Two months ago the coronavirus wiped out two thirds of Ask Leo!‘s ad revenue.
Two weeks ago a Google search algorithm update cut my traffic in half.
I’m not the only business in this position, online or off. For these and other reasons many businesses around the world are suffering.
Here’s what I’m doing about it, in the hopes it’ll give you ideas to follow along, survive, and perhaps even thrive.
Douglas Adams was right
The fictional “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”, as described in the not-so-fictional book of the same name by Douglas Adams, has on its cover two simple words: “Don’t Panic”.
Now is not the time to panic.
This is an opportunity; an opportunity to rethink, refocus, retool, and reemerge. I won’t go cliche and suggest we can all “come out greater than before”, or include some pithy chrysalis to butterfly stock photo. In the current crisis, survival is a more realistic, relatable goal.
But there is potential for growth, and it’s worth looking for.
Start with the short term.
Ya gotta pay the bills
I’ll be honest: not all businesses will survive. Disappearing revenue leading to unpaid bills coupled with an uncertain future will result in many closures.
I’m fortunate in that revenue appears to be stabilizing at around a break-even point.
If it were not doing so, then the need for short term cash would be a priority to keep the servers running and the lights on. I’m not a fan of the short term thinking this requires, but I know what I would do were it necessary: I’d quickly revise or publish another book or two, and promote my patronage options more heavily. I’m blessed with an audience that cares, and I know they would respond.
Finding other revenue sources isn’t always an obvious option. For many, cost cutting has been the go-to response instead, with the largest expense — employees — often being the first to go. While this may help the business in the short term, layoffs only add to the greater crisis around us. Besides, these are people, not numbers, and I’d find it incredibly difficult, even heart-breaking, to let them go.
I’d instead encourage you to look deeply for opportunities to redirect employee efforts, changing jobs to increase revenue instead. You may find many of your best are more flexible than you realize. Not all businesses can pivot in ways allowing them to maintain staff, but I’d look long and hard for opportunities to avoid letting anyone go.
To the extent that you can keep paying the bills, it’s now time to focus on the long game — perhaps something we should have been looking at on all along.
Keep on keeping on
The most important thing for any business intending to survive is to show up rather than give up.
I’ll be honest, thoughts of shutting it all down have crossed my mind. I’ve asked myself “Is this time time to bring Ask Leo! to a close?” I mean, I certainly have a good excuse.
Whether you’re a restaurant unable to find new ways to serve customers, or a web site continuing to publish content to a smaller audience, it would be easy to get discouraged and reduce efforts or bail completely.
Getting discouraged isn’t new. It’s something I see often in online publishing: individuals post a few articles or videos, are disappointed in the number of reads/views/likes/comments, and get discouraged to the point of walking away. It’s difficult in the best of times, and these are not the best of times.
In the face of dramatic reductions in visitors, customers, and sales, it would be easy to just pack it in.
Now is not that time. As long as you can stay afloat somehow, now is the time to try new things. Now is a time to test.
The cost of failure has never been lower
This is perhaps counter-intuitive.
It works like this: as a test you make a change to what you do or how you do it. If you have a large audience, you risk losing or alienating a large audience. On the other hand, if your audience is comparatively small, your risk is similarly smaller.
And of course if the alternative is to go out of business completely, any risk will seem smaller yet, in comparison.
Now is the time to try new things.
- Like so many others, I’ve tried live events. Few showed up; no harm, no loss. I now know not to invest heavily in it moving forward.
- I’m doing more videos. This seems to hold promise as I reach out to a wider audience, while still adding value for my core fans.
- I’ve offered more benefits to my patrons, with mixed success.
You get the idea: I’m trying things, and will try more, to see which show promise. Those that do will get more of my attention as we move to our new normal.
What things can you try? What experiments can you run?
What failures can you absorb, and learn from?
A different challenge might be to get better at what you do and how you serve. Rather than finding new things, the opportunity is to invest in improving the things you already do.
I’ll admit it, I’ve been lazy. My articles aren’t always as good as they could be. I sometimes side step opportunities to explain, or show, concepts and how-to’s as clearly as I could.
When it comes to online publishing, be it articles or videos, there’s a whole range of mechanical issues like keyword research, tagging, interlinking, internal promotion, and more that I’ve blissfully been ignoring. Until now.
I’ve been investing more trying to really understand what it is people need and want help with, beyond simple question-and-answer. I’ve been investing in trying to produce better content, and I’ve been investing in the tools and techniques that will allow more people to find, and be helped by, what it is I do.
I’ve been trying to invest in things that will not only improve my business today, but will outlast the crisis to add value for years to come.
What skills can you improve that will outlast the crisis and add value to your customer’s future? What tools or techniques have you been overlooking you might now have the time and motivation to invest in?
The infinite business
I was recently inspired by a presentation by Simon Sinek on being what he called an “infinite player”.
To paraphrase: there are two types of games: finite, and infinite. Finite games have defined rules, an end, and winners and losers. Infinite games, however, exist to keep the game going as long as possible.
Some business are in it for the sale or the paycheck or the quarterly result. This is the finite game.
Others, however, are doing what they do so as to be able to do it for as long as they desire. These are what he refers to as “infinite players”.
The decisions I make with a multi-year perspective to keep Ask Leo! going might be different than those I would make to maximize this quarter’s revenue. I choose the former.
The problem is it’s not a simple either/or long/short choice.
Ya still gotta pay the bills.
Looking for the opportunity
It would be easy to say “screw it”.
It would be easy to look at the short-term revenue forecasts and give up.
It would be easy.
It will be more rewarding, though, if you can look for and find the opportunities in the crisis.
I can’t tell you what they are for you. Perhaps it’s a complete pivot of your business, perhaps it’s time to set out on your own entrepreneurial path, perhaps it’s just looking for ways to do what you do, only better.
Imagine for a moment the world five years from now.
It will be different. The big secret is it’d be different with or without a pandemic. The crisis has simply rubbed our noses in it.
What do you want your business, your career, or your life to look like in five years? What changes in yourself, in your community, or even in society do you see impacting your direction?
How will you take advantage of it all? What opportunities will you explore?
Now is not the time to give up, if at all possible. Now is perhaps the greatest opportunity to rethink where you are, what you want, and where you want to go.
Clearly my plan is to keep playing the infinite game with Ask Leo!. You can play along at home: sign up for my Confident Computing weekly newsletter for tech help, answers, and commentary. Hold me accountable and see what kinds of things I end up testing and improving, and whether or not I really follow through looking for opportunities in this crisis. 🙂