It’s a story that’s made numerous headlines over the past 16 months: small businesses are struggling. Almost overnight, the COVID pandemic forced thousands of businesses into survival mode with no endpoint in sight.
As the first wave of COVID hit, business owners braced for what seemed like a few weeks of financial hardship. However, as the pandemic dragged on, they quickly had to come to terms with the fact that their businesses had to continue to operate at limited capacity or, worst-case scenario, shut down completely.
In addition to the long list of challenges employers faced, employees had to accept the reality that their jobs were no longer secure. A pandemic of unemployment swept across North America as business owners went into significant debt just to pay their employees on time.
Millions of people’s livelihoods hung in the balance, which not only took a financial toll, but an emotional one as well.
A newfound resilience
Sheryl Gatzke is the founder of Beauty Inc. Canada, a makeup training academy and distribution centre. She recalls what her and so many other business owners felt in March 2020.
“Scary is the easiest and most accurate word to describe how I felt when COVID hit without getting complicated,” says Gatzke.
“It was scary because we had absolutely no idea what the future would look like. It was day to day — it still is day to day. It was devastating and everything was so uncertain, especially in the service industry. How do you survive if you can’t service people?”
With no warning, thousands of business owners were forced to pivot from traditional and in-person transactions to digital and online methods. They had to rapidly come to terms with multiple new realities in order to stay afloat in a new world in which none of the old rules applied.
Jana Rohen, owner of Learn Photography Canada, a hands-on photography school, recalls a conversation she had with one of her employees on March 15th, 2020.
“I remember saying to Maxine, ‘Hey, guess what? It’s no longer feasible for us to run a single course anywhere in the country, we are shut down as of immediately.’ At that point, I was like, ‘How do we manage this situation?’ We had to figure out how to communicate with all of our students about upcoming classes because all of our classes were in-person up until that point,” Rohen explains.
“Developing online courses was somewhere on the bottom half of our to-do list for years. But all of a sudden, it was like, ‘Well, I guess it’s being pushed to number one tonight.’ There was a big internal debate in my own mind but I had to tell myself that there’s no time like the present. Get it done.” Jana Rohen
Rohen was not alone in this transition. When summing up how business owners across North America have adapted to this new reality, one word comes to mind: resilience. In the direst of circumstances, business owners like Gatzke and Rohen have been able to find multiple silver linings that deserve to be recognized and celebrated.
A blessing in disguise
“I would hate to make light of such a terrible situation, but COVID has really opened up everybody’s eyes to the fact that there were pre-existing travel issues, budgetary issues, and health issues where people couldn’t get from place to place. COVID has definitely given people more opportunity and more resources to be able to do things,” says Willyerd.
“I’ve personally had clients and customers from all over the world because they now have that ability. They can jump in anytime they want. It’s the same thing with classes — you’re not limited to offering it to people in your travel region or just to people who could afford it. You can really include everybody. You’re able to open the doors for people who you weren’t able to open the doors up to before. They can still be a part of it and they can still feel included, and be who they want to be behind that camera too.”
Rohen agrees that COVID has created a world of potential for business owners.
“COVID has taught us that there is so much that we can do online. I am eternally grateful for this experience because I have discovered that there is a way to bring all of the wonderful things about our in-person courses online. And this is what I’ve always wanted — to create a sense of community across the world. Our courses are connecting people right now, across North America and we have these wonderful connections and friendships being created from people that have never physically seen each other, which is just phenomenal,” says Rohen.
“It’s been really inspiring. I never want to downplay people’s struggles but I am excited to see this new world of connection, a new world of creating communities. I’m really inspired by all of the things that I have seen being created during this time.”
For Gatzke, COVID acted as a blessing in disguise for her and her business.
“I feel guilty for saying it, but during COVID, we made five times more than we did pre-COVID. And it was because of Thinkific and a little bit of foresight on my part. I launched my first set of online courses in January 2020 — I get goosebumps to this day thinking about that timing. And so because we had that to offer, we were able to keep our niche in the beauty industry, and keep moving forward when COVID hit,” Gatzke explains.
“Going online has also broken so many geographical boundaries. I don’t have to fly all across Canada to deliver courses. I now have clients out of Australia and Brazil. COVID didn’t cripple our industry completely and it’s really expanded the reach of the industry as well as my own company’s reach — it’s made it international instead of local.”
Taking the leap
For many business owners, transitioning online was a make-it-or-break-it scenario. They didn’t have the time or means to prepare themselves for such a drastic change to their business model — they simply had to take the leap.
“We needed a solution that we could implement really quickly because it was a matter of our business surviving or it dying — we were in this phase where we had to get this thing up off the ground within months, or we weren’t going to make it,” Rohen explains.
“One of the things that I really appreciate about Thinkific is just how streamlined everything is. It’s so ridiculously easy to use. It integrates perfectly with our CRM system and setting it up was the simplest thing in the world — it gave us the chance to literally turn our business around overnight. To me that was mind-blowing because so much software takes months to learn and master.”
Gatzke agrees. After discovering Thinkific in January 2020, she explains that she wouldn’t be where she is today without this platform.
“I had six courses up and running within a week because of Thinkific. There’s absolutely no way I’ll go back because, with Thinkific, my growth is endless. I can have meetings, I can have masterclasses, I can do different training sessions, whatever I want. This pandemic has changed the way we all communicate and do things — some of it’s good and some of it isn’t good, but it’s up to us to pick the good, the bad, and the ugly and stick with what works for us.”
For Willyerd, her business was founded on her love for the Thinkific platform. After taking part in Thinkific’s Entrepreneur Growth Fund in 2020, she sees Thinkific as the catalyst for her personal and professional growth.
“Part of my success is because everybody at Thinkific has been so amazing. I can go to them with any type of question, any kind of issue. It’s just amazing how supportive they are of their experts and other course creators. They’re there for everybody and I feel like I’m part of a team.”
The big shift
Despite the countless number of challenges that COVID created, all three business owners agree that they don’t plan on returning to the old way of doing things once the pandemic is over.
“At the end of the day, the world has shifted in ways that we will never be able to replace or come back from. But I think that is exclusively to our advantage,” says Rohen.
“I think we have so many more possibilities for work and for learning and for connection than we’ve ever had before. Sometimes it takes a pandemic or something really catastrophic to help us move in directions that I think are better for our world and for our environment.”
“COVID really proved that there is a need for these virtual situations and that they’re not going to go away. This isn’t something that all of a sudden, when the world opens back up completely, it’s going to be like, ‘Well, that was fun guys. Now we’re going to go back to being in person.’”
Even with this optimistic outlook, Rohen recognizes how daunting of a process transitioning online may be for some business owners. She explains how crucial realigning her mindset has been over the past 16 months.
“For a lot of business owners, the word ‘failure’ has come up a lot over the last year or so. I really despise that word because it feels so final. I hope that we can start to change the dialogue on that and start to see ‘failures’ as obstacles — there will always be a way over it or under it or around it or a new direction,” says Rohen.
“Going online might be one of those obstacles and it’s a big one, but if you just take it one step at a time, it will all fall into place. Just chip away at the problem and as long as you’re keeping the forward momentum, you’ll get there in the end.”Jana Rohen
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