When crisis strikes, small business innovation shines

During times of economic uncertainty, get inspired with these lessons on small business innovation.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
—Charles Darwin

When major world events send shockwaves through the economy, businesses often have to rethink their business models and growth strategies. Though it’s easier for companies with deep pockets to take big chances on new ideas, recently, small businesses are proving their skills of thinking further outside of the box to find innovative revenue streams that pay off.

For one Montreal entrepreneur, Bijan Bolouri, such a situation occurred when the COVID pandemic hit while he was vacationing in Florida with his family.

It was early March, just a couple of weeks before the province of Quebec ordered all non-essential business to close, but the co-founder and CEO of b.cycle, which operates three fitness studios in Montreal’s downtown, Old Port and Westmount neighbourhoods, says he wasn’t waiting for an official mandate to put a plan into action.

“The news was starting to explode and I knew we had to be proactive. It was clear to me that we would be closing all three studios. The only questions were when and for how long?”

Like many business owners quickly facing unprecedented situations, he was forced to adapt to the new normal— and learned some valuable lessons about resilience along the way.

Lesson 1: Slow down and resist the urge to react hastily

The company immediately went into problem-solving mode, with a critical focus on how to retain its eight full-time employees and a part-time workforce of 22 others. Before the pandemic hit, Bolouri says the five-year-old company was having its best year to date. This gave him a financial cushion and some extra time to formulate a survival strategy.

“As stress mounts, it’s important to take a step back to look at the big picture. It’s easy to make a quick decision to try and solve a problem when emotions are running high, but those quick fixes are usually very short-term. When we closed the studios, we were planning to be closed for at least three months, even though at that point the government was saying two weeks.”

Lesson 2: Be prepared for a dramatic drop in revenue

While seasonal highs and lows are common in many industries, a massive unexpected dip in sales can be crippling. Having a contingency plan in place, and the right contacts at your fingertips can get you through, as was the case for b.cycle.

When the busy studios that usually have more than 4,000 customers a month shut down, b.cycle’s revenue plummeted by 90 to 95 percent. Bolouri immediately took himself off the payroll to ensure he could retain full-time staff While this wasn’t an ideal solution, it was a temporary band-aid that ensured he could keep paying his employees.

The company also tapped into some of the government assistance programs and reached out to key partners to negotiate its financial commitments. He also worked with his business colleagues and partners to free up cash flow.

“We had very open discussions with our banks and suppliers who lightened the load for us. It was phenomenal,” Bolouri explained.

Lesson 3: Focus on where you can help

Shortly after the studios closed, Bolouri pulled his team together for a brainstorming session on how to generate revenue while continuing to support the community amid so much uncertainty and anxiety. 

“From day one, our philosophy has always been to provide the highest level of customer service. We are constantly asking ourselves how we can take care of the community and do right by them.” 

Even the smallest actions, such as communicating regularly with your customers, can go a long way in maintaining a high level of customer service.

pivot for the win

Lesson 4: Pivot for the win

That mission gave birth to b.cycle’s launch of free online classes on Instagram to its more than 11,000 followers.

“The team was really emotional when we had to close,” Bolouri recounted. “Everyone wanted to do something to help, so we started offering the online classes almost immediately.”

The response from the b.cycle community was swift and dramatic.

“Right away they started asking how they could help us (to ensure the company stayed afloat). We created a donation page on our website, and the community gave back to us big time. Hundreds of people made financial donations, and that supported the entire team of instructors.”

Lesson 5: Spin gold from straw

At the same time, demand was ramping up for spin bike rentals. Bolouri answered the call by renting out the studio’s fleet of bikes on three-month contracts at $50 a week, deploying some of its part-time workforce to clean, deliver and set them up in customers’ homes.

That pivot led to an entirely new line of business (and revenue stream) for the company.

In May, it launched b.Home, a digital platform that offers more than 40 live classes a week as well as on-demand spin and body classes, allowing users to keep up with their fitness regimes from the comfort of their homes.

“We spent three weeks strategizing the business plan,” Bolouri continued. “It was a big investment. We bought a bunch of bikes and created a brand-new online platform from scratch. We also launched an online shop to sell merchandise.”

It can be a daunting task to pivot your business plan when the unexpected hits — especially for small businesses that have limited cash flow. Taking the lessons learned by other business owners and applying them in your own organization can help put you on the fast track. And when crisis strikes, be sure to rely on your own small business innovation.

About Liquid Capital

At Liquid Capital, we understand what it takes for small, medium, and emerging mid-market businesses to succeed – because we’re business people ourselves. Our company is built on a network of locally owned and operated Principal Offices, so whenever you’re talking to Liquid Capital you’re talking directly to your funding source and a fellow business person.