6 Ways Veteran Small Business Owners Can Mentally Weather Any Storm

Rob McLaughlin is a veteran and entrepreneur in Philadelphia. (HD Dog Training)

While the first few months of 2020 have been a tough time for most small-business owners, the truth is that most small businesses go through peaks and valleys.

For anyone who puts their heart and soul into a business that becomes their livelihood, those valleys can get pretty low and pretty dark, pretty fast.

So while the Great Cessation of 2020 is unlike anything entrepreneurs have ever experienced, it's good practice to mentally prepare oneself for any eventuality that could threaten a business. Whether it's a product or a service, entirely virtual or operating out of a brick-and-mortar establishment, this will not be the only tough time to get through.

Robert McLaughlin is a small-business owner and a disabled Air Force veteran who served from 2007 to 2012. He now runs a number of businesses from his home in Philadelphia, most notably HD Dog Services, a canine training and care company he started in 2015 while attending school.

The brutal landscape created by the novel coronavirus has hit him as hard as anyone else, but you still hear a hint of humor in every word he says.

"I launched two companies last year, and it's been a rough patch but I'm doing everything I can," McLaughlin said. "I just try to tell people you can still find mental health in this environment. I would never have had the ideas to open these other businesses without first having [the] dog business."

McLaughlin isn't worried about the days ahead, regardless of COVID-19 or whatever else the world might throw his way, and he wants to offer advice to others in his position. Despite being Rated Best of Philadelphia in 2018, his business is struggling, just like so many others. Here's what he does about it.

1. Put in a Hard Day's Work

When McLaughlin doesn't have a dog to train, he's not sitting at home doing nothing. He's still networking, going back to the principal foundations of small-business marketing that made him a success. He's reaching out to people on Instagram, fishing for big clients and thinking about the next phase for his business.

"I just network like crazy," he said. "You never know, if someone got a brand new puppy before the quarantine, they might need someone to help them with it. You have to understand the markets at hand and have the confidence to reach out."

2. Think Like an Entrepreneur

It takes guts and hard work to go into business for oneself. Did those guts and that work ethic go away just because more people are staying at home? It doesn't mean it's time to pack up and find a job; maybe it's time to just roll into a different business.

McLaughlin started two new businesses this year. One is an offshoot of his pet training company, but the other provides business startup advice to fellow Philadelphians, as well as marketing and sales services -- all experience he gained while starting his first business.

"I hadn't done too much with HD Business Solutions until now," he says. "It's been sitting around ... but with everyone trying to figure out new ways to make money, I've made myself available to train new people, act as a think tank or just get someone started."

3. Make the Next Step

It might make sense for a company to fold during the quarantine, but that doesn't mean it has to be permanent. Some companies might even consider using this time to create the next step in scaling up their business.

Maybe a coffee shop has wanted to make renovations or change its look but couldn't afford to miss revenues to make those changes. Maybe some equipment needed vital repairs. There could be any number of reasons to hold off on making improvements -- improvements that would have halted a business.

McLaughlin had been waiting to create an online dog training college based on the solutions he uses in his everyday business. He's using this time to figure out a business plan and how to raise capital.

"I keep telling everybody this is the business renaissance time frame," he says. "You're going to figure it out or you're not, but we'll see who's still standing when this is all over. ... The people who didn't stay under a blanket at home are probably coming out on top."

4. Adapt to Survive

The current value of time is likely much different than it was six months ago. McLaughlin said you shouldn't be too rigid with personal standards. Some may even find the new ways work better than the old.

In short, it's time to survive and don't be afraid to fail if you learn a good lesson from it.

McLaughlin has totally revised his pricing to make training more affordable for more people. In the end, he brings home the same amount for the same number of hours. It even afforded him the ability to run his business without traveling to locations, saving even more money.

"It does leave me exposed because I'm not there to physically show people the way to correct the way to do things," he cautioned. "But, you know, it's really fun because I don't look at things as if I'm going to fail or if I'm worried about a bad review."

5. Figure Out Your Strengths

If a business model isn't doing well in the face of an economic downturn, McLaughlin recommends that people go back to Square One and decide what they love and what they're good at -- something that might be a sustainable business in the short term.

"Everyone specializes in something," he said. "I try to tell people that all the time. Even if you're only good at posting photos to Instagram, you can still make money. Bankers are freaking out right now, but have they tried offering financial advisory services on the side? I can give you three ideas right away, depending on what you do."

6. Freak Out Early

If it's time to have a breakdown, don't hold it in. Let it go. Get it out early and move on. Once the fear of failure and freak-out passes, the entrepreneurial spirit can take over and guide people into greener pastures.

"I would never tell someone to calm down," McLaughlin said. "I would actually encourage the opposite. Get it out of your system. Make it quick and then immediately get online, get your ass moving and start looking at resources and what options you have."

This may mean you have to shutter your business temporarily, but it will keep you from taking deeper losses. No one should risk their personal lives and finances to try to keep a failing business afloat.

Besides, you can always revisit that business when the market recovers.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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