Revealed: how small businesses survived 2020

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Date: 26 January 2021

A team adopt new technology to help their business survive

Digital, debt and diversification are some of the main ways that small firms managed to stay in business during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new study.

Research by Small Business Britain, in partnership with TSB, has uncovered the ways in which the UK's small firms have managed to survive during the pandemic. The report, How to be resilient, sets out to understand the key factors contributing to business survival and share lessons for the future.

The findings show that over a third (37%) of small businesses have seen their revenues drop by more than half due to COVID-19. Despite this, 79% of those polled think their business will survive, with the majority of these (56%) feeling the weight of the obstacles but pressing on.

Embracing digital, diversifying products and services and accessing emergency finance - particularly Bounce Back Loans - were found to be the top ways small firms have survived the coronavirus crisis so far.

The findings reveal that:

  • 53% of small businesses accessed government financial support in order to survive;
  • 52% added new technology;
  • 59% increased their digital skills;
  • 44% got through by pivoting and adding new revenue streams;
  • 33% took out Bounce Back Loans, with a third saving this cash as future buffer.

Digital has proven to be a key tool for survival and 70% of business owners surveyed said that the digital changes they have made will enhance their business in the longer term.

"Finding a way to press on successfully is key to ensuring small business survival and enabling them to get past the period of crisis and into a more stable period of growth," said Michelle Ovens, founder of Small Business Britain.

"The crisis has been devastating for many firms, but those that have survived have used digital and diversification to their advantage, as well as drawing upon financial support, alongside other kinds of help from communities, peers, friends and family. While it is an experience no one would want to repeat, there are many lessons to be learned from this crisis. Businesses fearing for the future should remember it is not too late to adapt or to reach out. There is much that can be done, even in the bleakest of situations."

A third of firms said that Bounce Bank Loans have been a critical lifeline enabling them to continue, with a quarter using the funding to pay urgent office costs and 18% using it to pay staff costs. Meanwhile, 30% of firms saved the cash as a buffer for future needs, and 22% invested the finance into new growth opportunities.

"Whilst debt is not the ideal solution for many businesses, this provided a lifeline for some, enabling them to continue when there was little other option," said Ovens. "The extension of the Bounce Back loan scheme into 2021 has been welcomed, but small businesses are clear that there also needs to be an extension to the amount allowed and the period of payback to reflect that the crisis has continued far longer than was envisaged when the loans were first announced."

Written by Rachel Miller.