I am very concerned. We are hurtling towards an economic apocalypse.
Even if the lockdown ends in a few weeks, more nuanced restrictions will almost certainly be introduced and continue to stifle trade. Consumer confidence and spend will crumple in the wake of job losses and justifiable anxiety about successive outbreaks. Economists predict a contraction of 4% to 10%.
This isn't even the worst case scenario.
Most small business owners are not prepared for this crisis. How could they be? Even the 2008 sub-prime meltdown didn't result in a national lockdown. It was still possible to trade. That's a luxury most entrepreneurs have foregone.
However, my real concern is that many business owners are not taking this seriously enough. My overarching impression from conversations with dozens of them over the last few weeks is that most are treating this as an economic downturn instead of an armageddon.
It's impossible to survive without cash. However, your operating cash flows are unlikely to rebound very soon, and your odds of getting any relief funding aren't much better.
(Some emergency funding programs, like the Sukuma Relief Programme, have already suspended new applications due to an overwhelming backlog. And many of the government initiatives, like the Debt Relief Scheme, are a stagnant wasteland of ineptitude and a suspicious lack of clarity).
For many business owners, the only cash available for survival is the cash that they have right now. So my advice is simple and unapologetically brutal:
Suspend everything. Pay nothing.
Hoard as much cash as you can, for as long as you can.
The only exception to this rule is SARS and anyone else with the power to shut down your business literally overnight. Send everyone else a notice informing them that:
1. It has been impossible for your business to trade during the lockdown.
2. You must suspend all expenditure with immediate effect.
3. You will apply to all available relief schemes to settle your obligations.
4. You will resume normal operations as soon as practically possible.
Do not negotiate. Do not make any concessions.
I am fully aware of how distasteful and offensive this may sound. As business owners, we are not just financially invested, we are also emotionally invested. We care about our employees, suppliers, and trade partners.
However, my responsibility is not to your employees or your suppliers or your creditors.
My only responsibility is to you.
Please put your needs first. Please survive.
I need to clarify my advice because the last thing I would recommend is exploiting others for personal gain.
Both morally and legally, any obligations arising from pre-existing agreements must be settled. Anyone who has rendered services or goods for your benefit (be they employees, suppliers or creditors) must be paid.
What I do strongly recommend is suspending any future expenditure, unless it is absolutely essential to your survival.
This is obvious, but I am concerned that too many business owners are adopting half measures by ratcheting up their cost cutting in response to economic circumstances and delaying full measures until things get worse.
I am absolutely certain that things will get worse - much worse (I hope, of course that I am wrong). That is why I recommend taking full measures now so that you can stretch out your current cash reserves for as long as possible.