Survival Tips for Small Businesses on the Edge Awaiting Stimulus Help


Originally published in Kiplinger

By Bruce Willey

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re breaking records in all the wrong ways. On the same day the U.S. Senate approved the largest economic legislation in history, we also found out that a record number of people filed for unemployment: more than 3 million.

There are lots of things in the CARES Act — aka the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act — that are nice. Checks to Americans are nice. Forgivable loans are nice. Tax breaks are nice. But as not only someone who advises small businesses, but a small-business owner myself, I can tell you that the CARES Act, while nice, isn’t going to provide the immediate relief small businesses need.

The main antagonist? Time. Cutting checks to a vast swath of U.S. taxpayers means sorting through tax returns to determine who qualifies and for how much, processing e-payments and printing and sending checks. It takes time. In addition, while forgivable loans appear to be making it into the CARES Act, small businesses are going to have to wait to get their hands on that money.

So, in the meantime, while we all wait for the federal government’s wheels to turn, here are some things that small-business owners could be doing right now to help themselves out.

Analyze Every Single Expense, and Make the Hard Choices

I’ve been on the phone nonstop for three days with clients, doing nothing but asking the same question: What’s essential? The meaning of that word has changed quite a bit over the past month, even the past week, as the delay in Congress has added even more pressure to small businesses.

The definition of essentiality used to pivot around the question “will this make the boat go faster?” Now it’s more like “will this allow us to keep our doors open next week?” In my own world, that means small expenses, like the research libraries I subscribe to whose subscriptions I’ve now put on hold for six months. Or the standard monthly purchase of supplies that I just canceled.

For my clients and myself, everything is about survival. And every single decision matters.

Do Everything You Can to Keep Cash in Hand

What small businesses need is liquidity. They need more cash in their pockets to bridge the gap from now until the CARES Act goes into effect and into the new frontier that awaits us after the pandemic has passed.

Whether it’s local, state or the federal government, creditors, or one of your vendors, small businesses need to take advantage of any flexibility in payment terms right now.

I’m telling my clients to delay paying any bills that they can, even if that means my own business has some delayed payments coming in. Even if you think you don’t need it right now, with all the unknowns small businesses have to face and the time it will take for legislation to reach you, you need to maximize liquidity now, not later. If there’s anything we’ve learned in the last few weeks, it’s that cash truly is king.

I have clients who are averse to taking on any new debt, but what if you could get a zero-interest loan? There are credit unions offering just that, and while that’s a rarity, interest rates are still going to hit record lows across the board. This is the time to take advantage of it.

Use All the Help That’s Already Available

Small businesses can actually take advantage of an existing program in the form of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Economic Injury Disaster Loans. I’m not saying applying for this program is a snap. It isn’t, but it’s worth the effort. I’ve already received calls from clients who need help sorting through the forms and questions.

Once the CARES Act passes there will be more to sort out. But for the time being, business owners should be focused on what’s offered within their own state. This makes life much more complex, since each state differs so much. But, for instance, if your state offers a voluntary work share that’ll allow you to offload some of your payroll expense to the division of unemployment, do it now. There is no broad-based relief for small businesses yet, but there is at least a chance to make life easier at the margins.

It’s hard to see the forest through the trees right now, but at the end of all this there will be opportunity. I’ve had to pass up investment opportunities that could turn out to be massive in the next few months because I didn’t retain the right cash reserve myself. Small businesses that can make it through this pandemic won’t just be survivors, they may end up having the opportunity for exponential growth.

Bruce Willey is President and CEO of American Tax & Business Planning.