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Fatima Zaidi, co-founder and CEO of Quill Inc., photographed in Toronto on Sept. 28, 2020.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Toronto-based podcast marketplace Quill Inc. had a choice when the COVID-19 pandemic hit: innovate or implode.

Quill co-founders Fatima Zaidi and Jay Roberts had just launched their Toronto-based company in early February. The showstopper for the platform, which provides a vetted list of freelancers for every aspect of podcasting, was to be a conference in Los Angeles in June.

Hotels were booked, speakers lined up and many of the 1,500 tickets sold. Then COVID-19 swept across North America in March, forcing widespread business closures and event cancellations.

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“One investor decided to pull out because everyone was impacted by COVID. We had to put our conference on hold,” says Ms. Zaidi, the company’s chief executive officer. “We were at a crossroads. We had, at that point, just a few weeks of runway left.”

While the pandemic derailed Quill’s launch, Ms. Zaidi also saw an opportunity. With events and video shoots on hold, she realized brands were looking for ways to stay connected with customers.

She and Mr. Roberts decided to launch a new division to produce brand podcasts themselves.

“It was either that or we would have had to shut our entire company down within weeks,” says Ms. Zaidi, who was head of business development and sales at a marketing agency before starting Quill.

Today, Quill now has 10 employees, up from two when it started, and has landed some big-name clients on its roster, including the Royal Bank of Canada, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and EQ Bank. It also recently acquired Origins Media Haus, a marketing agency focused on podcasts and video.

“It’s been really lucrative for us,” Ms. Zaidi says of the pandemic pivot, “and we’ve been able to keep the technology side of our business alive through funnelling dollars into the platform.”

Meantime, the cancelled conference is tentatively rescheduled for March 2021.

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Not all businesses have been able to turn things around so quickly amid the pandemic. A recent Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) survey shows about two-thirds of its members surveyed in early September were fully reopened, but only 41 per cent were back to full staffing, and just 28 per cent reported normal sales levels. Only a quarter expected to be back to normal six months from now.

“There are companies with tremendous amounts of resources and capital and staffing power that have experienced significant challenges through this. So, for small businesses, it’s been particularly difficult in some cases,” says Doug Stephens, founder and president of Retail Prophet, a retail industry consultancy.

But there are moves small businesses can make to help them survive a second wave of the pandemic. For instance, Mr. Stephens says online buying with curbside pick-up has proven vital for many businesses.

“That’s going to become particularly important as we move into the fall and winter,” he says.

Others have had success by offering by-appointment-only shopping experiences, particularly for the best customers, he suggests.

Business owners using stores as creative studios to produce compelling content for social media have been able to maintain a dialogue with customers and prompt sales.

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“I’m not suggesting you’re going to be at 100 per cent of sales if you’re doing these things, but you may be able to bridge a significant portion of the gap in sales,” Mr. Stephens says.

Restaurants and bars have been hit particularly hard, he notes, surviving largely thanks to takeout service and setting up outdoor patios. “The winter is very concerning, for obvious reasons,” Mr. Stephens says.

Some restaurants have had success with online cooking classes, he says, or by turning restaurants into ad hoc grocery stores.

Many are also benefitting from their community’s desire to support local businesses.

Calgary-based Craft Beer Market has not only reopened all of its seven locations with limited capacity to abide by physical-distancing rules but will launch an eighth in November, says Tyler Rygus, vice-president of marketing and revenue of the chain, which has locations in Ontario, B.C. and Alberta. The company is also looking to expand to new locations in the near future.

“When we reopened some of our locations, we were actually faced with line-ups of guests that wanted to come dine,” he says. “The hardest part wasn’t executing what was happening within the restaurant but managing the line-ups outside.”

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Mr. Rygus says the business is moving forward carefully, acknowledging it’s “a bit of a roll of the dice,” and has been preparing for a potential temporary shutdown if the pandemic worsens.

The company has renegotiated leases where possible and tapped into government wage- and lease-subsidy programs. Not all of its landlords were eligible, though.

In the first wave, Craft laid off 95 per cent of its staff in the early stages to conserve cash. If a closure happens again, Mr. Rygus says the company will aim to keep more of its 1,000 full- and part-time staff working.

A pared-down menu, retail sales and an augmented takeout and delivery program will help.

“We continue to develop those now, not just as a revenue source for the current situation but as a revenue centre for us in the case of another shutdown or reduced capacity or whatever that looks like,” he says.

New business models and innovations will emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, as they did during the last major economic downturn in 2008-2009, Mr. Stephens says.

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“Crisis really does prompt a tremendous amount of innovation and creativity,” Mr. Stephens says. “As difficult as it is, they do tend to produce exciting new ideas at the end of the day.”

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