As the owner of 11:11, I’ve been pretty tight-lipped about publicly sharing what our experience has been like through this pandemic. That’s not normally like me, as I know that sharing our stories is how we learn together, and often our stories help validate others’ experiences who otherwise might be feeling alone or isolated. So, here’s answers to some of the frequently asked questions I’ve been getting one-on-one, in hopes they might be helpful or add to the current conversation.
Q: Have you applied for the PPP/ SBA loans?
A: For some reason, this is the #1 question I’ve been asked. I’ve been asked this by the mental health triage nurse at Kaiser, by the free therapist they provided, by neighbors, by random strangers, by my aunt, etc. So, here’s what’s up with the PPP: I did finally get the PPP, after about 60 hours on the phone with the bank and lenders, talking with multiple CPAs, 4 weeks of the most frustrating and stressful bureaucratic process I’ve ever dealt with (and I’ve dealt with both the California AND New York City DMV offices folks) and...then...I got it 4 weeks too late. And contrary to popular belief, it may or may not be “free money”. One, ‘cause nothing about this process has felt free, and two, until there are clearer forgiveness guidelines, it technically may not be free for many of us.
That said, I am feeling lucky to have received anything at all, especially because every single business owner I know has been working the longest days they’ve ever worked (more on that later) so I wonder about all the ones who are ALSO homeschooling kids or are other kinds of caretakers right now: how would they have found 60 hours to be on hold with banks, with no end in sight? I also feel lucky because I beat the odds: “according to the Center for Responsible Lending, at least 90% of businesses owned by people of color have been or will likely be shut out of the PPP”. And for those of us who did receive the funding, it’s critical to clarify that it may have come too late: For many it has come after we had to furlough or lay off employees, after we already made difficult decisions, and for many more, it still has not arrived at all, or they’re getting a fraction of what they qualify for. I’m not complaining here, I’m clarifying that the PPP is not the savior. If there is any one thing that will be our saving grace, it’s going to be our communities.
Q: Well maybe the silver lining is the pandemic is forcing us all to slow down. What are you doing with all your free time since your store closed?
A: Digital high fives to you if you're so bored at home that you’re a Level 9 sourdough starter wizard now. I’m happy for y’all, I truly am. But that’s not where many of us are at. If your house is on fire, you don’t kick back and say “Oh well…let’s chill while it works itself out”. You work nonstop to save whatever parts of it you can. Every business owner I know in Portland has spent countless hours reading countless articles and email after email searching for resources and guidelines, as well as attending countless webinars about how to pivot your business, and countless more hours doing crash courses in everything from ecommerce to unemployment insurance. Add to that hours on hold with credit cards, utility companies and the unemployment office to advocate for yourself and your employees. And when our brains can’t take any more, we head out to do local deliveries and fulfill orders that are trickling in, which for me has been the only time when I can finally turn my brain off.
These things are all in addition to much of the regular job -- answering customer questions, posting on social media to keep orders coming in, creating newsletters to get the word out, doing your bookkeeping to figure out how long your cash will last, etc. And, if your wonderful, incredibly talented employees are furloughed, it also means you’re doing their job and your own. So we’re not bored; we’re tired, anxious, and multitasking non-stop. And this situation is a very bad combination for optimum brain performance, which is what is required to build a whole new business model, which so many of us are frantically doing too. Oh, and did I mention the time it takes to do all this while madly sanitizing yourself, your merchandise, your fulfillment area, your car, etc? This moment in time is 100% BONKERS.
Q: What has been the hardest part of this for you?
A: I’ve only been asked this question twice, and it felt sooooo good to be asked it. It made me feel like I had permission to share honestly. My answer: Ok, besides the obvious fact that death and suffering are mounting around us -- as a business owner, the hardest part has been living with decisions I’ve made to take care of myself.
The brick and mortar was like my cruise ship: It was this big beautiful thing I worked soooooo hard on, and that I spent my entire life savings building out. By choosing to close it down, it means I am willingly taking that huge cruise ship apart piece by piece to salvage the parts, and instead choosing to get into a little row boat I’d never really been in (ecommerce) to frantically row away before it takes me down with it. I could say the pandemic was the iceberg in this little metaphor. But I also have to say that I chose to dismantle it. Many small business owners are choosing to double their debt, or are going to be working twice the hours through the rest of the year, or are taking other huge financial risks, anything to not close their brick and mortars down. They are being super brave and badass and we all need to support them. But I myself am choosing to dismantle and throttle this thing down. AND it huuuuuurts. But it’s the right thing for my mental and physical health. I might regret this decision, but a decision has to be made, and this is mine.
Q: What advice would you give to other business owners, either as a small business owner yourself, or as an expert on resiliency, through this period?
A: I was asked this for an interview, so I want to share my answers here too because because first off, I can only answer this question like a colleague. I am learning everyday just like everyone else is. I, in no way, feel like an expert right now. So, instead, here’s the three things I’m focusing on to stay resilient through this period of loss and unknown:
Tactic #1: Give yourself proper time to grieve
The first 4 weeks of this madness I was working long days and doing 40 things at once to save the sinking ship. And then, something broke inside of me. The depression that for 10+ years I’d worked so hard to overcome and thought “was behind me” just...came back. I didn’t recognize myself. I didn’t want to leave the bed, I cried multiple times a day, and I didn’t care anymore. I just was 100% despondent. It was terrifying. But a therapist friend pointed out that I was grieving, and grieving isn’t a personality trait -- it’s a process and a time period.
So I decided to try a different approach. Instead of trying to bend the universe into my will, instead of forcing my mood to be all “joyful productivity”, I would just let myself be SAD AF for two weeks. To see what happened. Maybe my world would fall apart and everyone would hate me, but maybe it would be fine. I put as much of the business on cruise control as I could. I still worked full days, but didn’t expect much from myself and just kinda went through the motions of filling orders and posting some random thing on insta that seemed ok. I slumped along. I did not expect joy from myself. I let myself be a boring sappy human being. Then slowly, by the 3rd week, I started feeling 10% better, and now I’m feeling say 30% better.
I currently do have some moments of joy, but mostly it’s at tiny things (like the crows outside my window or a funny customer comment), but am otherwise emotionally checked out the rest of the time. I’m aware how lucky I am for my health and the health of those I love. I’m aware of how much privilege I still have. But I’m also patient with the fact that I’m a human being with mental health stuff, that depression and grief are real too, and that for the time being, I do not have to be a shiny bright ball of human fucking splendor. And, I think it’s working.
Tactic #2: Forget creating a “success game plan”. Instead just focus on a Survival Plan:
Most of the reading I was doing was either bumming me out or overwhelming me. Except for this article. After reading it I sat outside with my notebook and tried a rough draft of my own Survival Plan, which looks something like this currently. This article completely changed things in my brain. It was clear and specific but also, it was very realistic: it understood that I had incredibly limited financial, cognitive and emotional resources now. And most importantly, reading it gave me permission: to ask for more than I’m used to asking for, to get creative without getting ambitious, and to lower my damn standards (for the sake of long-term business and mental health). Which leads me to the last thing.
Tactic #3 What you say no to, defines what you say yes to:
I’ve always loved this motto, but never has it been so painfully useful. It will be critical for me to say no to many things I used to say yes to: the brick and mortar is the biggest one, but I also need to start saying no to taking on so much financial risk ( for example, I used to reinvest everything back into the business, but it left little for the many rainy days that happened to us in the past 9 months). By saying no to very specific things, I am allowing myself a simpler, more focused and less risky reality, which means I’m saying yes to my mental and physical health, and yes to financial safety, which is not my usual strong suit. This is sooooo hard, but when I worked in health care, I learned that emergency situations call for aggressive prioritization. This feels especially true right now.
I would love to learn what tactics have been most helpful to other business owners. I’d love to see your own Survival Plan drafts and share our wish lists with each other! Email me -- I’m at email@example.com. Thanks for reading, thanks for keeping your dollars in your communities, and thanks for the many emails you’ve already sent with support and check-ins.
I xoxoxo y’all.