What it’s really like running a small business in Australia during COVID-19

Words by Sophie McGrath

It’s tough, but this crisis has brought to light some positives, too.

Owning a small business and more specifically being a sole trader is no easy feat even at the best of times. Like most of us, I watched COVID-19 unfold from afar, intrigued and aghast at its immense destruction. But I never thought it would affect my day-to-day life.

Yet in a matter of weeks, it did. Life as I knew it had come to an abrupt halt, as the growing impact of this pandemic became all too real, affecting every aspect of our society.

It turns out lifestyle publicists, event planners, yoga teachers and anti-plastic advocates are not essential workers. I am all of these things.

Within a week I went from having 12 solid current and upcoming PR clients and projects to just four, all of which were completely stripped back with contract hours tightened.

There were break-ups and tears on both ends of the call. But being a contractor, especially in these times, of course, I’d be the first one they’d have to let go and I had to accept that. They had bigger things to deal with, like letting their own permanent staff members go.

With the onslaught of COVID-19 updates came even bigger blows, both financially and emotionally. In five years of running my PR and events business, I’d never experienced such a tremendous loss of income, as well as a loss of confidence in myself.

I peeled the onion so to speak – I was angry, anxious, fearful but then I came to a place of peace. Why? Well, we’re all impacted by this pandemic and simply in knowing that, it made me feel okay about it.

I find comfort in this united sense of instability we’re all experiencing – we’re all scared and suffering in some way. Plus, someone’s situation is always worse than your own. Take, for example, one of my clients, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC).

The people who use the ASRC’s vital services don’t have a safety net, they’re unable to access Medicare or Centrelink, and have zero access to critical care services or even food security.

This made me realise how very lucky I am to have a safety net and to be surrounded by a wonderful network of friends and family. Knowing that I had a roof over my head, a supportive husband, loving family members, a solid group of best mates, a handful of clients and a safety net in my savings account, I knew I’d be able to get through this.

Sure, it’s dominated our everyday lives, curtailed our routines and will be our collective shadow for months to come, but the shutdown has had some positives too.

I’ve really enjoyed only committing just a few hours a day to PR work instead of the all-day slog, as well as not having to be accessible at all hours to my clients. It’s the first time in years that I haven’t woken up with a million things to do for my PR clients and the slowness has honestly been so lovely.

The extra time gained from less work has allowed me to do what I want to on any given day. Sure, the workaholic in me collated an ‘Iso To-Do List’ and I refer to this all the time.

The list contains one-off life admin tasks like cleaning out that linen cupboard or things to consider doing during this time that I say I never have the time for, like teaching myself how to DJ or bringing to fruition those new business ideas that I’ve had on my mind for years.

This time has allowed me the space to focus on my PR business model and analyse what’s working, what isn’t, what I am going to make sure continues post-COVID life and what the next five years will look like.

The “c-word” has allowed me to rest, reassure myself and most importantly to be kinder to myself. I recently realised that I don’t speak nicely to myself, at all. It’s always “I’ve got to do this” or “I must or have to do that.” Each day was a battle to be better and now it’s about becoming my own best friend and putting my needs first, now and always.

The shutdown has brought so many positive changes and maybe this is the reboot we all needed – a newfound respect and understanding of the many simple, joyful life factors we may have taken for granted that tend to get chewed up by our work lives and general obsession with busyness.

Owning a small business still, of course, has its challenges. It’s not all lovely and there are still bills to pay. I’ve had plenty of close calls with clients not being able to pay me when invoices are due or stating they can only pay a percentage – it goes to show that everyone is doing it tough.

I’m very lucky that I haven’t had to close my business temporarily or permanently, I’m just in a waiting dock anticipating the new normal. I encourage all small businesses to surround themselves with proactive support from professional advisors like accountants, to people that can assist you with your emotional and mental wellbeing at this time.

Ask for the support and be kinder to yourself. You’re nimble and resilient and that’s what pushed you to forge your own path in the first place. Seek the support you need and most importantly be your own best friend during this difficult time.


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