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Rural Small Business – The importance of peer support for small businesses during COVID-19

Date: July 10, 2020
Author: MELL MILLGATE, Founder and Director, Starfish Marketing

As a marketing consultant in regional New South Wales, I have seen the positive flow-on effects strong small businesses can have on a local town.

Small businesses really make a difference- they become the backbone of their communities. If our businesses are successful, our communities are successful. It’s a real ripple effect- I believe helping one rural business helps the whole community in return. This idea forms part of our ethos at Starfish Marketing.

This year, COVID-19 hit and began to restrict and complicate business operations across the world. Business owners were left feeling confused, stressed and concerned for the future of their businesses.

My own experience is no exception.

Sadly, many of our clients are local businesses in industries all but decimated by COVID-19 restrictions. When you have zero income and your business is temporarily closed, there is not much need for marketing. As a result, our revenue is down by 30%. Thankfully, JobKeeper is helping with cash flow and is keeping my part-time employee on the books.

The compounding effects of COVID-19 have been felt heavily by Australia and its small businesses. Like many others, I have found support through my peers online. I have also used technology to connect with my sole employee, making sure we stay supported and well during this time.

Creating peer networks to cope with the stressors of COVID-19

Initially, I felt quite panicked and I tend to freeze a bit in stressful situations- put my head in the sand a bit.

I then had a realisation that I wasn’t the only one going through this- everyone was. Every small business owner was.

So, I created a Facebook group, Small Business Check-In. It’s a space I have set up for small business owners and employees to check-in and share their stories.

The group acts as a support group and tends to be focussed more on mental and emotional support, rather than business support. There are about 100 people in the group and we’ve seen some genuine interactions and connections. There is a real sense of ‘we’re in this together and we can get through this together’.

The group is very interactive, we have been sharing our experiences about how we’ve reacted and what we have done in the face of COVID-19. On Wednesdays, we have an ‘Ask Me Anything’ session where members post questions which I respond to through Facebook Live. Fridays are called ‘Friday Yay’ and members are encouraged to share one good thing that happened during the week. Anything at all, it doesn’t have to be business-related.

I’ve learned through the Facebook group that people really want to reach out and support each other. The feedback is that the group has real value, and it will most likely continue beyond COVID-19.

Supporting remote workers during COVID-19

The responsibility you feel towards employees as a business owner can be overwhelming at times. You can feel responsible for them, their livelihoods and their professional development.

The extra decision-making and planning have been taxing. Both my employee and I have felt overwhelmed during this time. The key for us has been to communicate and be supportive.

Since my employee is based in Canberra and I’m either in Albury or Rutherglen, our daily work routine and weekly Zoom meetings didn’t change in the beginning. However, the added decision-making and learning curves were certainly a big change. So, we began checking in with each other more often.

We created a space where we both felt comfortable in putting our hand up and saying “I am feeling overwhelmed, please help.”

We’ve definitely learned a lot about each other in this time and I’d say our working relationship is stronger for it. It doesn’t feel like ‘staff’ and ‘employer’, we are a real team.

Support for rural small business owners

My simple message to other small business owners is that you are not in this alone. It’s okay to not be okay, and it really does help to share. If you put your hand up, someone will be there. It could be a friend, a colleague, or a complete stranger.

Likewise, being there to support a friend or colleague is really important right now. Just let them know you are there for them and ask them how you can help.

About Mell Millgate

Mell is the Founder and Director of Starfish Marketing, a small agency based in regional NSW. With 30 years of experience, Mell is passionate about making a difference to rural businesses one by one.

The views, thoughts and opinions expressed in this blog belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the CRRMH or Everymind. We do not seek to promote or endorse the individual or business associated with this blog.

If you have any concerns about yourself or a loved one, mental health and crisis support is available.
Lifeline- call 13 11 14 (24/7) or chat online (7 pm – midnight AEDT, 7 nights)
Beyond Blue Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service – 1800 512 348 (24/7)

Need advice? Ahead for Business can help small business owners take action on their mental health and wellbeing.

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