Saving Small Business

By Paul Estey, Co-Founder & Chief Innovation Officer

store front with hanging lamps and bicycle in front of it

Reviving Main Street: Can companies and consumers help save small businesses and restore community?

They line our main streets, employ millions of people, drive a huge portion of our economy, and are a key enabler of how we build and sustain connections in our community, but until recently, I’d argue few of us appreciated just how important they were to our lives and livelihoods.

Small business has been one of the hardest-hit sectors by the COVID-19 pandemic, as owners struggle to cope with mandated closures, reductions in consumer spending, supply issues, and worker and customer safety concerns in hopes of finding creative solutions to survive the current crisis.

In Canada, there were almost 1.2 million small businesses in 2018, with almost half of these employing five people or more. Together, these businesses employed 8.4 million people, which represents 69.9% of the private labour force. From an economic perspective, small businesses contribute over 40% of the portion of GDP generated by the private sector.

While many larger companies have admirably stepped in to help provide direct supports for this global health crisis, it has been encouraging to see that many of these companies are also stepping up to help support and speed recovery for the small business community in the following successful ways:

Providing direct grants and funding support to aid and speed recovery

Back in mid-March, Facebook announced a $100 million grants program for small businesses – most of which is cash – without a requirement that businesses be on Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp to apply.

Telecom giant Verizon has responded with #PayItForwardLIVE, a weekly livestream starring the biggest names in entertainment that encourages viewers to support small businesses. Verizon also partnered with nonprofit LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corporation) on the Verizon Covid Small Business Relief Fund to provide $7.5 million in direct funding for grants to help small businesses fill urgent financial gaps until they can resume normal operations.

And out west in Canada, leading credit union Vancity recently raised $200 million from clients into a unique term deposit fund, with the money invested providing both a solid return to investors while being used to fund programs that will directly support businesses and people in the community affected by COVID-19.

Note that these are just a few examples of larger companies lending their support. But in each case above, there is good business logic for these companies to respond to these needs, in addition to the immediate benefit to small businesses and society. Some might call that #profitwithpurpose, and it’s something we at Public know a whole lot about.

Adapting existing tools and resources, or building new ones, to provide more supports to small business

ATB, the largest Alberta-based financial institution, recently expanded its Boostr platform (designed originally to help support early-stage entrepreneurs to enable any Alberta-based business to run a crowdfunding campaign) both to receive direct financial support from consumers and to sell existing inventory or future goods and services as a means of generating immediate funds.

Crowdfunder, a UK company, also recently launched in Canada and has adapted its popular crowdfunding platform to provide more options for small businesses to raise funds and for consumers to find and support businesses in their community. Working in partnership with a Business Improvement Area (BIA) in Ottawa, it is piloting a solution to help support merchants in a local neighbourhood in hopes that this could be scaled to communities across Canada, and beyond. 

We’ve also seen a proliferation of services created to help small businesses, especially those in the hospitality sector, by selling gift cards as a means of generating vital cash now in exchange for a future transaction, such as this initiative by Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger, as well as great examples of collectives like #KeepSmallStrong and volunteer or community-led initiatives like Help Main Street! also seeking to lend their support.

Helping small businesses transition to new ways of operating and serving customers

The current crisis has only served to accelerate the need for small businesses, particularly those that line our main streets, to look for new ways to sell and deliver their products and services, especially online.

While established food delivery services like DoorDash, Skip the Dishes and UBEREats have leaned in to help restaurants transition to takeout and delivery-only service, there are also new models emerging in this space. In Toronto, a local restauranteur and tech entrepreneur started Ambassador to help restaurants embed online ordering and organize their own delivery, helping small businesses boost the bottom line on takeout and delivery.

Just outside Toronto, Kendal Hills Farm has taken the initiative to create a ‘virtual farmers market’, partly in response to concerns around the upcoming outdoor farmers’ market season.

There is no doubt that more is needed to help aid and speed small business recovery, and that this sector as a whole will need to change and adapt to the new realities and behaviours that will emerge through this crisis, but it is exciting to see how businesses, consumers and communities are already beginning to rise to this challenge.