Is 2020 The Worst Year Ever? No, 536 A.D. was. But running a business then wasn't much different.
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Think 2020 has been bad so far? Imagine living in 536 A.D.
According to this great summary by Ann Gibbons in Science mag, many experts consider that year to be one of the — if not the — worst years ever in recorded human history. Why? Turns out a volcanic eruption in Iceland created a cloud so large that it darkened the skies above Europe and Asia for months. As a result, temperatures dropped, snow fell during the summer, crops failed, famine spread and millions of people starved. To add insult to injury, historians believe that this massive change somehow caused bubonic plague, which would go on to eliminate almost half of the Eastern Roman Empire's population and hasten its collapse.
So don't complain about 2020. We've got Netflix. Besides, whether you lived through the challenges of 536 or 2020, owning a small business hasn't changed that much. That's because the basic principles of business ownership are timeless.
For example, those who saved, survived.
Despite the challenges, thousands of small businesses — farms, shops, taverns — did manage to survive 536 and the following years mainly because they were prudently run by tight fisted proprietors. They saved every penny and used whatever they could hide from the tax collector and whatever was left over after paying rents to reinvest in their businesses and put away cash to help them through tougher times. In 2020, I've seen plenty of over-stretched businesses fail in the wake of the pandemic. But others with resources, both cash and credit, are painfully weathering their way through these very challenging times and will ultimately move forward. I don't care whether it's 536 or 2020, cash is and always will be king.
In 536, just like 2020, knowledge meant income.
Those who knew how to farm had more of a chance of surviving than those who didn't. The proprietors who understood how to cook and make beer created products that sustained themselves and their families. Others knowledgeable in markets traded animals, produce and equipment. Artisans would make pottery, builders would build, bakers made bread, weavers created clothing, and blacksmiths would forge horseshoes, farming tools and furniture. Even those who could sing, tell jokes and entertain could charge the public and royal patrons for their services, and those that prospered in the professional classes — architects, attorneys, accountants, engineers — learned their trade through years of apprenticeships. All of these people had skills to sustain them. Unfortunately, those that did not acquire any skills were the ones with the fewest opportunities and the least amount of wealth. Are things much different today?
Cyclical economies created opportunities.
The pandemic of 2020, like the pandemics, wars and other disasters of the past, has devastated many businesses, but these types of events have also created opportunities. Today, there are innovative business owners prospering because they pivoted to sell more online, make protective equipment and perform other essential services. In 536, there were innovative business owners who provided food to the wealthy, forged weapons for armies, traded currencies and offered shelter to travelers and soldiers. The smart ones avoided those products less in demand (new farm equipment, fancy pottery, imported luxuries) and pivoted to others (knives, wool, beer, food, commodities) with potentially more profits. Like today, markets rose, fell…and then rose again.
Finally, and like today, those small businesses that didn't diversify suffered the consequences.
In 536, the giant corporations were the church and the crown. Small businesses that sold their products to those organizations prospered when times were good, but when church collections fell and kingdoms were overthrown, when invasions occurred, towns plundered, central authority declined and local tribes rose, those businesses oftentimes found themselves on the wrong side of history and without the customers and suppliers that had sustained them. Today, small businesses that sold only to certain industries, regions or specific larger customers and suppliers have found themselves facing similar problems. You can't put too many eggs in one basket. Not then. Not now.
Pandemics. Natural disasters. Economic downturns. It happened in 2020. It happened even worse in 536 A.D. Some things will never change. But one thing will always stay the same: the principles of running a small business. And besides, we've got Netflix.