives we have all worked from home and the big move was straightforward. We have a VPN system that allows for a secure way of working as well as “quick and dirty” WhatsApp for instant communication.
But we needed to create a new working structure.
Every morning now starts with a series of meetings using Microsoft Teams – for Account Management, Marketing and Technology. The focus is what people worked on, what they are working on and what they will work on.
The business was founded with an agile spirit and remarkably, even in the middle of this chaos, we have managed to launch a new product to the site called ValueRight – which is a sophisticated online valuation tool using the discounted cash valuation method – which allows all our users of the site to value a business. It’s been four years of coding and 1000s of hours of development. But we felt it was important to raise the stakes in the business, to show we are still in business and to also galvanise the team.
At 3pm, anyone can just drop into Microsoft Teams for “Tea at Three” – which is a way of working together for the sake of it. People can chat about their day, debate the latest Covid news or just put it on mute and know that there is someone there.
I get daily WhatsApp instant info about which clients are in trouble but also good news when our account management team brings new clients in. There are franchisors and business brokers who see this as an opportunity to expand.
New business is greeted with me replying with a Leonardo DiCaprio hand clapping meme from the movie The Wolf of Wall Street. I am keeping a tally of who gets the most “DiCaprios” for when we return out of lockdown- but at this rate everyone in the team is being a hero right now and my bar bill will be huge.
When I use to go to work at our office in Clerkenwell, I would wear casual clothes. One of the great attractions of running a digital business was that I would never have to wear a shirt and tie – like my father, who was an accountant for small businesses for over five decades. However, I believe it’s important, more than ever, to develop a work routine and feel like I’m at work. My alarm goes off at the same time, I shave every day and yes, I now wear a tie and put my shoes on. At the end of the day, I take my tie and shoes off.
I send regular communications to the entire team – either by WhatsApp or a Youtube video. I believe in full transparency and giving all employees the true reflection of where we are as a business. Some like it. Some don’t.
There have been great moments of comedy too. In my first Microsoft Teams meeting, I found myself alone with just Rufus, he was in his bedroom, actually lying on his bed, as he still hadn’t set up his home office yet.
“Where is everyone else?” I asked.
“We’re early,” Rufus replied.
“Is this your bedroom?” I ventured, trying to start up a conversation.
“Yes,” Rufus replied.
“This is awkward,” I joked. “Just the two of us… in your bedroom…”
Some laughter from Rufus, then silence. And then more silence for a further minute until the others joined. I have to add, Rufus was fully clothed.
Most conversations now start with, “Sorry, I was on mute… Can you hear me now?” This is often followed by silence, while everyone scrambles to put their microphones on to reply.
The desire to share our stories is greater than ever before. And I’m happy to throw away the efficient team meeting – where everyone says their bit before swiftly moving on – in order to hear how people are coping and what people are doing to entertain themselves and get through the day. The nine to five has been replaced with a greater degree of flexibility. And yes, we are talking more. More about our lives, the people in our lives, the insecurity and anxiety.
Strangely, even though I have been working with many of these people for years and even though we shared the same physical space for years, I am only really finding out who they are now. And maybe, they are finding out who I am too.
Crisis is a great leveller and it is also a great reveal. In a crisis, we discover who and what people are loyal to, what their values really are.
This is a war. One without bombs and thankfully one where our young don’t have to go off in a uniform and fight an enemy and die. But the effects on the economy are similar to a war – if not worse. And people are dying every day, which brings perspective.
All any of us can do, is our very best. And this is what we are all doing at my company.