Mini-survey: Small business challenges and opportunities, right now

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Michelle van Schouwen

As a retail store owner commented to me the other day, “Getting through 2020 has allowed me to be in business in 2021. That’s about all I can say for last year.”

2020 was a challenge for many small business owners, and now that it is behind us, I wanted to know what opportunities and challenges are on our minds now. So I asked a dozen or so small company owners that question.

The answers were a fascinating mix.

Perhaps the most daunting concern I heard – from several people – was that they had taken on new debt, whether to keep the business open, avoid losing key workers, or just to pay their own bills. “I refinanced my house,” the owner of a small wholesale company confided. “I’m not sure it was the right decision, but I know what I have to do now is work even harder and spend even less, both in the business and personally.” Another owner closed a salon business to avoid further debt.

Others were able to recalibrate quickly and leverage opportunity. Jennell Jaquays, creative director at Olde Sküül Entertainment,Inc., a niche market creator and publisher of retro-style video games, took measures that proved fortuitous. According to Jaquays, “Due to a Covid 19-related job loss in 2020, we relocated from the San Francisco Bay area to north Texas. Reduced operating costs meant being able to make a greater investment in our company. Being closer to other small video game publishing companies in the Dallas area opened up opportunities for publishing collaborations. Challenges continue to be operating in a ‘multiple hats’ business format where two people handle nearly every aspect of getting a product ready to market without any form of face-to-face contact.”

Several business owners are questioning whether they still need their traditional offices, or can cut costs by having more employees telecommute some or all of the time. One creative services firm owner moved to an incubator space, to help assure continued collaboration and creative input when staff do come into the office. (Do note that business experts say that allowing employees to work from home, where possible, is becoming almost de rigueur.)

Jennifer Leonard, principal of The Skills Library, which creates databases and resource materials for educational, career development, and youth development programs, is finding new ways to work remotely even with interns.  “As a longtime advocate for youth internships, I try to put my own advice into practice, and so I have hired high school students and young adults for internship positions for many years. It is challenging for a solo business owner to offer internships at any time, since there are no co-workers to share supervision and since suitable office space isn’t always available. During the pandemic I started looking at options for offering virtual internship positions. What has emerged has been a series of short-term projects, as I have given students stipends to work on specific projects. These have included video projects, analysis of survey data, and soon, database projects. I am excited to see how this works out, and looking forward to creating something sustainable that I can continue past the pandemic.”

Other small business owners with whom I spoke talked about the challenges of re-entering some type of new normal.

A business-to-business capital equipment company owner mused, “How do we get customers back in a buying mode?” adding, “I had to cut my staff substantially. It’s a balancing act getting new business and fulfilling it. I’m shell-shocked and afraid to hire too soon.”

A restaurant owner cited another ongoing challenge. “Still dealing with masking issues!” Especially with social media, he added, customers share their experiences, good or bad, with the public. “One person complains about someone walking to the table without a mask, somebody else says we’re too strict. I try to let customers know we’re working to keep them safe, but that’s my daily challenge right now.”

A partner in a counseling practice told me that, “We’re very busy. We’ve been offering sessions on Zoom and are now moving toward having people come into the office once they are vaccinated and comfortable. It’s funny – I suspect some patients would rather continue meeting online indefinitely, so that’s a new opportunity for our practice.”

Experts predict that 2021 will also bring new opportunities for expanding online business in many fields, for finding new paths to efficiency and profitability, and for some, for enjoying a stronger 2021 after powering through a time of extraordinary challenge  for small companies.


Michelle van Schouwen is principal of Q5 Analytics, providing advocacy and communications for climate change mitigation and adaptation. See Q5 For 32 years, Michelle was president of van Schouwen Associates, LLC (vSA), a B2B marketing company. In 2017, van Schouwen Associates was acquired by Six-Point Creative Works, Inc.  of Springfield, MA. Michelle is available for speaking engagements on topics including her work on climate crisis mitigation and Florida coastal water issues. She speaks to business and student groups about marketing launches and entrepreneurship and works with start-ups to support their development.

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