A letter from a frustrated business owner…
Yesterday I woke up to hear the Taoiseach on the radio threaten 6 month lockdowns but telling us it will be ok because the government have budgeted for it. Today I woke up to an article on the RTE website, citing this government help as being one of the main reasons business have not folded in the last 12 months. I feel like I am at my wits end with things at the moment and this barrage of false platitudes are infuriating.
To say I am frustrated and disillusioned is an understatement and running a small business during this time – when I don’t qualify for any of these payments, is even more galling. So I wrote the author a longwinded email…
I’m just following up on your article published on the RTE website today, asking why more businesses are not failing due to the pandemic. As someone that runs a (very) small business, I have a few insights that I feel you may have overlooked.
For background – I own a small private gym (so hopefully this will not immediately discredit any of my observations) and have been in business for the past 9 years. 2019 saw my largest grossing year and up until March 2020, that year was looking to be even more profitable. Then we all know what happened next…
As recently as yesterday I was listening to our Taoiseach on the radio once again drop hints and insinuate that we will be in strict lockdown until the summer – our leaders being as slow as ever to commit to any plan and letting the public join the dots.
Quite frankly, I am getting to a stage where the walls are closing in. When this all started, I was just trying to get to the end of the month, then the end of the week and now it feels like my main aim is to get to bed at the end of the day in one piece. Mr. Martin was assuring listeners that things would be ok because the government had budgeted for this, which returns to one of the main observations in your article, around government payments.
I am not as educated as yourself in matters of business but I feel like I do not have the bandwidth to think about the knock on effect of the ECB printing more money and that is just a huge problem that we will have to deal with after we somehow come out of our current situation.
This brings me back to the point of the pandemic unemployment payments and various other payments and benefits being vaunted as a solution and a reason for those in power to pat each other on the back. In my case I have been unable to access any payments…
More background. I am a sole trader and I have had to move back home with my parents at 39 (now 40) years of age. I am in the process of buying the premises where my business resides – I have had to go through 3 rounds of ‘proof of earnings’ and applications in the past 9 months – I have paid my 30% deposit, 7.5% stamp duty and numerous legal fees and the process has still not being completed, as presumably the banks are employing the same strategy as the government – put everything on the long finger. I also found out quickly that one needs more than 10% for a commercial deposit, so I will be living with my parents for a while yet – just another undocumented sacrifice that business owners make to stay afloat.
Most help being offered to small businesses by the government required a loss of earnings of 25% or more on the previous year. As someone that has unfortunately made it a speciality of ‘slipping through the cracks’ of opportunity (I missed out on the fruits of the Celtic Tiger, I didn’t know what SSIA schemes were, but thankfully I didn’t know about eircom shares…) I do not qualify for any help as I worked relentlessly to see a drop of 9% on 2019’s gross earnings.
I am of a cynical disposition and I felt that if I put my hand out for any help, it would bite me down the line some where. Sure enough AIB was the first bank to have their position known that people benefiting from PUPs or any Covid relief payments would have a mark against their name for mortgage applications – not the great bank publicity that you mentioned. I am a big believer in the saying, ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch’.
Another observation which is harder to quantify, well, a couple ofthings actually…
It was stated that insolvency was up by just 1% on a year earlier – or down 10.7%, depending on where you get the statistics (a bit of wiggle room in that range). 2020 obviously brought incredibly difficult and new challenges. For anyone with skin in the game (actually running a business) it was / is a frightening time.
For me initially, there was a huge surge of adrenaline with that fright. In terms of making things succeed, I work from literally the first five minutes of waking up, to bed time. I pivoted hard to move everything online and threw my entire being into making sure I could sustain my income – as I knew I would have to show proof of earnings to a bank in order to get a business loan / mortgage to buy my premises.
I have friends in similar situations – mostly in the service industry (fellow gym owners and restaurateurs) and I get to see how others are coping and adapting within the constantly changing landscape.
When one is on the front lines, it is not a mystery as to why more businesses are not failing – there has been an unbelievable amount of blood, sweat and tears being shed. Our businesses are an extension of our being and much like a dying family member we are fighting tooth and nail and doing everything within our power to keep them alive – tasks that fall outside of textbooks or staticians’ cold observations.
We all feel worn out and we certainly do not feel helped by those in power making ambiguous statements and veiled warnings of closures up until at least the summer, while telling us everything will be ok because we can make our tax returns a few weeks later.
I also have numerous stories of commercial landlords putting the squeeze on tenants and showing no sympathy to tenants already under enormous pressure. I feel to talk more about this is to get side tracked but as landlords were mentioned and that is an added pressure for numerous small businesses to contend with.
Personally my life has been put on hold – as has so many others. I work for most of my waking minutes and I sleep when my mind allows. I have become used to delaying instant gratification for the promise of some further down the road and in many ways I feel like I am part of a missed generation – too young to get my 110% Celtic Tiger packaged mortgage but I get to pay for those that did, and I am going through that again with the current situation.
A lot of those intangible qualities that make business so great –particularly small family run businesses, have been overlooked here but maybe this is not the target demographic for such an article (it just popped up on my news feed). There are more reasons for success than a government hand-me-down… the ingenuity, the creativity, the drive, the fear, the ‘back against the wall’, the fight, the heart, the desperation are just some more of the harder to quantify attributes as to why small businesses are still surviving.
It is galling to me that the government are championing payments as being the reason for a success when they are nothing more than a band aid trying to stem a deep wound. As we all fight our way desperately through and out the other side of this situation, no doubt Mr. Martin will be congratulating himself and taking credit for the hard work done by others.
There are small business owners all over the country that are throwing everything they have into what they have built over the years. Life savings being spent in order to keep things afloat. Maybe more businesses would have conceded defeat in 2020 but with this new challenge came a different dynamic and as mentioned previously a landscape. We had no previous pandemic experience or ‘game plan’ to draw on, so we ventured forward into the unknown, initially thinking this might only take a couple of months – and here we are nearly 12 months later, still fighting.
So while the bigger firms are basking in the euphoria of ‘peace, love and understanding’ passed down by the government – the rest of us small business owners are waking up each morning wondering which fire we need to put out today, feeling lost and alone, working more than double the amount this time last year just to stem the bleeding of earnings and income – and hoping we can make it to the finish line for when restrictions do ease.
Maybe some of that peace, love and understanding will trickle down to my small pond by the time this is all over but the cynic inside of me believes that by then I will be paying the price for some other government decision I had no hand in. For now it is getting to the end of the day in one piece.
My gripe was not with Will, who wrote the initial article but a frustration that my cohort of business owners, who do not meet the criteria for this ‘solve-all’ government handout are being forgotten and left to fend for themselves against increasing odds and ambiguity around timeframes and strategies to get out of this situation.
To his credit, Will did take the time to respond to me and although nothing will probably come of it, it gave me the slightest shed of relief to see that business owners like mine have been acknowledged but in the meantime, we fight on.
Here was his reply…
Thanks for your email. First, I’m sorry you are going through what you are going through at the moment. I can’t imagine what it is like for anyone trying to steer their own business through the pandemic, particularly those who are badly impacted by the restrictions.
You make some good points in your message. We’ve been trying to reflect the fact that some businesses are not able to access the Government supports and I did a series of reports on this on Friday. I noted that the Tanaiste said in the Sunday Business Post today that the Government is looking at providing new supports to those who fall outside the scope of CRSS etc. Hopefully that will come to pass and help people like you.
In my online article today I should have reflected your point that many businesses have so far survived through grit, determination, and innovation. There is no doubt that many firms have shown amazing resilience.
I also understand that not every business will experience forbearance and understanding from banks and other creditors, which is unfortunate.
I wish you all the best over the coming months. Hopefully it will all be over for us all soon and the recovery will be strong.