We’ve all been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. We asked our parliament of wise owls what they wish they had known or done – in a business context – before the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown hit.
For various reasons, in December/January I didn’t send out my usual ‘Season’s greetings’ newsletter to my clients and colleagues. Then in the first couple of months of 2020 I was too busy to do it (catching up from the things that had delayed me in late 2019). At the end of February I finally had time to write a blog post about my recent situation (it’s up on my website, with a rather unfortunate title, given what has happened since) and left it there for a few days while I put together a short ‘Belated greetings’ newsletter in Mailchimp to send to my contacts list.
But I was keeping a close eye on the news and, as some of my clients were in the countries that went into lockdown before we did, I never sent it.
It doesn’t seem right to send it now, so I’m going to have to wait a few more months and instead of sending a round robin, I think I will send something more individual to each person, especially as some of the recipients may no longer be working. Now is definitely not the time for cheery ‘I’m still here’ emails, I feel.
Moral of the story: don’t leave your marketing to chance!
When the pandemic hit I’d managed to build up some savings, which are partly ringfenced for tax, but as the payment on account due in July can be deferred this gives me a bit of a buffer if I need it. Even more savings would have been better, however, and I plan to continue to spend less after the lockdown eases, and put away more contingency money in future. I would always advise not being dependent on one particular client for your income, to spread the risk (and it can also jeopardise self-employed status) – and having clients in different sectors is also a good idea, if possible. My tendency is always to fear the worst and try to plan far in advance to mitigate things. I had sleepless nights over the possible impact of the virus on my business back in January, so I wasn’t surprised by the severity of what’s happened or is still happening now. I do have less work than usual, but after a period of coming to terms with things I’m now actively seeking out new work and also investing in training. Despite all this advice, I think it’s important to acknowledge that this is beyond what many of us can plan for in many ways – and in my opinion, part of dealing with it is accepting that.
In most ways, the pandemic has affected me little. I have no dependents, no home-schooling to do, no elderly to fret about. I’m used to living alone, and working from home. I already shopped online for all my groceries. I have a spread of clients that still want to engage me. So I’ve been able to continue with work uninterrupted, it would seem. But no! Lesson one: don’t rely on any one client for an undue portion of your income. One exceptionally well-paying, solid-as-a-rock client is now hit so hard by COVID-19 that, for the first time in nearly 40 years, they’re not going to be producing their flagship annual report. A salutary reminder not to let my client base become unbalanced. Lesson two: unusual times have unusual impacts. Although I’m fine about isolation, I’m not used to having to be isolated. My mood is generally fine, but my ability to concentrate has taken a real hit. Clearly I don’t like being told what to do! I have days when I. Just. Can’t. Even. I know enough to take it gently, put it down to the zeitgeist and crack on when I can focus again. But I thought I’d be immune to that, and it’s an eyeopener to find out I can’t think myself out of how I feel. I’m meeting deadlines, but I have learned that I really need to ensure I take good care of me in order to take care of my business.
I don’t have a crystal ball and I don’t think I could ever have foreseen such a massive upheaval to my business, and my life generally. Most of my planning for interruption is geared around a savings cushion and backing up my files regularly so I don’t lose anything. And I’d assumed personal illness would be the most likely disruptor rather than a pandemic (although I’ve not yet had COVID-19, as far as I can tell). I could never have predicted that within the space of five days my clients would have cancelled every single booking I had through to June, and I’m not alone in losing so much business. Do I wish I had bought a business disruption insurance policy? Not really. It seems many insurers are refusing to pay out on the grounds that the COVID-19 pandemic counts as force majeure or some other convenient interpretation of the small print, so I’m glad I saved the cost of the premiums.
I’ve used the downtime to invest in some CPD, but I wish I’d done it 18 months ago when I first decided I should do the course – it would have given me a broader client base and possibly kept me in work for those first critical weeks. I also wish I was already the owner of a webcam – as work-related stuff moved online, such as networking meetings, I was at a huge disadvantage. Webcams had sold out everywhere and it took me a month to obtain an affordable one. And I wish I already owned a set of hair clippers – lockdown hair on Zoom is not a good look and I’ve still not managed to buy any because, guess what, they too are sold out! Work is slowly starting to return to me, but if I’ve learned one thing it is that no matter how well you might think you have prepared for disruption it is unlikely ever to be enough if a pandemic strikes. But you can use this one to prepare for the next one. Because there will be a next one.
To an extent, for me COVID-19 has just amplified or accelerated issues I was already facing in my business. I decided a while back that I was relying too much on one big client, so I’ve spent the past few years deliberately diversifying my client base. I’m glad to have made that effort, because different sectors seem to have been affected differently by the crisis. Whereas most of my work for charities has been put on indefinite hold and a medical book is delayed while its authors focus on rather more important frontline work, business and academic clients have been more fruitful. It seems likely that things will continue to be volatile for some time, so it can help to have as many potential sources of work as possible.
One thing I do wish I’d put in place before the crisis is a pot of money specifically dedicated to training – a sort of ‘in emergency break here’ fund. I’d already determined that I’d do at least two major pieces of CPD this year – the CIEP conference and the PRINCE2 exams – but had assumed I’d have cashflow ready to pay for them when the time came. The conference is no longer going ahead,* but the prospect of a reduced workload seems to make PRINCE2 all the more logical as a target for this year. I still hope to do the exams, but a ringfenced fund might have taken some pressure off.
Life in lockdown hasn’t been all that different, either professionally or personally. In the case of the former, I suppose this is because most of us work in our little bunkers from home in any case; and the latter, because we live in a fairly remote part of Argyll and feel somewhat isolated – we tell people we have been self-isolating for five years …
However, there is one weakness in terms of my work portfolio that the COVID-19 crisis has brought to light. A large part of my work is for either law publishers or independent novelists, and because the rate for the independents is a little higher, I have tended to refuse or pass on more of the legal stuff in the past. This has worked well but in common with a few others who do a lot of fiction, I found, rather counter-intuitively, that enquiries from self-publishers went down rather than up during lockdown. I’d be interested to hear from others why they think this should be – perhaps there will be a tsunami of enquiries a month or two down the line when the fruits of all these ghettoed scribblers’ labours see the light of day.
Whatever, I am going to make a conscious effort to maintain a more even balance in the future!
* We hope that there will be a virtual CIEP conference this year.
The wise owls pop up on the blog every couple of months to reflect on their experiences on various topics. All are Advanced Professional Members of the CIEP.
Photo credit: wrupcich on Pixabay.
Proofread by Victoria Hunt, Intermediate Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.