This year has been the single biggest test of character imaginable for SME founders. A test very few people could ever have planned for. Now in our second lockdown and despite big hopes for Christmas, there is still no visibility on the ‘what next’, because everything that is already challenging in business is once again intertwined with extraordinary invisible pressures.

For the past nine months many founders have been operating on sheer adrenaline. One week of running a business in these circumstances is exhausting. But the best part of a year leaves a distinct sense of hollowness. For the 1,300 brands in the Young Foodies network, some of which have had their best-ever sales months during this period and others their worst, the one thing that is unanimous is that the adrenaline is starting to burn out. 

For so many business leaders, there is a constant pressure to demonstrate confidence and a clear plan to investors, the team, suppliers, buyers and even to the LinkedIn community. When you’re shrouded in a veil of uncertainty at every level, it is a heavy burden to bear. To all founders feeling this way, you are absolutely not alone and it’s critical we reframe things to rise above it as we make our way through the final quarter of the year.

“One week of running a business in these circumstances is exhausting”

There are opportunities everywhere, and the winning brands will be those that are planning for the worst but aiming for the best. My advice to founders far and wide is to find the time and space to think with a clear mind. Take a moment to remind yourself of your brand’s long-term vision and then focus everyday on the little things that will help you work towards that goal. Here are some of the ways you can nurture your business today to help you thrive tomorrow.

Tap into the macro trends leaning in your favour 

Products made by small independent brands are driving more than 60% of market growth. That’s a fact. They are delivering incrementality in a world where margins are squeezed, differentiation is harder than ever and new shopper types demand innovation. Like many macro trends pre-Covid, this has only amplified with consumers increasingly getting behind local, independent and start-up businesses. Market fundamentals and shopper trends have never been better for SMEs, so hold onto that and ensure you carve out time to tune into the other macro shifts that might impact you positively, or indeed negatively. New opportunities arise every day, but only those listening can benefit from them.

Think business health, not business size

Brands in the Young Foodies community grow their revenue by an average of 94% each year, which is a great source of pride for the founders and leaders. But the quest for growth for some businesses this year is unrealistic and driving undue anxiety, stress and unrest. Set your own realistic, healthier targets and consider prioritising EBIT growth over revenue growth in the near term.

At the same time, it’s critical to build up your cash reserves. Watch your bank account like a hawk and focus on cash health going up each month. Test every scenario. Unless you are absolutely certain in your course, burning through cash in this investment landscape can be a risky move.

Share the burden to unlock positivity

“I have to stay strong for the team”. Absolutely you do. But if you cannot rely on your team to step up and offer support when you need it most, then when can you? Don’t shoulder the full burden on your own – there is no need to and it may even yield worse results.

Engaging your team on the challenges will give them a clearer understanding of the realities your business is facing and will allow them to release their creativity to help with problem-solving. You may wish to brainstorm new ideas with them or delegate more to free yourself up. Whatever makes sense for the business, bringing your people together will ease the strain on you, both physically and mentally, whilst also building a more positive and defiant working environment. 

Loosen fixed costs to make the business more nimble

More so than ever, challenger brands need to balance bringing in the best possible people while also remaining pragmatic about risk. Take advice on team structure and consider the areas of the business you can sensibly outsource or use more flexible hiring models. There are ways of bringing in expertise without locking yourself into more fixed costs and more team members to manage. We have seen a surge in demand for outsourced supply chain services over the past six months, with founders looking to become more agile while also having senior expertise running their operations. We are also seeing a higher than usual level of interest in part-time, contractor and flexible working solutions, which brands recognise can drive a healthier P&L.

Invest in team wellbeing

Your mental wellbeing, and that of your team, has to remain the primary objective. Without this, all else fails. Invest in your people to ensure you are all growing, bonding and maintaining balance. That means taking breaks. Real breaks. Find time to do even the littlest things that make you, you. Walk and talk instead of sitting on Zoom calls and try and encourage those ‘water cooler’ moments.

Founders are increasingly using online learning and development to add new dimensions to the work week to bring their employees together. A virtual classroom for professional development creates a stronger sense of unity, purpose and ambition, and adds a new level of shared dialogue and experience in a world of silos. Whatever is right for your team, make this a priority. 

So chopping trees is important, even if it feels sometimes like we’re lost in a never-ending forest. But don’t forget to take the time you need to come up for air, check on yourself and the people around you and sharpen your axe for 2021.