As I sit down to write about my experiences as a small business owner trying to keep the “doors open” during a worldwide pandemic, vaccines are rolling out and spring is here. Finally, there seems to be a spirit of hope for the future, but it’s not lost on me the terrible toll COVID-19 has taken on so many, and the personal and professional losses individuals, families, and communities have endured.
What follows is my journey through the toughest year in business I’ve experienced. I learned a lot about myself, my team, and the world around me, and I hope that some of this is interesting, relatable, maybe even helpful to others.
First Signs of Trouble
“Has anyone canceled their gala?” was the question posed to me during a conference call with a client on March 9, 2020. At the time, it wasn’t something I even considered — although, we were all aware of news coverage of a new virus on the rise. Eight days later, restaurants closed, and soon after, Massachusetts was on lock down, per Governor Baker’s statewide mandate. The myriad video production projects we had in the pipeline, many related to spring events and galas, were suddenly on hold or canceled.
For background, I started Last Minute Productions (LMP) in my basement in 2005. Since those humble beginnings with crazy hours and sleepless nights, I’ve split the ownership three ways with longtime journalist/reporter Gary Gillis and seasoned national producer Jim Johnston.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, we were still small but mighty, with steady projects and a growing client list that we nimbly served as a company of six: three co-owners, two editors, and a client services/production manager.
The client that asked us about canceled galas informed us that they were “going virtual,” and invited us to bid for the project; the scope had changed. Traditionally, for a gala/fundraising event, nonprofits hire a company to run the audio/visual components, making sure the presenters are seen and heard. Then, they bring on a company like ours to produce documentary-style videos that inspire attendees to donate. That separation of duties was gone. Our client wanted us to produce the event, all the videos, and stream it via the web to their audience. We needed to pivot quickly and meet this moment.
In our office, we have more than 100 years of combined experiences working in television production, so our proposal positioned their gala event as a television program/special. It was a bold approach, but the client was unsure if we could deliver on the streaming of it. We lost the job.
To use a sports analogy, I knew we needed to be strong on both sides of the ball –both the creative content and streaming execution. I was just starting to understand how to use Zoom video conferencing, but I needed to become an expert in streaming equipment, procedures, and related platforms as quickly as possible.
It also became clear that because I had always been engrossed in working in our business instead of working on our business that LMP was now facing a new reality that we might not make payroll. We were owed over $100,000 to be billed over 45 days, and not sure, given the state of the world, how willing companies would be to pay a small vendor like us. We looked at where we could save costs quickly. Our website was old and was being redesigned. We stopped that process.
Around the same time, the governor declared non-essential companies needed to stay out of their offices. I realized I would need to lean on my staff more than I’d ever done before. Luckily, our team was already set up to work from home. Our editors have young children; a sick child or a snow day could mean they would need to stay home, so we had a long-standing practice of keeping their home computers up to par with the ones they use at work.
While our work-from-home technology was good (score one for us!), we needed to rethink our team meetings or lack thereof. Our impromptu lunch gatherings where we would grab sushi and talk wouldn’t work now, so we became a bit more formal.
Once a week we would hold a Zoom meeting. Gary, Jim, and I would discuss the agenda prior to the meeting with a goal of keeping everyone up to speed on what business was coming in, billing and payments, and our plans moving forward; PPP loan application and virtual events were also two hot topics.
Looking back, I remember how uncertain March and April were last year; little was known about COVID-19 and just going to the supermarket seemed like a strange, risk-taking experience. I felt like Lieutenant Dan in the film “Forrest Gump” when he and Gump are in the middle of a hurricane and he’s yelling at God, “You call this a storm!”
I wanted us to be the last shrimp boat in the bay.
Keeping Busy, Reaching Out, Staying Relevant
We kept paying everyone — employees and vendors — and praying for the PPP loan. With no new work coming in, we focused on collecting what was owed and providing help where we could.
First, we offered free crisis communication videos to all of our clients — we knew they were scrambling to find ways to reach their employees. We also created a series of free educational and timely videos that we pushed out on social media:
The videos received more than 1,000 views, and our local Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce office shared the content on their website.
Then, we turned to Boston’s medical community. We had always done a lot of work with area hospitals and had gotten to know many of the staff. We knew they were sacrificing a lot to care for COVID-19 patients, so we reached out to every hospital in the Boston area and offered to produce a video that would recognize their staff and help keep their spirits up. We used the photos they were posting on social media and cut them to music. Tufts Medical Center even reached out to musician Adam Ezra and received permission for us to use his song “I Believe” for their video.
A couple of months later, in May, paid projects started coming in again. Colleagues in our network reached out to us about virtual events. Former WCVB anchor Susan Wornick, who has been a dear friend for many years and has hosted many nonprofit galas, recommended us so much that it is not an exaggeration to say she was our “sales person of the year” in 2020. Ken London, a longtime area producer, teamed up with us to bring a number of graduations and events into the virtual world. Local public relations and event companies also introduced us to clients who needed video and streaming support. To help with incoming projects and workflow, we brought on a streaming consultant. In the first half of 2020 we made one-fourth of our annual gross sales. Thanks to Susan’s referrals, referrals from our network, and our expansion into virtual/live events, we surpassed our year-end budget goal by the end of 2020. I cannot say enough about the LMP team during this challenging time. Their commitment to our clients and to each other to stay positive, creative, and productive was critical – not only to getting us through weeks of uncertainty, but in helping us to work smarter going forward. As the forementioned Adam Ezra once wrote, “I’m nothing without everyone. Yeah I’ll be keepin’ on.”