A new “new normal” for entrepreneurship

Resurgence: This series of essays curated by the National Cultural Foundation’s Literary Arts Officer, Karra Price, features the thoughts and commentaries of Barbadians immersed in various aspects of daily endeavour. 

This essay examines the ways in which entrepreneurship grappled with a changing economic landscape amidst a global pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic came as a whirlwind and severely damaged our little island of Barbados. It ushered in many changes – both negative and positive – some which will fade away over time and others which will not. Thanks to COVID, tourism, a huge contributor to Barbados’ economy, was practically shutdown overnight, highlighting the value of local consumers and the necessity for Barbadians to support each other.

Although the world is gradually removing COVID restrictions and trying to move forward, it is clear that life may never return to the way it once was. As an entrepreneur, specifically a fashion designer of accessories, I thought my accessories business, Ayola by Blessing Olaniyi, would be negatively impacted by the pandemic due to the lockdowns and people’s changes in personal finances. Surprisingly it was not! In fact, business and opportunities have grown and set the foundation for a more sustainable post-pandemic business.

Of course, it took way more than simply sewing handbags to grow the company during this period. Of the many lessons I learned, the most significant was the importance of human connection – a factor that seems to be rapidly declining due to the increased use of technology.

However, I learned that, when used wisely, technology can be a great tool for establishing relationships with clients. This lesson has been vital in helping to dictate the ‘new normal’ of communication from both a business and a personal standpoint and highlights the fact that while nothing replaces the joy of face-to-face human interaction, having an online business presence is very important.

Another lesson learned was the meaning of the Bajan saying “don’t put all yuh eggs in one basket”. This must have resonated with many other businesses also, causing us to pivot to find new and innovative ways of selling products and services online. For example, there was a rise in virtual marketplaces where customers were given opportunities to view and purchase a variety of products from the safety of their home. This proved to be an efficient model as it was convenient and safe for shopper and vendor.

During the crisis, the focus of business could no longer be the product and the bottom line but had to shift significantly to the customer experience; how to cater to the buyer, how to ensure they are heard, seen and fully satisfied. This concept has always been present in my business. After all, Ayola means “something that makes you happy” in Xhosa.

However, doing this online became the New Normal. For Ayola, the success of this personal shopping experience can be expressed in two words: Customer Choice. This means allowing the client to choose the fabrics, patterns and other details of their bag, making each bag requested a custom-made, one-of-a-kind piece which they helped design, and, perhaps most important, listening to customer feedback to produce an improved finished product. This strategy has become a pillar in the foundation of my business and continues, post pandemic – one of few positive COVID aftereffects.

So what does entrepreneurship look like post-pandemic? How do I define the new New Normal as we return to in-person interactions? Well, in Barbados, our culture sets the tone for that shift.  Here, we love to converse and interact; we love the sense of community, so a focus on maintaining personal relationships with customers is of the utmost importance and, in a restriction-free environment, now presents better opportunity for business growth. Transitioning to this new New Normal has been a slow process and has taken careful planning and execution. The island’s reopening was executed in two phases for entrepreneurs like me.

First was the reopening of boutiques which allowed customers to become reacquainted with in-store shopping where they could see and touch the product in a safe space created by maintaining social distancing and other pandemic protocols. Next came the restoration of in-person events, which brought with it the opportunity for Pop Up markets. While many people remain cautious in this post-pandemic environment, others gladly welcome personal interaction, and such events play a major role in creating community spirit as entrepreneurs connect one-on-one with customers and with each other.

Experiencing face-to-face consultations; seeing, in real time, the joy on customers’ faces as they discover “the perfect handbag” or recognise how beautifully another will accessorize their favourite outfit is priceless.

This new New Normal consists of elements introduced during the pandemic – mainly the use of technology and virtual spaces – balanced with in-person events to achieve the best shopping experience. I am taking full advantage of opportunities to collaborate with other small businesses, hosting and attending live events, and building bonds with others in the fashion industry, all of which feels a little foreign after being separated for such a long time.

As I write this, the new New Normal hasn’t yet been fully revealed, however, I am fully embracing the bumpy journey to its discovery. In order to safeguard the business, I am exploring possibilities for new revenue streams while listening closely to the ever changing needs and wants of my clients. Recovery from the pandemic is ongoing and will take some time as our minds readjust to the regular which now seems irregular and, in some instances, simply wrong. Many are still wondering, Is it really over? Is it safe? Will the pandemic reoccur? As an entrepreneur these questions are at the forefront of my mind and influence many of my decisions, especially those related to finances.

The entrepreneurial journey is long and slow, requiring commitment, determination and ability to navigate unexpected obstacles. Business-wise, surviving the pandemic has been a true test of entrepreneurial skill and, as we emerge from the tunnel of isolation, the light I see is hope.

The pandemic effectively reminded us that we are all our brothers’ keepers. It helped resurrect the true ole’ time Bajan community spirit that once seemed almost dead. It is my hope that this spirit will continue to be celebrated both in our business and personal relations for it is what unites us, keeping us strong and resilient. It is what makes us Bajans.

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