Opinion: Adapting to New Realities

Opinion: Adapting to New Realities

Entrepreneur Voices: Nevin Buconjic

Entrepreneurs helping entrepreneurs are what startup communities are all about, and our goal is to help facilitate this support.

Nevin Buconjic is the Founder and Chair of StartUP Sault Ste. Marie, a grassroots organization that helps both new entrepreneurs and existing entrepreneurs. Nevin is a well-known community builder,  author and serial entrepreneur who has won several awards including Startup Canada’s 2017 Entrepreneur Promotion Award (Ontario).

Describe your business before COVID-19. How has it been impacted?

Before COVID-19, StartUP Sault hosted monthly meetups and other types of events for the entrepreneurial community. Two of our events had to be cancelled due to the outbreak. One was a business ideation workshop we were co-hosting with local partners and the other was a Startup Drinks event planned for early April. We will be looking to reschedule both events when we are cleared to do so.

What is your biggest concern right now? What is your biggest concern looking into the future?

As a startup community leader and economic development professional, I can see the effects of COVID-19 on local businesses right now. They’re struggling to stay afloat, to pay rent, and even struggling to pay themselves. Many businesses don’t have the financial capacity to stay shut down for one or two months and come out unscathed.

So, my main concern right now is how businesses will survive, and how owners will be able to pay their own bills with no income. I think the programs the federal government has developed are helping but unfortunately, they aren’t enough for many businesses.

My biggest concern looking into the future is what our business community will look like when we reach the other side of this crisis. How many businesses will be permanently shut down? How many people will have lost their jobs? This is a huge hit to the economy and to local employment and I just hope businesses can hold on.

How has the entrepreneurship ecosystem been impacted by COVID-19?

The entrepreneurship ecosystem has been hit mostly through the inability to work with clients—and each other—face-to-face. We’ve been forced to move to online models to help clients by holding online webinars and doing client work through methods such as video solutions.

Also, I think most organizations in the entrepreneurship ecosystem are structured to help businesses launch and grow—not just survive. This has been a paradigm shift for all of us. We have all had to scramble to figure out how we can help businesses and entrepreneurs adapt to this new reality.

Are there any recommendations or solutions that would be helpful for the government to understand from the perspective of entrepreneurs?

I want to commend the government and their staff for the work they’ve done to help our citizens and businesses survive COVID-19. As an economic development professional, I’m on numerous conference calls and webinars each week with government officials. They’re listening to businesses and making adjustments, as well as revising programs to ensure more people and businesses are able to access funding programs. 

We continue to see cases where people or businesses do not qualify, and that’s the challenge of creating these one-size-fits-all programs. There have to be rules, and qualifications for them to work, and while they’re not perfect, I appreciate that the government is doing their best to incorporate feedback and make these programs better.

What opportunities do entrepreneurs have as we navigate the next few months?

I think with every challenge, new opportunities arise. Because of COVID-19, we’ve quickly realized that businesses and services must be available online. Never before have entire countries and populations been forced to stay home. If your business cannot sell its products or services online right now, you’re at a huge disadvantage.

We’ve all been forced to think about how we can carry on our businesses using online services like video conferencing, e-commerce and team communication tools. I think this will accelerate the move to doing business online, and even accelerate large scale measures such as improving bandwidth for communities.

Is there a story or an individual in the entrepreneurial ecosystem that has given you hope?

One of the positives of COVID-19 has been to see that both businesses and individuals are stepping up to help. In Sault Ste. Marie, I’ve seen many examples of businesses donating all of their personal protective equipment like masks and gloves to hospitals and healthcare workers. We’ve also seen individuals with 3D printers producing and donating personal protective equipment (PPE).

There’s also been enormous support for restaurants and other small businesses in the community. I think this huge swell of “support local” sentiment will help our business community rebound when the time comes. The idea that we’re all in this together has taken root.

We’ve also seen the City of Sault Ste. Marie step-up in terms of hosting weekly conference calls to discuss government programs and answer questions. A number of organizations have also teamed up to create an online portal to allow local businesses who didn’t already have e-commerce capabilities to sell their products online.

There’ve been just so many examples of hope and support.

After COVID-19 is over, what do you think the world will look like?

First of all, it could take years for the world to recover from COVID-19. Millions of Canadians have lost their jobs and we could see tens of thousands of businesses shut down permanently. So, beyond the immediate loss of life, and ongoing health impacts, our economy has been dealt a tremendous blow. 

Over the last 20-30 years, there’s been an acceleration in globalization. Supply chains have chased the lowest cost suppliers like China and others to supply many of the products we buy.

Because of COVID-19, countries like Canada quickly realized how much we rely on other countries for the production of essential products such as PPE. 

We’re already seeing countries like the United States looking to adjust supply chains in the future, away from China to other “friendly” nations. I think we could see more of this in terms of citizens willing to pay more to buy either local or buy Canadian products versus buying the cheapest alternatives.

On the other hand, as things return to normal, consumers might just go back to their old ways. Only time will tell.

How can entrepreneurs come together to support one another right now?

At StartUP Sault, one of our main goals is to build a supportive community for entrepreneurs. I think we’re all seeing a rising swell of support for local businesses and entrepreneurs. So this idea of supporting each other is really powerful and I hope it continues long after COVID-19.

I think entrepreneurs can come together to support one another right now in a couple of ways. Firstly, by financially supporting each other—either by buying their products or services. They can also help by offering their knowledge and expertise to the community through webinars and information sharing, as well as working together on projects or solutions. 

This situation has forced many entrepreneurs to realize they need to help themselves, as well as help others. Entrepreneurs helping entrepreneurs is what startup communities are all about, and our goal is to help facilitate this support.

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs (aspiring and current) in light of the current situation?

My advice to entrepreneurs is to take the lessons learned during this pandemic to heart. Whether they’re thinking of starting a business or working to keep their current business alive, we can all learn from this experience and apply it in the future. 

We have learned that at any time, our business could be forced to either shut down temporarily or cut costs dramatically. If we can’t operate or sell our products or services online, we may not survive. 

It’s probably safe to say that the impacts of COVID-19 have been a worst-case scenario that few businesses could have planned for. 

What can we do differently in the future to be prepared? 

This brings up another piece of advice I have. Don’t be afraid to pivot your business idea or business model. Throughout this pandemic, we’ve seen manufacturers revamp their production line to produce life-saving ventilators and PPE, distillers and craft beer makers started producing hand sanitizer. We’ve also seen businesses change their product, service or delivery model to survive or even thrive. As an entrepreneur, you must be ready to adapt to new realities.

Micah Rakoff Bellman
Micah Rakoff Bellman

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