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Managing what I can and can't control: opening a new business in COVID-19 times

By Lee Bargwanna

I opened The Alley Lujiaoxiang, a handcrafted designer and bubble tea outlet, 10 days prior to the 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns in NSW, which was horrible timing.

COVID-19 affected my business, myself and my employees in practically every possible way. From sale declines, to staff members expressing concern that they’re unable to get enough work hours to make ends meet, to changes in operational procedures due to social distancing and other restrictions and rules, to extensive delivery and repair times on our vital equipment, to needing to restrict one of our staff members working times as she’s a leukaemia survivor who is immune-compromised. COVID-19 has had an effect on every single aspect of our businesses and my 25-plus staff members.

An opportunity for change

Everything is balanced on a knife edge these days. And with COVID-19 we have to very carefully balance the health and safety of staff and customers with keeping the business viable and profitable.

COVID-19 has given me the opportunity to take a look at the business from top to bottom and see exactly where the changes can be made that will result in the most benefit. While it is true that a good business owner should always self-assess and self-audit regularly, it’s human nature to leave things as they are if they’re not vitally and systemically broken – “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. However, this global crisis requires change, and we had to act quickly, adapt and be more flexible.

Changes we have made to keep viable

We’ve had to consider everything, whether seemingly insignificant or absolutely vital. For instance, we increased the amount and frequency of sanitiser we use in stores and we’ve had restricted opening hours to keep our cost structure under control.

It’s a sad reality that this pandemic has forced changes that have come to the detriment of my staff and potentially the quality of my product and service, but they are necessary. As an example, we have attempted to run with a skeleton crew to keep wages cost under control. This, of course, means service times will be slower and staff have to work harder, however, I’m unable to go broke as a business owner just so the customer’s wait time is reduced by 20 seconds. On the whole, though, people have been understanding, and this challenging time will pass.

Learning what I can and can’t control

I got into business as I like to believe I’m in control of my own life and dreams. Admittedly this COVID-19 pandemic has proven that there are things outside of my control and that is greatly unsettling. But it also allows me to focus on what I can control, so I focus on those things. The issue is, as a business owner, I can’t divorce myself from the stress and emotion of everything that’s going on, and I’m never fully off the clock. For me, exercising and staying fit keeps me in the right state of mind to make sound choices, be they business or personal. And I look forward to some rest and recover time once this pandemic passes and things are back to normal again.

I also invest in my staff and their health and safety are my top priority. They are all intelligent, hard-working people, and it’s a simple fact that without staff, I have no business. As well as making sure they are taught proper procedure, given the proper equipment and training to remain safe and healthy, I also encourage them to come and speak to me so any concerns can be addressed.

Hope and resilience in small businesses

When someone says “It’s okay, remain strong, we’ll all make it in the end” – they are trying to lift your spirits. It’s not a factual statement but rather an emotional one that acknowledges that everyone feels helpless, and so all we can do is hope for the best. So if someone says this to you, try and forget some of the stress and anxiety you might be feeling and recognise and accept that someone is trying to make you feel better. That is most certainly worth something.

In the meantime, control the elements you have power over, accept and analyse the elements you don’t have power over, and look forward to hugging those who are close, those who you love, and those who are trying to help.

About Lee Bargwanna

Lee Bargwanna is an entrepreneur based in Orange, NSW. With over 10 years’ experience in business, he is the franchisee of multiple Orange-based Subway stores and The Alley Lujiaoxiang, located in the refurbished Orange City Centre.

This blog piece was contributed by our partners from the Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health, as part of their work with Everymind and on their Wellbeing in Rural Small Business project.

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