Small-business owner says she succeeded by going from ‘tremendous fear’ to ‘new normal’

Edna B. Shearer

Forced business closures and a decline of economic activity have wreaked havoc on small companies amid the coronavirus outbreak, causing over 100,000 of them to go out of business in the aftermath of the disease’s spread, according to a study published by a group of economists in April.

In a newly released interview, small-business owner Christina Stembel, CEO of San Francisco-based flower company Farmgirl Flowers, told Yahoo Finance that she kept her company open by quickly accepting the disruption to her business and making difficult changes that allowed her to keep serving customers.

The company, founded 10 years ago and initially based out of Stembel’s home, employed 197 people before the outbreak. Suddenly, she had to furlough all but six, she said.

“The feeling is just tremendous fear,” she says. “It’s just an outside circumstance that nobody budgets, you know, or puts in their financial model.”

As the wide spread of the virus in the U.S. became apparent, she needed to determine “how to communicate with our customers, thousands of customers, their orders, were going to be late, and then to figure out if I was going to be able to stay afloat,” she says.

Over five weeks, the company redid its distribution model, opening some new distribution centers and closing others, which left some longtime employees out of jobs.

“The difference between the companies that make it and don’t make it are the ones that are willing to do the hard things,” she says. “Rethink the way you’re doing business to change it because this is going to be a new normal.”

“You have to pivot very quickly before you run out of money,” she adds.

(From left to right) Crisis Text Line CEO: Nancy Lublin; Tami Erwin, Verizon Business CEO; and Farmgirl Flowers CEO Christina Stembel appears on “Reset Your Mindset at Work,” a special made in partnership between Yahoo! and Fortune.

Stembel made the comments during a special called “Reset Your Mindset at Work,” a partnership between Yahoo! and Fortune that aired on May 27. The segment on small businesses, moderated by Verizon Business CEO Tami Erwin, featured Stembel as well as Nancy Lublin, CEO of a phone-counseling service called Crisis Text Line.

More than one in five small businesses say they will face permanent closure within the next two months, according to a poll released last month by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and MetLife. Half of small businesses said their companies were in good health, a drop of seven points from the same poll conducted a month prior.

“Reset Your Mindset at Work” will appear on Yahoo Finance on Wednesday at 5pm.

A willingness to move through the initial fear and do “the things that you don’t want to do to pivot” played a central role in Stembel’s success, she said. But for many people, the shift to shelter-in-place has taken an ongoing toll.

Almost half of Americans say the coronavirus crisis is hurting their mental health, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in late March. The pandemic “has the seeds of a major mental health crisis,” the United Nations said this month.

Lublin, the leader of her own small business that provides phone counseling, told Yahoo Finance that self-isolation, job loss, and uncertainty can upend people’s mindsets.

“They’ve really been disrupted,” she says.

Individuals have sought three common sources of comfort, she noted. “People are really looking to family, friends and pets,” she says.

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