A Small Business Story: The Quick Pivot

Localogy Insider is checking in with the small business owners we know to find out how they are coping with the COVID-19 crisis. This is part of a series of conversations with business owners, where we ask them how the crisis is impacting their business and how they are adapting to the “contactless” world we are living in right now. 

I’ve been having conversations recently with small business owners to learn how they are navigating through the pandemic crisis. In this installment, I caught up with my brother Chris, who operates a successful music school in Northbrook, IL. Chris walked us through his recent experience moving his school online, literally overnight.

His school serves more than 220 students with private lessons every week.

We Just Had to Pull the Plug

As the epidemic escalated, Chris initially thought he could keep the school open and work with a mix of online and in-person lessons. By March 16 it became clear that keeping the school open was no longer tenable.

“Throughout the weekend the news just kept getting worse and worse,” Chris said. “We decided we just had to pull the plug and move to all online.”

Chris said the reception has been very positive. So far only a handful of customers have opted out. One thing working to the school’s advantage is parents’ desire to keep a semblance of normal life going during the shutdown. Music lessons have an advantage over other activities like team sports, which can’t be conducted via Face Time.

So Many Factors Go into Making the Connection Work

Moving from a business that gives face to face lessons to one that delivers its services online, in a matter of days, was a big challenge made easier by an enthusiastic and cooperative customer base.  But the tools the school uses to deliver its product — FaceTime, Skype, and Zoom — have serious limitations. The main issue is the lag in the connection makes normal teaching techniques like playing, clapping or singing along with a student impossible.

“The teachers all have to learn how to manage ourselves to optimize the sound and make things as clear as possible for the students,” Chris said.

Another tactic Chris has used to keep his students (and their parents) engaged is to encourage them to make performance videos. Here is one example.

Will Online Teaching Survive the Crisis?

Chris doesn’t expect online teaching to replace the in-person experience, which is optimal for most music students. He acknowledges that giving lessons online is not new. And he thinks it may play a larger role after the crisis dissipates. For example, there may be students with compromised health who need to self-isolate longer than the rest of us. And there is a potential opportunity to increase his TAM by offering online lessons to students outside of his trading area.

Will Online Teaching Work?

Chris is not alone in moving online to keep the lights on. A Google search produced a bounty of articles on music schools nationwide moving online. One article, about a school in Massachusetts, describes a similar experience. Most students chose to try online. But the platforms, Skype in this case, got in the way.

As we gather stories from small business owners who are pivoting to home delivery, e-commerce, online learning or consultation, the same unanswerable question keeps coming up. Will these band-aid solutions work if shelter at home extends for several weeks, or even months. As Chris said, “It’s working for now. Ask me again in a couple of weeks.”

You can watch an edited version of our conversation here:

You may recall our conversation with Chris last year, where we talked to him about how his school uses technology to keep operations running smoothly. Today he can add videoconferencing to this list of critical tech tools for his business. At least for now.

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