When the chips were down, some stepped up.
Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on the fortunes of very many small firms. For some the internet has provided a lifeline.
Whether they are retail shops providing click and collect services behind shuttered doors, or restaurants pivoting to home delivery, going online has enabled many to keep cash flow going.
But for a business owner, spotting an opportunity to trade online is only the start. They also need to know how to get found.
In August Google launched an initiative to help. It is providing support to up to 60,000 small firms across Ireland with a package of free digital-skills training and advertising credits.
Called Growth With Google, the package helps businesses learn how to navigate the online world effectively, providing them with the ability to reach new customers and service new markets, whether at home and abroad. The training also includes help with such challenges as running a team virtually, and provides access to free tools.
"We provide lots of supports for small businesses on an ongoing basis but when Covid arrived we felt we needed to do even more," says Alice Mansergh, director of small business at Google Ireland.
Its small business team’s remit is to help SMEs to get online and grow. “It has never been more important that they do so than now,” she explains.
Covid restrictions and work-from-home orders mean more potential customers than ever are at home, trying to keep in touch with loved ones, researching items such as gifts and ordering shopping online.
“It’s really important that Irish small businesses are there online too, to meet them,” she says.
Irish people want to buy from a domestic business but if one isn’t right there at the point of purchase, that money will go overseas instead.
When Covid-19 happened the first issue facing many businesses was around cash flow, she says. When money is tight it’s harder to find budget for activities such as training, or the costs involved in pivoting to a new service or market.
The Google support was designed to help. “We pledged to help 60,000 small businesses to recover by the end of 2021. A lot of them are nervous about online which is why we offered €4 million worth of training grants and free advertising,” says Mansergh.
The initiative was applied automatically to small business customers and required no arduous application process.
“It has been a really disruptive time but there have been moments of hope and join within that. I work with thousands of small businesses and one of the joys for me is that moment when they go online, looking to service their local area or existing clients, and then have that light bulb moment where they realise, ‘hey I can supply orders to the UK, to the US’. It throws the doors open to the world,” she says.
Very often the biggest barrier to going online is lack of confidence. “I hear it all the time. People say, ‘I’m not a techy person’. I tell them I’m not a techy person either, yet I work for Google. The fact is, you don’t have to be an engineer to go online.”
There are simple steps any small business can take in minutes to help, such as Googling their business to make sure their listing and details are correct and putting it on Google Maps.
There has never been a better time to do it. “We have seen a 40 per cent increase in searches for ‘how to support local businesses’ since the pandemic started,” says Mansergh.
Being ready to meet that demand isn’t just about having a website, it’s also about making sure it works well, that the things people most want to buy from you are obvious and that your shopping cart “works as it should do”, she says.
For that most people will use a web developer or an online platform such as Shopify to help.
“Once you’ve made sure it’s operating and easy to use, the next step is expansion,” says Mansergh. “That’s the fun bit, when people realise, whoa, I can promote this all over the world!”