Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve heard from countless self-employed professionals who have suddenly found themselves either unemployed or underemployed.

Business during a pandemic

Professionals who typically work with clients in person have been stymied by stay-at-home directives or the understandable concerns clients have about exposing themselves to contagion. Other professionals have been blindsided when the industry they serve has disappeared overnight, due to shutdowns and cutbacks. Still others have lost much of their business as clients have been hit with layoffs and reduced hours, and can no longer afford the professional’s services.

These are tough times for all small business owners, and solutions to challenges like these may not be easy to implement. But since it looks like we may be dealing with pandemic conditions and economic chaos for months to come, it may be time for many of us to reinvent what we do and how we do it. Here are three possible situations you may currently find yourself in and some suggestions for how to get out of them.

1. You’ve always worked with your clients in person.

An adaptation that works for many professionals is converting all of your in-person services to be delivered online. If you’re a coach, consultant, or counselor who works with clients one-on-one, the majority of your work can happen by video. You may have been hesitant to try this in the past, but so many people have become comfortable with videoconferencing now that your clients will adapt much more easily than before.

The work of professions such as fitness training, yoga, physical therapy, professional organizing, interpreting, bookkeeping, hypnotherapy, or training can be performed remotely with some adjustments. You may need to invent creative solutions for elements of your work that have always been hands-on. But with webcams on both ends, plus demonstrations, diagrams, or video clips you can share, working online may be possible.

If you’ve always worked with groups, it’s not only lectures, slides, demos, and discussion that can be switched to a video platform. With breakout rooms, you can split your audience into small groups, triads, or dyads for exercises, then bring them back to the main “room” to debrief.

2. Your target market has evaporated.

Many industries have been hard hit by the economic fallout from the pandemic. If you’ve been serving impacted industries like travel, restaurants, brick-and-mortar retail, performing arts, or medical/dental practices, your clients may have lost most of their income, or not even be operating. Under normal circumstances, specializing in a narrowly-defined niche is a good idea. But to keep working now, you’ll need to diversify.

Seek out a new market that is still thriving — or at least surviving — and do a guerrilla repositioning of yourself. With what other industries might your portfolio or expertise be a good match? For example, if you’ve been doing web design for travel companies, could your portfolio appeal to distance learning firms? Or, let’s say you’ve been doing graphic design for local restaurants. Could you pivot to local businesses that are doing better, like bike shops or plant nurseries?

Then, start by reaching out to all your existing contacts. You have the perfect excuse to contact everyone you already know, and ask for introductions to potential clients in the new market you’re targeting. Most folks really want to help others right now. Tell the people you know how to help you rebuild your business and they will do their best.

3. No one currently wants what you offer.

When your business as currently designed simply isn’t viable right now — due to stay-at-home restrictions or impact to your target market — you may need to repackage your skills and knowledge in new, more marketable ways.

Take an inventory of the talents and expertise you have that others would want, and consider how you might offer them differently than you have in the past. For example, could you offer:

  • Online training, either delivered live or sold as home-study courses
  • Training for your colleagues to help them improve their skills
  • Video performances or events you present alone or together with colleagues
  • Ebooks or resource packs created from your expertise
  • Works of art or craft that make use of your talents
  • Skills from your pre-entrepreneurial life, such as writing, editing, coding, design, or accounting

In some cases, ideas like those above will be marketable to your existing list of clients and contacts. But that won’t always be the case. If you need to reach beyond your own contact list, could you find clients or buyers through:

  • Corporate, educational or nonprofit sponsors
  • Alliances or referral partnerships with colleagues
  • Gig work platforms like Upwork, Fiverr, Freelancer, or Guru
  • Product sales platforms like Etsy, eBay, or Amazon’s Direct Publishing
  • Training course platforms like Udemy or Skillshare
  • COVID-19 job postings provided by your professional association, state, county, or city (which often include contract or freelance opportunities)

Whatever reinvention looks like for you, be sure to let all your past clients and existing contacts know what you’re offering now. Then build an action plan to get the word out to your newly defined target market.

When the pandemic eases and the economy improves, you may be able to go back to your old way of doing business. But you may also find that some of the reinvention work you take the time to do now will shift your business in a direction that will keep it more sustainable and profitable for the long term.

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