Support for business

Expert advice for Sydney small businesses looking to adapt and innovate

We caught up with the producers of our Retail Innovation Program for their tips and advice for owners of hospitality and retail businesses in 2020.


Running a small business has never been a job for the faint of heart. The resilience of the small business community has been severely tested during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Across Australia and the world this year, small businesses have been forced to change their services and product offering fast in response to public health orders and shifting consumer behaviour.

“For many small business owners and retailers, their business often isn’t just a livelihood. It’s a way of life,” says Elisa-Marie Dumas, Head of Global Programs & Partners at Investible. “When all this went down many businesses went through significant trauma.”

Elisa-Marie and her team at Investible have an acute understanding of what Sydney small businesses have been experiencing in 2020. They have been with them at the coalface.

The Investible team guided 20 retail, hospitality and food businesses in our area during this tumultuous period through the City of Sydney’s second retail innovation program.

The program was 1 month into the 12-week program when the impacts of the pandemic really began to hit in March, forcing participants to rethink their business models at rapid speed. There were a wide range of businesses participating – from e-commerce businesses to high-end restaurants, boutique retailers, and even a physiotherapist. 

Elisa-Marie has over 20 years’ experience in business and has run hundreds of accelerator programs. She says while it is common for businesses to pivot their offering at some point in a coaching program, this crisis pushed program participants into an entrepreneurial mindset faster than ever before.

She estimates that 95% of this year's cohort, and alumni from the 2019 program, had to transform their businesses dramatically. In some cases, there were multiple ‘pivots’ within just a few weeks as they tried one thing after another to maintain the viability of their businesses through the lockdown and into the future.

The Retail Innovation Program is currently taking applications for the third cohort. Run over 12 weeks and at no cost to participants, the program empowers small business owners to adapt and innovate in the face of unprecedented change. Applications close on Friday 30 October.

We spoke to Elisa-Marie in May 2020 to gather her words of wisdom and advice for small businesses. We wanted to make them available to those in the wider community. While some restrictions have lifted for businesses and NSW, there are still challenges and her advice remains thoughtful and relevant.

It’s okay to feel scared or apprehensive about the future, but you’re not alone

Business owners put their heart and soul into what they’re doing, and it can be a lonely path she says.

Connecting with the small business community can make a difference to your health and wellbeing. She recommends looking for opportunities to connect with other retailers or small business owners in your local area, even if they run a different type of business to your own. 

“Community is the biggest asset of the retail innovation program but there are lots of opportunities out there on Facebook and LinkedIn especially to connect with like-minded business owners.” says Elisa-Marie.

Talking and sharing your experiences with like-minded people can go a long way in helping you through this time.

“The ability to get up and out and support others, I have found over many years this leads to nuggets of gold. When you have that kind of reciprocal engagement with communities where you add value and give support, you will receive the same in return.”

Embedded content:

Take real and visible steps to take care of your staff and customers

Apart from legally needing to comply with public health orders, it’s important to foster a sense that customers can trust you to look after their health and safety when engaging with your business. 

“If you need a quick way to create signage to remind staff and customers, Canva is a great tool to use,” says Elisa-Marie. “They’ve created a range of Covid-19 templates for businesses to use, with information from the World Health Organisation.” 

Keep an eye on the NSW Government Covid-Safe business pages for latest updates and advice.

Be open to doing things differently

Some of the short-term changes businesses had to make felt uncomfortable as they have struggled with the idea that it is ‘off-brand’. Elisa-Marie gives the example of fine dining restaurants who moved to takeaway and struggled with the transition.

Investible has been advising businesses they mentor that whatever they need to do to keep their businesses alive is the right decision.

‘We try to encourage retailers to think more like ‘entrepreneurs’ and be willing to consider making significant changes to your business model, should you find your current business is not sustainable. It’s one of those environments where you have permission to fail forward. Do not be wedded to your businesses as it was.”

“Your customer is different now and the world is different now. You need to have a plan A, plan B, and plan C etc. What may work to support businesses keeping the lights on in the short term may not be the business model that will work for that same businesses in the long term.” 

Elisa-Marie says that many businesses have had to pivot multiple times this year, trying one thing after another, and she says consumers aren’t going to judge you for it.

“If ever there was a time to experiment and test new ideas, explore the next direction of the business or a new product, now is the time. You have absolute permission.”

Kate Fellowes from Saint John Espresso took part in the first program in 2019.
Kate Fellowes from Saint John Espresso took part in the first program in 2019.

Get serious about cash flow

“Cash is king. Right now, it’s all about extending your ‘runway’ or the length of time your business can continue with your current revenue and expenditures,” says Elisa-Marie. 

There are a number of ways to improve your cash position in the short term she says, such as auditing your costs, reducing unnecessary spending, asking suppliers for longer payment terms or temporarily freezing training and development measures, she says. 

“If you have stock that you need to move look for opportunities to host sales events. People will be looking for a deal,” she says.

Some have also have to make a very difficult decision to reduce staffing. “Use this time as an opportunity to rationalise your cost base or think about how you might be able to use new technology to make your business more scalable or efficient,” she says. 

Embedded content:

Test and validate new ideas

While you may have a new idea you want to try, the key to launching a new direction, product or service for your business is validating the idea says Elisa-Marie.

“Focus on gathering feedback from your customers so that you can start to test your assumptions and potentially even discover new ways of working or operating.”

She says this is where the business community can also play a part. The participants of the retail innovation program sought feedback on new products from others within the group and even trialled different shipping services as a collective. “They chose 5 different shippers and sent the goods to each other to see which ones turned up in good condition, and which ones were damaged or destroyed.” She said it allowed them to de-risk new systems and processes before launching to consumers. 

“The hospitality participants in our program also have a WhatsApp group where they share info on things like the best point of sale systems, different interfaces and technologies and which apps are better for preordering food.”

Consider long-term consumer behaviour changes now

Elisa-Marie predicts that even with restrictions on businesses loosening, the impacts of this pandemic period on consumer behaviour will be longlasting. 

Some of the shift in behaviours following the global financial crisis in 2008 might give us a sense of what to expect.

Increased economic stress will lead to a renewed focus on value for money. "They will be looking for deals," she says.

“We also saw a 4-year e-commerce boom following the global financial crisis because buying behaviours changed. People who can start to develop some different online channels are really going to thrive.”

“We’re also seeing physical businesses move entirely online. Customers today were already moving in this direction across many industries, with more expecting multi-channel experiences – starting their shopping on one channel, such as their mobile phone and then ending on another, such as a desktop or in-person as well as mixed retail experiences.”  

She says there also will be a real desire to connect emotionally with brands. 

2019 retail innovation program participant Courtesy of the Artist is an example of a bricks and mortar business that has benefited from investment in online channels and building connection with customers.

Before the program, the owners of the contemporary jewellery gallery had their doubts as to how their specialised customer experience would translate to an online context, says Elisa-Marie. Business owner Nina Cueva did weekly Instagram videos during lockdown, sharing the stories of artists and designs from her home, and online sales spiked. 

Remember to take care of yourself

Elisa-Marie says she has witnessed many tears, and small businesses owners experiencing a raft of emotions.

“This is an incredibly stressful time, so acknowledge that and try to find time, even if it’s just a few minutes, to step back to refocus. You can’t pour from an empty glass.

There is mental health support available. BeyondBlue has put together some information specifically for business owners.

Register your interest for the next Retail Innovation Program. Places are limited, registrations close Friday 30 October. There is a free information session from 1pm until 2pm on Wednesday 28 October.

Published 18 May 2020, updated 29 February 2024