Future success has never been preordained for any small business, but the outlook has seemingly never felt so precarious as it looks today. Part of that is the primacy of the crisis at hand; some of us may have thought, naively in retrospect, that the financial collapse of 2008 would be the greatest economic calamity we’d have to live through. We believed that lessons would be learned and steps taken to prevent another such disaster from at least reaching the magnitude of this particular confluence.
Yet here we find ourselves a dozen years later in a situation that seems even bleaker than its most recent predecessor, as we pair a global health crisis with the worldwide financial downturn. To say that it’s a source of stress for everyone, startup founders and small business owners included, passes beyond understatement into humor that is too grim to be droll. The coronavirus is the source of stress of 2020, the primogenitor for every attendant concern that has come with the sweep of the disease. The only thing to be said in its favor is that it has made the petty, quotidian worries of a pre-coronavirus world into quaint reminders of the simple life.
Now those lives we had in January and February of this year are gone, replaced by a present in which a virus has infected countless individuals as well as every aspect of our existence, and a future where the specter of disease hangs over society even as we attempt to return to what we remember as normal. This crisis is a demarcation, past which point our lives can never return to a place when the thought of pandemic looms large in the thoughts and fears and worries of everyone who lived through it, as I wrote recently, labeling it Before Coronavirus.
How can any of us reasonably plan for the future when it’s impossible to know with any great certainty what the next week or even the next day holds? Assuming that we’re able to steer our companies through the downturn or recession or depression unfurling before us, how could we ever hope to account for a future that is even more uncertain than ever before?
There aren’t any simple answers to those questions, not that there are ever easy answers when it comes to your business. Startups have always been subject to chance, although we’ve had enough relative stability recently to forget just how much fate can throw at us. There are lifelines available as grants or loans for those able to actually obtain them, but there’s no clarity on the circumstances that await us on the other side of the shutdown.
Public policy isn’t public sentiment, and even as restrictions are lifted and public spaces start to open, there’s as yet no evidence that the public itself will immediately resume old habits.
Not many do well with uncertainty, and certainly not businesses. It’s not enough to simply hope for the best when there are bills to pay and investors to satisfy, and yet that is where we all find ourselves at this particular moment: waiting and hoping. Entrepreneurs are defined by traits like will and determination and perseverance, but we are all dealing with a challenge that doesn’t respond to any force we can apply to it beyond patience and distance, leaving a group of people used to tackling problems head-on with no certainty.
In the absence of answers or clarity, founders have to learn to accept the lack of information that they might normally rely upon. Although we don’t like it, we must dig deep into the reserves to master the ambiguity of the future with patience. It’s the only option available to any of us at present, other than creating anxiety and stress beyond what we’re all experiencing. It’s far from ideal, but given that so many are faced with true life-and-death concerns at this moment, we should be grateful if all we eventually lose is our business.