How Small Business Owners Can Prepare for Tough Times

May 31, 2021
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Being a small business owner means always being flexible, able to pivot quickly, and willing to veer from the plan as needed. The COVID-19 pandemic certainly put those skills to the test this year, and my team at Provenance Meals was able to step up to the task and propel us forward. 

Before founding Provenance Meals, I was a certified holistic health coach in Brooklyn. I encouraged my clients to follow a simple elimination diet replacing processed and packaged foods with wholesome ingredients, and their overall health, vitality, and energy levels dramatically improved. But finding the ongoing time, motivation, and know-how to cook healthy meals at home—and sustain these life-changing benefits—was a challenge for most everyone I worked with, and I knew I could help. After finding this clear gap in the market, I launched Provenance Meals in 2012, making it easy for time-pressed humans to achieve their wellness goals, nourish their bodies, and replenish their spirits with 100% gluten-free, dairy-free, and refined sugar-free meals designed by wellness experts, and made from scratch with thoughtfully sourced, local ingredients.   

Launching Provenance Meals was not my first entrepreneurial venture—I invested my heart, soul, and just about all of my savings into a small gourmet market in 2016 that sold semi-prepared, organic meals to busy New Yorkers. Shortly after opening, my business partner decided that to back out of our business deal and sue for all of the money she had invested. It was an incredibly stressful time, and I went into a great deal of debt to buy her out, but I appreciate that the experience taught me valuable lessons that would help propel me to launch Provenance Meals.  

The biggest lesson I learned was to maintain a healthy cash reserve to stay afloat through unforeseen challenges. Since then, I have followed the “profit first” mentality, setting aside money for a small profit and taxes from our sales, and only then allowing myself to spend what was leftover to operate. I didn’t know anything about raising money or wooing investors when I opened my first business. As the daughter of immigrants, I was taught that to get ahead, you must work hard, spend frugally, and save money. Now I also know that you need to start with a business model and unit economics that work from the get-go, and you will be that much more prepared for emergencies in the future. 

This system is how I’ve been able to bootstrap Provenance Meals without relying on investor life support. We have been profitable since launch, with $0 raised until this year’s community-driven campaign on Republic, our first-ever fundraising effort (at 742% of the minimum goal), which allows for angel investors and Provenance Meals’ longtime community members to buy a stake in the company. Since our nationwide launch this spring, we’ve seen revenue increase 78% month over month. 

For small businesses looking to expand their brands during a time of uncertainty, here are some additional pieces of advice that have served me well over the years: 

React quickly and assertively in the short term.

But be aware of longer-term consequences. Right when COVID-19 hit New York City in the spring of 2020, we realized quickly we needed to pivot to meet our community’s changing needs (as many New Yorkers fled to second homes). We expanded our local courier zones in New York to include Connecticut, Westchester, and Long Island in order to follow our clients, and have seen demand soar in these regions. This led us to begin shipping nationwide and expand our offering to include new products. Because we’re now in a position to reach a larger audience and garner higher total revenue, we’re able to lower prices to make our products more accessible—our Daily Essentials program now starts at $52/day (originally $68).

Double down on your values.

Don’t be wishy-washy when it comes to why you do what you do. Your mission statement, your company’s core values, and your voice are your “North stars” in making business decisions. The more authentic you are about why you’re doing what you’re doing, the more you’ll love your business and the more you’ll attract customers. I see so many starting founders comparing themselves with other entrepreneurs. Truthfully, we’re all figuring it out as we go along! Stick to what makes your business uniquely your own and you’ll find success in your field. 

Celebrate your strengths.

A perfect company, strategy, or plan doesn’t exist, but what does exist is my own confidence in the future, which I pass on to my team. I like to think my perpetual optimism helps show everyone how bright the future can be and inspires my team to share the dream with me. That’s one of my strengths as a leader. What are yours? Celebrate your strengths and use them to your and your team’s advantage.

Balance is key.

As the founder, in many ways, you are the business. When you take care of yourself, you’re also taking care of your business. Having two young children when I first started Provenance, I had no choice but to prioritize my family. The process was a stressful juggling act at the time, but in retrospect, forced me to be fully present in my home life and separate my work life. Over the years, I’ve learned strategies to cope with the stress and holding the responsibility of my business and my staff’s livelihoods on my shoulders, with practicing presence and meditation at the top of the list.

Give back where you can.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed a lot of problems that already existed in the food industry, including the tremendous amount of food waste, the working conditions of farm and factory workers, the tenuous nature of the hospitality industry, how the way we grow and eat food affects global climate change, how representation matters, and the amount of food insecurity that exists in the United States. As Provenance Meals grew, we knew that we wanted to prioritize giving back to our community. We forged a nonprofit partnership with Kiss the Ground, underscoring our mission to support independent farmers and further provide widespread access to nutrient-dense ingredients. 

Founding and running my own business is a dream come true. I have so much pride in what my team and I have built, and feel like we’re only just getting started. Especially in challenging times such as these, I rely on our spirit and determination to further our mission to improve the health and lives of others through the power of (delicious) food as medicine.

About the Author: Caroll Lee launched Provenance Meals to make it easy for modern, time-pressed people to achieve their wellness goals, nourish their bodies, and replenish their spirits. Caroll believes nutrition is the bedrock for feeling good, performing well, and living a longer, happier life. She launched the meal program in 2012, and in eight successful years, Provenance Meals has amassed a dedicated community, including noteworthy fans like Naomi Watts, Taryn Toomey, and Rachel Brosnahan. The nourishing, anti-inflammatory food offerings are all 100% gluten-free, dairy-free, refined sugar-free, and composed of organic, local ingredients.

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