At a time when co-workers can see each other in their living rooms complete with photobombing kids and pets, we can see journalists’ messy bookcases in the background as they ask serious questions on national television, and globally we’re all facing our own versions of the same crisis… I have been overwhelmed by the sense that we’re all human, and we’re all in this together.
In that context, I will risk getting a bit personal in a professional setting.
What I want to say is not particularly contentious: I have found the last few weeks tough. I do have a more constructive point to make, which I’ll get to! I promise this is not a doom and gloom piece, and instead I want to share a far more positive perspective.
But it doesn’t feel right to gloss over the reality of what we’re all facing right now, mid-April 2020, in the middle of COVID-19 and the UK lockdown.
We’ve got 99 problems
There are a whole lot of things on my mind right now. I’m far from alone in this, and none of them will be a surprise to you.
I’m worried about the global pandemic, the lives lost and the losses to come, the impact on the most poor and vulnerable, the health risks for loved ones, and the lack of suitable PPE for health workers and care workers.
I’m also concerned about the impact on the economy, the financial impact personally, civil liberties being eroded and what that could mean, the psychological impact of living in lockdown, and how this will all impact my kids.
It’s a lot to deal with, and it affects all of us.
But I’m writing mainly to self-employed people, and aside from health risks to yourself and loved ones – the impact on our businesses is in many ways the scariest and most immediate threat.
Everything changed overnight
This change was particularly poignant for me, as I had just celebrated a huge milestone in my business.
After over three years as a virtual assistant, having started out as a transcriber and pivoting to offer admin and project management to independent researchers – by February 2020 I had finally achieved what I set out to do. I had a handful of regular clients who I really liked, I was at full capacity, and I could look to the months ahead and see the work scheduled in.
That, for me, was the holy grail.
When COVID-19 hit the research industry, the rug was pulled from under me. The time between knowing I would lose a lot of work and the financial support announced by the government (I’m a sole trader, so I’m fortunate and will get some help) was a nail-biting time for me.
In the time since then, I’ve made my peace with not knowing what the future holds. The research industry is being hit hard, face-to-face research won’t be coming back any time soon, and we’re about to head into a global recession (or depression) which will undoubtedly hit research budgets.
However I have realised something incredibly important, and that’s really what I wanted to share.
A dead business model doesn’t have to mean the end of a business
In the industries that have been hit particularly hard by recent events, there are thousands upon thousands of self-employed people staring into the face of the same fear around what the future holds.
There is one reframe I have found incredibly helpful.
It’s often said that we write the <blog posts / articles / books> we need to read, and that’s undoubtedly the case here. I don’t want to patronise the people who figured this stuff out in the first week and honestly, I’m probably behind the curve in what I’ve realised. But still, I want to share something that feels profound for me.
If a business model is no longer viable, that doesn’t mean you don’t have a business. It just means you need to get to work and figure out how your business needs to look NOW.
More fundamentally, if you’re self-employed I’d argue that your business is not (really) your brand, your website, your client base, your social media presence. When it comes down to it, your business is YOU. Your experience, your capabilities, your insight, the problems you can solve and how you can help people. It’s harder for an external event to take these things away.
Yes, specific income streams will fall off a cliff. The particular set-up that worked perfectly in February 2020 may not be viable now, or in September, or next year. Future plans will be dashed, and everything will need rethinking.
But if you’ve built a business once, you can do it again. Adaptability, resilience, the ability to spot opportunities and grow things in those fertile places – these are qualities that the self-employed own. We may just need to take a step back, cut the dead wood and plant some new seeds.
What has been incredibly helpful for me is to turn away from looking at what’s been and gone, do a full 180 and look at what’s ahead. Where are the opportunities, and how can I pivot and offer something that will be right in this new landscape?
What the future looks like for my business
For my business offering admin and project management to independent researchers, it shakes out something like this:
It’s likely that I’ll need greater numbers of ad hoc clients. My whole business model was built on researchers having more work than they could handle, and I was there to take the excess. Now that the landscape has changed, the need for my services is likely to become more sporadic. I will need to spread my net far and wide. (To be honest, not having to do that before was a luxury.)
But will the research industry continue? Yes!
There may be less work overall, with a huge skew towards online research. Client budgets will vary by sector, and there will be winners and losers. But there will be work. Businesses will, without a doubt, have pressing questions that need answering. And the types of questions they will want to ask could be very interesting ones.
And the depth and complexity that online research can deliver will be a perfect match for the nuanced and complex questions brands will be asking. I predict it will be an exciting time to be a researcher, and I feel a renewed sense of wanting to be part of this industry.
My three to-dos
For my business, I think I need to do three things:
- Grow my client base, a lot! Advertise widely, package up the ways I can help people, look for the pain points and my SOLUTIONS to them, and shout this loudly from the rooftops. Because undoubtedly there are busy researchers, I just need to make sure they know how I can help them.
- Be brave and put a stake in the ground for the type of research I really want to support: Work that makes a positive difference in the world. Social research, charity research, projects with an environmental focus, projects that are about people rather than profit. This is where my heart lies, it always has been – and current events are bringing my values into sharp focus.
- Follow my passions and look at other opportunities. My biggest passion is health and wellness, and more specifically the importance of slowing down and reconnecting to what matters. Never have I felt so ahead of the curve: I’ve been baking sourdough bread since 2016 and growing vegetables in my garden since April 2019! Suddenly, the whole world is joining me.
Now is a perfect time for me to consider a separate business alongside TS Research Assistant, offering admin support to online health and wellness professionals. This idea has been bubbling away at the back of my mind for a few years now, but it would have been too much for me to take on back in February when I didn’t have the bandwidth.
Looking forward feels so much better
One thing I can tell you is, it feels so much better to focus on the opportunities ahead rather than what’s already lost.
There’s a lot of debate about whether the world will be the same again after COVID-19. I’ve read far too many articles about this, enough to make my head spin. But I’m firmly in the camp that believes this pandemic will be an accelerator for change that was already building, and change that was desperately needed.
So, in many ways, in a far broader context than just my own business – I truly am ready to walk away from what went before. We can do so much better, in terms of supporting the most vulnerable in society, sharing wealth more equitably, and protecting our natural environment.
I usually end my posts with a fairly shameless call to action. That doesn’t feel quite right today, but at the same time it’s as important as ever to say it. If you’re a researcher and you need an extra pair of hands, I know my stuff and I know how to make your life a whole lot easier. Please do get in touch if that sounds valuable.