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‘Things are not completely out of control’: Seattle nonprofit offers free coaching for struggling small businesses

Chef Dane of the Here & There food truck. The catering company has had to get creative and pivot in order to survive the pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Chef Dane Catering)

Countless small businesses are struggling through the pandemic, but nonprofit Work for Humanity can help. Right now, they’re offering free and low-cost business coaching to businesses with 20 employees or less.

“Businesses often wait to get help until it’s too late,” said Jen Gresham, the Seattle based executive director and founder of Work for Humanity. “They wait until they have only a couple weeks left of cash flow. They’re about to shut down, and we can’t help businesses like that. We’re trying to do these interventions for businesses that are still OK and have some time to get new programs out, new marketing efforts, develop new products and services, reach new audiences.”

Gresham says it’s a great time to work on your business, but you need to think of long-term solutions.

“Many businesses are like, ‘Look, just give me some cash so I can weather this storm. I just have to get through this. I just have to wait this out.’ One of the big messages that we’re trying to get out to people is that this level of change isn’t going away,” Gresham said. “It’s really urgent that we give people the mindset and the skill set to become more agile and adaptive because that’s going to be required from here on out if our businesses are going to make it.”

The coaching they provide revolves around creativity, ingenuity, experimentation, and pivoting to a service that people want and can use right now.

“This was not a client, but a great story to learn from: A friend of mine’s daughter is a babysitter. Babysitting has pretty much dried up, but she needed to earn some money. So she decided to start dressing up like Elsa [from the Disney movie Frozen] because what she realized is that she wasn’t in the business of just watching people’s kids, she was in the business of delighting people’s kids,” Gresham explained. “So she would dress up like Elsa and drive by the house and just wave. The word spread and she was getting all kinds of deals this way that earned her so much more than babysitting ever did.”

Gresham says it’s about creating experiences, not just selling a product.

“There’s a small hotel in LA, it’s kind of a dingy old hotel, but they are fully booked year round. The reason is because they have this special thing where there’s a white phone out by the pool and you pick it up and you order a Popsicle,” she said. “Someone comes out dressed in a suit, with white gloves, and delivers your Popsicle. It’s a silly thing, and it works!”

Carol Anne Lee co-owns Lynnwood’s Chef Dane Catering and the Here and There by Chef Dane food truck with her husband, Dane.

“I think our last large catering event was about the 10th of March,” Lee said. “By mid-March, we had no catering events.”

When Lee had a Zoom consultation with Gresham and two other Work For Humanity business coaches, she was told that she’s no longer a catering business — she’s in the business of delighting people with food. She pivoted from parking the food truck outside office buildings, to parking it in residential neighborhoods where working parents could pop out to buy meals. She’s currently working on creating themed holiday packs for families.

“Looking at things like PTAs and school groups that might need support with school meal programs for families that are busy,” Lee said. “Their philosophy and their questions were not, ‘What can we do to keep you open?’ It was, ‘How capable are you and how much business can you handle?’ because they saw so much potential. It just sort of gave me a little bit of spark.”

That spark might be the most important part of the Work for Humanity coaching. These business owners are exhausted, many of them have laid off staff and are doing all the work themselves. They’re scared and stressed, and it’s hard to be creative and execute new plans when your head’s not in the game.

“Oh, it’s huge! That’s like 80%,” Lee said. “Making good, sound business decisions is hard when you’re so stressed and you can’t think straight.”

In retrospect, Lee wishes she had sought out business coaching before the pandemic as a way to expand and get a fresh perspective.

Gresham wants owners to stop wishing for things to go back to the way they were. She reminds people that the old system wasn’t working so well and small business owners were often exhausted and overwhelmed. Things weren’t perfect for their employees either. She urges small business owners to take advantage of their services.

“To just start getting people to feel like they can do something, that they’re not helpless,” Gresham said. “Things are not completely out of control. There are things that they can be doing.”

To inquire about a coaching session, fill out this form.

Listen to Rachel Belle’s James Beard Award nominated podcast, “Your Last Meal,” featuring celebrities like Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, Rainn Wilson, and Greta Gerwig. Follow @yourlastmealpodcast on Instagram!

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