As a Montana resident for the last 25 years, I have dedicated many summers to the joys of river rafting. My family owns an NRS internal frame raft that accommodates six passengers in comfort. We live so close to the Yellowstone River, the Madison River and the Gallatin River, that we can launch our raft after work for a two-hour “cocktail float” or do something more outdoorsy, like five days on The Smith River. The luxury of living close to amazing rivers comes with a cost—nine months of winter. In Montana, we have two seasons, winter and summer—and Old Man Winter lasts for approximately nine months. The other three months are when Montanans cram in as much river-time, camp-time, and backyard BBQs as possible. In fact, most of us have our entire summer planned before St. Patrick’s Day.
What does any of this have to do with COVID-19, you ask? Well, rafting can be merely leisurely floating, drink in hand, while watching bald eagles fly overhead. Or, it can mean intentionally rowing to ideal fishing eddies where the rainbow trout congregate. Rafting the river can also mean hitting serious rapids varying in classes from Class I (nap time) to Class VI (insane). I have experienced the range and I will say, it’s exhilarating.
As the president of Jelt, a small Montana business, navigating COVID-19 feels a lot like rowing down the river with no clue what’s around the bend. Will it be a Class I rapid or a Class VI? Will I be able to row my business safely through, or will I capsize and lose everything? Operating a small business in a pandemic feels like riding the wildest rapids you can imagine in an inflatable plastic floating mattress from Walmart. This is not advisable. Trust me, I’ve tried.
Why do small businesses feel more vulnerable than the rest? Well, the most obvious reason is that small businesses often operate on extremely tight budgets with minimal employees, therefore, any fluctuation in sales revenue or supply chain kinks can be devastating. We rely on everything to go as planned based on the data from the fiscal years prior. Small businesses know there are ebbs and flows, but extreme waves are usually not predicted or planned for.
Most of us small business owners have taken normal precautions to protect ourselves from fire, computer hacking, and lawsuits. We didn’t, however, cover ourselves for a pandemic. There are no insurance companies that I’m aware of that offer that plan :)
So, what do we do? We do what any great oarsmen would do when about to hit the Class V rapid. You pull over to the side of the river, scout what’s ahead, hopefully watching some others navigate the rocks and currents, then, check to make sure all of your gear is secured (also known as “rig to flip”), get back in your boat, take a deep breath, and row.
As the leader of Jelt, this is how I'm navigating my team through this Class V rapid:
1. We pulled over. Meaning: We started working from home to stay safe.
2. We watched others navigate. Meaning: We gathered ideas from other successful businesses on how to operate during a pandemic.
3. We secured our gear. Meaning: We reworked our budget, made entirely new marketing plans, and applied for an appropriate small business loan.
4. We took a deep breath and started to row. Meaning: We put our heads down and got back to work with a new perspective on operating our company on the tails of a pandemic.
None of this has been easy or remotely recreational and I am not trying to make light of our current situation affecting the world. People are dying, children are not being educated, families are going hungry and businesses are closing their doors forever. It’s an absolutely horrifying pandemic that has been difficult to process.
I am, however, trying very hard to remain positive and do what I can do keep my small business afloat. My employees and their families rely on me to be strong for them and make good decisions. The women’s prison in Billings, MT, relies on Jelt to sustain its manufacturing program that builds self-confidence. As a social enterprise, the non-profit organizations we support rely on Jelt to help maintain their programs, benefiting veterans, kids, and the environment. And lastly, but equally as important to me, is that we maintain our business to provide our loyal customers with their favorite belt. Because, in the end, we all need to take a deep breath, buckle down, and keep our pants on.
I wish you all the best as you navigate your own rapids.
Jen Rigged-To-Flip Perry