BizX founder Bob Bagga launched his Bellevue-based bartering currency company in the chaotic aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. He sees parallels with the fear now gripping the local business community.
With businesses of all sizes staggered by the COVID-19 novel coronavirus pandemic, Bagga is gathering ideas and resources to help keep them afloat. He reached out last Wednesday to Aaron Blank, CEO of The Fearey Group public relations firm, and they’ve started a “Business Saving Business” movement to bring together local business owners with advice and innovation ideas for weathering the crisis and beyond.
“We have all faced crises in our business before, but this is one of those times when we’re not alone’’ Bagga said, adding he didn’t know Blank before this. “It’s everybody locally, regionally, nationally and globally. No business large or small can escape the impacts of this. We’re all in this together.’’
One of Fearey Group CEO Blank’s first ideas was launching a “Corona: SEATTLE Business Owners Fight Back!’’ private Facebook group for local business owners. By Tuesday afternoon, it had nearly 700 approved members, and the pair has now — with the help of broadcast veteran-turned-communications consultant Josh Kerns — launched a likeminded “We got this SEATTLE!’’ daily podcast.
Bagga’s company handles $100 million in annual bartering by more than 7,000 small and midsized businesses — several of which phoned him in a panic last week about what to do in the wake of widespread shutdowns. Blank heard it as well from corporate clients worried their larger businesses could go under.
“This gives us an opportunity to chat and share worries with each other in real time,’’ Blank said. “But more particularly, if there’s a business that’s about to fold, how do we help them on their last legs? How do we help with new ideas on shifting real fast to other business models?’’
Business owners posting to the Facebook group have offered free services — everything from corporate videos to vehicle marketing wraps — as well as ideas on transforming from brick-and-mortar entities into virtual ones.
Blank helped a chef who’d lost her business work on offering virtual cooking classes to Fearey Group employees as a corporate team-building exercise, with Amazon Prime delivering the needed groceries. A gym owner worried about losing his business is now planning weekly virtual yoga and meditation classes for Blank’s employees.
“It’s about how do we as businesses think differently and also support each other?’’ Blank said. “That’s the intent of the group. How to support and counsel and mentor and motivate and innovate so that it’s not just doom and gloom.’’
There has been plenty of gloom on the Facebook group, heightening the sense of urgency. A veteran local caterer posted last Friday about having to lay off her entire staff after 45 upcoming events were canceled.
“Locked the kitchen door and walked out with a heavy heart,’’ she wrote.
Blank said once things normalize again — whenever that may be — the idea will be for the group to try to get that catering business and others back on their financial feet.
Another group member, Gravity Payments CEO Dan Price, on Friday posted economic data from his credit card processing company detailing the impact on local businesses and foreshadowing what’s to come. Price wrote that total revenue from all Washington businesses was down 10 percent in just a few weeks; with hotels off 56 percent, and restaurants and bars down 29 percent and 20 percent, respectively — even before this week’s shutdowns.
“That’s pretty staggering,’’ Price said in an interview this week, adding the full extent of declines is probably worse because his company doesn’t track cash transactions. “And then, thinking through the potential effects of people being laid off or not having work to support themselves … it’s the cascading effects we haven’t fully seen yet.’’
Price said he posted the data so “policy makers can make better decisions’’ on recovery assistance.
Another poster compiled a Google document of immediate support resources: everything from job postings to unemployment assistance channels, bill payment relief, utility discounts and paid sick leave information.
Facebook is now tracking the group and sharing it with users to build community momentum. The company has announced a $100 million investment in grants for 30,000 small businesses in 30 countries impacted by the coronavirus.
Bagga remembers how panicked he and others felt at a Young Entrepreneurs Organization meeting in Kirkland in late 2001 with the nation’s commerce reeling from the 9/11 attacks. And just as his company formed out of that panic — as a digital currency alternative to monetary transactions in a flailing economy — he feels today’s businesses will embrace more innovative approaches even once the pandemic subsides.
He lauded last week’s Canlis restaurant decision to abandon fine dining and offer drive-thru bagels and burgers instead, hoping others draw inspiration from it.
“Right now, there’s so much fear, but if you can get away from the fear long enough you can find some really great sources of innovation,’’ he said. “Yes, it is a scary time, but we can’t let fear dictate our reaction.’’