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CC: Local first strengthens Arizona’s economy, builds up the community and enhances local business. How are you able to help where we are right now in the world?
KL: I think the secret is, we have to help small businesses think through challenges, come up with better solutions, cut costs and figure out how they are going to survive. Back in March, I sat down with my team…and drew out three different steps. They are triage, recovery and resiliency. When you’re a small business owner you are passionate about what you do. You have to really go in and sit down and have a heart to heart. If something really wasn’t working pre-Covid, I guarantee you it’s not going to be working right now. Sometimes that means letting go of something you really cared about. A piece of your business that you loved and that’s not an easy thing to do. So we’re part coach, part counselor in the triage phase. There are many tiers.
CC: Here we are towards the end of the year, and we’re still in it. Do you still have to pay attention to what you’ve drawn out, so it’s maybe we’re in the long run instead of the short run?
KL: One of the things I think is important to remember is that small business encompasses so many types of businesses. You have micro enterprises, but you also have completely different types of industries, and some of them are doing quite well. You’ve got manufacturing tech, even housing might be doing very well, whereas restaurant and retail and professional services that are really still struggling in this moment many months later. Everybody arrives at triage in a different way, and some hit recovery fairly quickly. We’ve certainly heard a lot of heartwarming stories about businesses that were able to pivot and come up with great, new ideas, and they were off and running. Some of them going all the way back to April. They reevaluated, pivoted and relaunched a new product or something that carried them forward. Many of them in the resiliency phase have reinvented themselves and are doing quite well. Others have scaled back and are managing and waiting for things to get better. I think a lot of our restaurants are in the resiliency phase, but looking at that recovery phase…There are still a lot of challenges coming everyday, and I think the key is remaining nimble, open to opportunity, don’t be too particular to any business model right now. Be willing to grab in a different direction and run at any given moment.
CC: What about embracing technology?
KL: That has been huge…We’re dealing with small Mom and Pops in rural Arizona that may or may not be computer savvy at all. The most successful stories we’re seeing are the ones who really embrace technology and completely shifted the way they do things. Touchless automation. We have retailers who are using existing technology like FaceTime for real time shopping experience. We’ve got Kid Stop Toys in Scottsdale for example. If you’re a toy retailer in 2020, you are an incredible retailer. Just that alone deserves celebration if you’ve made it this far. Now she’s working with all of her staff using their phones because their niche was personalized shopping. They know generations of families, and they are doing a great job utilizing technology. Other things people don’t think about is retailers now have a million ways people want to pay you. You’re used to walking in and using a credit card. Now we’re getting Venmo. Helping a small business owner on Globe Arizona is critical.
CC: As a leader in this time, you have to be in the present time. As a leader you have to look months and months ahead. You have to look into the middle of 2021 and to this time next year where you can be the greatest services to local businesses. Is that a fair point?
KL: I think that is a critical thing we’ve had to do. The leadership at Local First Arizona, staying present, mindful, nimble to the point that you made. How can we reinvent ourselves while we’re helping 3,500 businesses reinvent themselves? Where are we going to be in the middle of next summer when we know that some of our funding comes from municipalities that are going to be critical of budget cuts. We have money coming from foundations who may want to pivot and shift away from our work, which is preventive work, towards more immediate social services that are needed. We’ve had to look at reinventing ourselves as well. If you look at the budget we had originally put together for 2020 it’s actually comical. There’s not a single thing we did the way we thought we were going to do it. The increases in fees and contract work we’ve done has offset our down revenue. Planning ahead has been critical.
CC: As a leader, there’s a quote that I love from you, something about when you see something that’s unjust, something inside you is motivated and inspired to go out and change that. As a leader, how can you get that across to everyone in their own way? That can go a very long way whether you’re a boss or employee. How do you get that across to folks?
KL: I think it’s reminding people that they do have the power. Oftentimes, we forget. We are in a consumer driven economy, and we forget that it’s our driver seat, and we often hand it over. I remind people that your dollars sit in your pocket until you decide to spend them, and then they have a very loud voice. I take that concept and apply it to everything in your life. What you have to say and what you have to share actually matters. I think oftentimes people forget about the power we have to have a civil argument. Convince somebody who doesn’t think like you to think of something differently…You have to convince people that we don’t live in a free market society…Let’s have a real conversation about what small businesses do. When we as individual consumers make choices about how we are going to show up for our day, are we going to have civil conversations with people who don’t think like us? Are we going to spend our money in a way that thinks about advancing Arizona’s economy? Think about our children and our grandchildren and their opportunities? I think people will step up. Sometimes we become disconnected, and we think all of that as others, but it’s actually all of us.
…It is hard to take someone who is in the immediate crisis and help them think where they are going to be a year from now. The immediacy of the crisis can be overwhelming. Part of it is just going through that emotional piece with them and the realization that we aren’t going back to the normal we once knew. So what is the new normal going to look like and how are they going to put one foot in front of the other and get there?
CC: How important is it to have a diverse group of employees? Not just in numbers, but in thought.
KL: I think it’s essential. In this day and age, it needs to be a priority in every single business in America. There’s study after study showing that teams are more productive when they are diverse…You look at the lack of opportunity at the high school age to even expose kids to careers, and I think as communities we need to look at businesses, we need to ask ourselves the hard questions, and we need to make sure we have a diverse array of voices around the table to get us to the best possible answers.