July 28th, 2020
Melissa Tompkins, BS, CVPM, PHRca, CCFP
COVID-19 has changed how we do things. The phrase “social distancing” and “sheltering in place” did not exist before March 2020. Our world is vastly different, and the change has affected everyone. From hospital workers, to teachers, to flight attendants, to restaurant servers, everyone has been impacted. No one knows this more than small business owners, the impact on them has been significant. Thousands of business have closed down, people worked their entire lives for their dream, and it is now gone.
I created a “small business spotlight” to talk about the effects of the pandemic on a personal level. I am interviewing a business owner or leader in a small company, to hear the stories of how they got started and how they are “surviving” the COVID-19 crisis
This week, I spoke with Rhonda Bell, CVPM, CCFP, Master Life Coach and owner of Dog Days Consulting a social media consulting company.
Rhonda opened her company in January 2017 but did not actively start operating it in until 2018. When I asked her why she had a delay she told me something very personal. In 2017, Rhonda was diagnosed with Scleroderma which is an incurable autoimmune disease. It is a disease that can cause hardening of the skin and other forms of connective tissue. Unfortunately, one of the parts of the body that can be affected is the lungs, which is scary today. Rhonda told me right when she had “the great idea to start a business, she got sick and it took some time to recover.” She also had to adjust to the medications, what the testing would be like, what her life would be like, and realize that she could still open a business and make it successful. So, she had a little bit of a lag, but she got through it and was able to officially start her business.
When we discussed her qualifications, she talked about being a veterinary practice manager and using those skills to help her build her business. “Technically there’s nothing required.” “I mean, like a lot of business owners, you can start a business any day of the week and you don’t have any requirements.” Since she is a CVPM (Certified Veterinary Practice Manager), has been in the veterinary industry for about 15 years, she put all those things together and started a business. She knew that she could not manage a veterinary hospital with her disease, but she was not done working. “I wanted to still serve in the veterinary world and find a way to make a living at it.”
In a nutshell, Rhonda became a social media manager. She works with small businesses, primarily veterinary, but not always. She manages their social media presence. She is the one that is posting the Facebook posts, YouTube videos, and Instagram pictures for businesses as though the business was doing it themselves. She works closely with the businesses, so they know what she is doing. Together they plan out a marketing strategy, an agenda and work to accomplish the goals that they have set. The focus is generally on good communication with their client base.
When I asked her if it was hard to be a small business owner she said “yes and no.” “My husband and I were talking about planning a vacation and that’s when it really hit me, that it’s like even if you go on vacation, you don’t really ever get to go on vacation because it’s always your business.” She feels that the one of the biggest challenges is turning it off and “finding that balance, the work-life balance.” For most people if they have a regular job, they can tell their boss, “no, I’m not going to work on weekends,” or “I want to be off this weekend.” “Well, when you’re a business owner, you don’t get to do that.”
I asked her what her biggest concern for her business was, and before COVID it was growing and maintaining her clients. She thought “oh crud, if I get more clients, how am I going to support more clients?” “It is maintaining that growth to sustainability ratio, just making sure that I never want to take on something I can’t do and that I can’t do 110%.” She must make sure she can commit fully to any client she is referred and make sure they are a good fit for each other.
But then COVID-19, happened and everything changed. In late March when many veterinary hospitals saw a huge drop in business, she became concerned. What if all her clients called and said “hey, we can’t afford you because we’re not seeing our clients, that’s it.” It was scary for her to think about how long it would take to regain or rebuild those clients. “In the end, I was extremely blessed that I didn’t lose any.” “In fact, I gained some clients through COVID-19.”
Rhonda saw an opportunity and maybe even “a blessing in disguise” because her clients began to see how valuable social media could be in communicating with pet owners. She knew that when she opened her business that social media was important. However, many veterinary hospitals were not utilizing appropriately, or at all. She realized that if she had not opened her business in 2017, she would not be in the position to help hospitals in 2020 deal with this new crisis. She is able to help veterinary hospitals use social media better. “It’s been very humbling, but also stressful, a lot of work.”
While Rhonda’s business got busier during the early weeks of the pandemic in the US, she noticed with most of her veterinary clients immediately took a revenue hit. Many pet owners were concerned about money and not bringing their pets into the hospital. Rhonda chose to significantly reduce her client’s bills for one month during that timeframe to help them. She knew they had to pick and choose the bills they were going to pay, and she wanted to make that easier for them. She basically just covered her costs and kept on going. In many cases when she spoke with the practice owner, she was one of the one of the expenses they elected to keep. “That was extremely humbling for me,” Rhonda said. She made sure that her clients did not have any lapse in communication with their pet owners. “Their clients still knew what was happening, they knew that hospitals were open, active and things were normal. Despite the fact that things were not actually normal.”
Rhonda had to come up with a new strategy as a result of COVID-19. In January 2020, preparing for her company’s growth, she had brought people on her team to help her. By mid-March, “COVID was full blown, and we had to re-evaluate our strategies.” Rhonda had to help her hospitals determine what information to give their clients and how frequently. “How often are we going do this?” “Because everyone wanted to know everything and everyone wanted to be an authority, but there can also be that COVID whiplash or that COVID fatigue where it’s too much.” “Now you don’t hear it anymore, you are kind of nose blind to it.” “You don’t see or smell it anymore because it’s just too much.” She had to readjust some of their branding strategies, their education strategies, and creating the balance between the types of posts she was going to put out for her clients. Now there are lot less posts about COVID-19, clients are used to the hospitals protocols and Rhonda can focus on the more “normal” part of social media.
Rhonda loves her job. “I like helping small businesses.” “I like seeing that when we create communication, when we have clients on the other side of that, or our audience is actually responding to the stuff that we’re doing, I get a real charge out of that.” When she sees that they have created something that is meaningful or sweet and it gets shared, it means that it was impactful for that person. The veterinary hospital gets to directly benefit from that communication. “I just like being in a position to help small businesses do a little bit better.” “I think these big guys, the big companies and the corporations, they get a lot more help.” “They have a lot of marketing dollars back there and us little guys don’t.” She believes that small businesses need to support one another. “I try to buy from small business.” “I try to put my money where my mouth is.”
Rhonda wishes that small business owners would have better resources that were easier to access. When the lockdowns started, many small business were shut down with no immediate help. When congress authorized the Paycheck Protection Program through the Small Business Administration to provide assistance, the information was convoluted and unclear. “What money is available, what’s not available?” “How are we affected?” “How are we not affected?” Rhonda expressed the frustration that a lot of small businesses were feeling trying to figure this out. “I don’t have a bank of lawyers.” “I don’t have a bank of accountants to guide me every step I take, It’s me.” We need better resources that are easier to navigate, read, and understand.”
Rhonda also wishes the were more resources and explanations provided by the law makers themselves, so that businesses could have an idea of what any of the potential pitfalls might be. Many of the laws were being created and passed so quickly without any clear explanation of the intent of the law. “That’s scary stuff.” “You get a lifeline, it’s a desperate scary time, you fear for your business and your employees and their families, but this lifeline may cost you BIG TIME in the end.” Small businesses may not be able to recover from those types of consequences.
When I asked Rhonda if she would do it all over again. She said, “I would.” “I would definitely do it all over again.” She is not sure if she would do it differently, “I had a plan for my business, but I didn’t really know what it would turn into” “Did I think I would be here three years ago?” “No.” Now, she not only has veterinary clients, but other local organizations in Floresville, TX where she resides, also use her business to run their social media. She is helping candidates who are running for office with their campaigns. She also has a therapy organization who wants her help to get the word out about their therapy work. “It really has blossomed into bigger and more than I thought it would.” “You just never know where the direction is going to go with your business and just putting yourself in the right place at the right time and being open to the right opportunities.”
She has servant heart and wants to help small businesses succeed. “I think that’s how we’re going to turn our economy around.” “I think that’s how we’re going to survive as a society is the Mom-and-Pop little guy.” “We have to stay in there.”
When asked what advice she would give for anyone starting their own business she responded “if you think, if you’ve even gotten to the point where you’re considering it, it’s probably a good idea and you should give it a shot.” “Go with your gut, follow your gut, work hard, and see what happens.”
I responded with “don’t fail before you even start”
About the author,
Melissa Tompkins, BS, CVPM, PHRca, CCFP is a small business owner working as a veterinary management consultant in Southern California. Her company South Coast Veterinary Management Solutions focuses on helping veterinary hospitals, practice owners, and their team members.