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What I Learned This Year as a Small Business Owner

Speech-language pathologist Courtney Gibbs isn’t just an Inspiration Lab member — she’s also a member of our Small Business Squad. As the owner of Pender Pediatric Therapy in Burgaw, North Carolina, she aids children with speech, language, and feeding therapy needs. Over the last six months, this mom of two has focused on adapting her operations for a virtual world. Below, Courtney shares some of the lessons she’s learned this year as a small business owner amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

When I joined The Inspiration Lab’s Small Business Squad, I remember stating my reason for being there: I owned a business but had no background or education in business. To my surprise, neither did anyone else. Owning a small business means learning as you go and juggling competing roles. You attend meetings, visit clients, write proposals. At any time you may wear the hat of a supervisor, receptionist, or social media coordinator, and some days you wear all those hats at once. 2020 has taught me so much as a small business owner and reminded me that I am still adjusting, reflecting, and learning. The lessons I’ve learned through my experiences during this unprecedented year will stay with me when we begin to return to — dare I say — normal.

Leadership is key. Even in times of normalcy, all eyes are on the leader of the company. The stakes are even higher during times of uncertainty. Employees are depending on you to have a plan and solutions to problems you’ve never considered. I decided early on to set a tone of positivity, flexibility, and perseverance. The situation was far from ideal and all of the new processes seemed daunting to me, my staff, and our clients, but I was determined to focus solely on what I could control. I truly believe that by modeling adaptability, those depending on me were able to follow my lead into unknown territory more confidently.

Know your role. If 2020 has reinforced anything, it’s that having efficient systems in place will make daily operations easier. The benefits of having clear and concise job descriptions and documented expectations were amplified in times of uncertainty. As the decision-maker, I found myself focused on all of the novelties that needed to be addressed urgently. Our success with navigating all the changes came from being able to delegate tasks and having confidence that everyone was capable of handling their workload.

Build your team with the best people for your company. The people around you can make or break the way you navigate difficult situations. Ultimately, the responsibility lies with you alone, which is why it’s so important to surround yourself with others who support your mission, can maintain a positive outlook, and are committed to making it to the other side. Taking action to express my gratitude to my team is now a higher priority than ever.

Foster relationships with your clients. In my private practice, returning customers are our focus. It’s rare we pay for marketing as we depend on word-of-mouth and our reputation. Never have we been tested, though, like we’ve been in 2020. The families we work with were left with few resources for their children when schools closed. As we shifted to providing teletherapy and worked through the steep learning curves, frustrations were high and motivation was low. But the theme of leadership prevailed once again. We trained ourselves on how to provide therapy through a new platform and we learned along with those we serve. Staying connected beyond the scope of our immediate work gave us all the feeling that we weren’t alone.

Have cash in the bank. When Hurricane Florence ravaged our city in 2018, my small private practice closed for three weeks. It was my first real hurdle after opening a brick-and-mortar space and hiring employees. We made it through, but it became clear I had to get serious about building an emergency fund into the budget. Little did I know, three weeks was just a small, little precursor of what was to come. COVID-19 became a global pandemic and we again closed our doors, not knowing how we would move forward without generating revenue or for how long. Would financial support be approved, how would we access it, and how quickly would it be available? What would the long-term ramifications be if we had to borrow large sums of money? Some of us were fortunate enough to shift to virtual work, but even those changes came at a cost. Small businesses rely on steady income to support not only the business itself, but our livelihoods and those of our employees. In the midst of changes to accommodate new mandates, unnecessary expenses in daily operations became crystal clear.

2020 has definitely been one for the books. I’ve never been one to wish away time, but it’s a chapter I find myself anxious to see end. Still, between the turmoil-filled pages of this past year, I am highlighting the silver linings — the lessons learned when you face adversity as business owner head-on.


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