‘El bicho’: What small businesses in Spain want you to know about surviving the coronavirus crisis

As the UK lags behind the rest of Europe in taking strict measures to counteract the rapid spread of coronavirus, what can small businesses in the UK learn from the Spanish?

After two weeks of ‘stay-at-home’ coronavirus quarantine, the Spanish have completed double the amount of time that UK citizens have. That’s double the amount of time for small business in Spain to reflect and if possible, to adjust. Here is what some small business owners and employees in Valencia want you, their counterparts in the UK to know about surviving el bicho (‘the bug’):

  1. If you can carry on, carry on
  2. If you can go online, go online
  3. If you can deliver, deliver
  4. If you can go on furlough, take it and study online instead
  5. If your work is paralysed, be ready to hit the ground running
  6. If you have to stop work, volunteer
  7. If you have an entrepreneurial idea, put it into action
  8. If you don’t have a financial buffer, resolve to grow one
  9. If nothing else, be patient

Lockdown in Spain

On 13 March, Spain’s prime minister Pedro Sánchez declared the country was entering a ‘state of emergency’. From midnight on ominous Friday 13 March, all bars, restaurants, gyms, theatres etc were obliged to close. Then at 10pm the following day, citizens were ordered to stay at home. Unlike the UK, where one outing a day to exercise is permitted (at the time of writing), in Spain the rules are more strict.

A pharmacy in Valencia displays this sign saying
they have no masks, disinfectant gel, alcohol or gloves,
and to ask people to keep a safe distance.

I’m a writer currently living in stay-at-home quarantine in Valencia. I came here for the world-famous Fallas festival – which was postponed – and then lockdown kicked in. I’m aware of my good fortune because I can continue to work while my friends’ and neighours’ small businesses are paralysed.

Here is what some small business owners in Valencia have learned and want to share with you, their counterparts in the UK.

Sign on a grilled chicken shop in Valencia: ‘Closed due to the bug’

What small business owners in Valencia want you to know

1. If you can carry on, carry on

Victor works in his family’s small wine-making business in the Utiel-Requena region near Valencia. Food production companies can continue working and although wine isn’t an essential item (I know some people might debate that, especially during quarantine…), vinyards can continue working, with measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

“We continue to work. Some of our staff have chosen to self-isolate or they have to care for their children or older relatives, but our business has to continue – you can’t put a cork in the vines.”

Some companies which can carry on find their staff are more motivated than ever because they can see more acutely how their work is benefiting society. An example in Valencia is SPB, a medium-sized business which makes disinfectant gel, bleach and other cleaning products.

The company supplies Mercadona, the Valencian-owned national chain of supermarkets. José Luis García reports in Levante that the company’s orders have sky-rocketed: usually they make 3,000 75ml bottles of disinfectant gel a day; now it’s 20,000. They’ve also started making a 250ml version, at 50,000 bottle a day. It’s an increase of 2,300%.

The company has taken on more staff in all areas, from customer service to the delivery centre. Gracia Burdeos, the director general of the company, said:

“All the team at SPB are making the greatest effort in this extraordinary labour. We have a social responsibility to maintain our production. We’re calling for people not to worry – because we’ll continue our work.”

2. If you can go online, go online

In the UK and USA, coronavirus online yoga teaching seemed to mushroom overnight. In Valencia, the yoga scene is still 5 or 10 years behind the UK but studios and individuals have stepped up their adoption of digital technology:

Jana is a self-employed ashtanga yoga teacher. The studio where she usually teaches had to close so she’s learned extremely quickly how to run online classes:

One of Jana’s classes on YouTube

“I used kit I’ve already got: laptop, microphone, household lamps – and I’m streaming live classes on my channel on YouTube, Instagram and Facebook. I also record the classes and offer them later for a fee.

“I put a link in the info to ask people to donate money to my PayPal account. Seeing as they can no longer go out for a coffee, I asked that they just ‘buy me a coffee’ and that seems to be working – I have donations after each class. And a benefit is that I have people attending my classes from all over the world – even some people in Mexico!”

Julia, originally from Scotland, is the director of English-teaching academy, Maverick English, which runs classes and event for children and employees.

When the ‘lockdown’ was announced, Julia almost immediately started to convert classes into online classes and made use of ‘ERTE’ (Expedientes de Regulación Temporal de Empleo), the Spanish Government’s scheme similar to the UK Government’s Job Retention Scheme. The key difference is that in Spain, the employer doesn’t pay:

“Half the team has gone on ERTE. Social security pays them 75% of their last wage. I don’t have to pay anything.”

Language teaching is a highly competitive market in Valencia and Julia has spent many years maintaining her company, often working 12 hours + a day. Her advice to British businesses is to make sure it’s feasible to run online classes before jumping on the bandwagon:

“Of the 200+ students we had, 142 have signed up for online classes. Not bad but not enough. I spent all weekend looking at how we could merge groups, reduce teachers hours etc. This week, I have meetings with my teachers to find out if they’re willing to work with reduced hours or want ERTE.

“As for teaching adults, it’s more complicated because we get a government subsidy for teaching at businesses. The subsidy is bigger if we teach face-to-face and less if it’s online. So although my teachers work the same hours, we earn less because the subsidy is lower. Again, I have to work out if it’s feasible before we go ahead.”

3. If you can deliver, deliver

The growth in companies like Deliveroo and UberEats in the UK has been mirrored in Valencia. With the coronavirus crisis, some business that don’t normally offer delivery have taken it up with gusto. Many of these delivery services are designed to help the most vulnerable, for example, elderly customers:

  • Bakeries (such as Rozalén, pictured) offer delivery for 1€ – no need to create a fancy online shop, customers can just telephone their order and the shop does a delivery run once or twice a day.
  • When a natural health products store in Ruzafa (the hipster district of Valencia) had to close, they used their social media channels to remind customers that they could shop online, by telephone or email and they would deliver. Local people who frequent the shop want it to still be there after the crisis so they support the owners by buying online.
  • Launderettes are offering a free collection-and-delivery service for elderly customers. For only the price of the wash and dry, the owners are doing the deliveries themselves as a way to help older people in their community.

4. If you can go on furlough, take it and study online instead

Small businesses can take advantage of the furlough scheme (called ‘ERTE’ in Spain, see #2 above) and employees who accept this option can then choose how to spent their time. After the initial shock and worry, many Valencians are using the enforced time off to reflect on what’s important and what they want from their work.

Jon, originally from Yorkshire, works for a small business that makes educational resources. His company were quick to ask him to go on furlough.

“I still get paid 75% of my salary and to be honest, I’m usually driving for hours every week, staying in hotels, so I’m enjoying some time to rest at home and spent time with my girlfriend.

“Recently I’ve been thinking about changing my job so I signed up for an online Masters course in Hospitality Management. Now, rather than having to fit that around work, I can concentrate on the course. I just hope there will be a hospitality industry to work in when this is over…”

5. If your work is paralysed, be ready to hit the ground running

Self-employed abogada (solicitor) Carmen specialises in family law. Her business depends on the courts and notarios, local notary offices, which are closed. Although she can’t progress her cases through the legal system, she’s working hard at home to hit the ground running.

“I do videoconferencias and communicate by email to prepare documents and reassure clients that we’ll be ready as soon as the system is back to some sort of normal. My clients only pay me after their cases are completed but at the moment, I’m not too concerned about this because I have funds to last.”

Estate agent Lidia’s small business was flourishing. In the past three years, she’s been able to take on three employees and join a network of similar small agencies.

“Our business was paralysed overnight. We can’t do visits, complete sales or take on new clients. All we can do is answer emails, make calls and set up appointments for when we expect this to all be over.”

Avenida de Puerto, Valencia with no traffic
Avenida de Puerto, Valencia, at midday. It would usually be full of traffic.

6. If you have to stop work, volunteer

Bus driver Sergio has been told by his employer, the city’s public bus operator, that they’re asking for volunteers to go on furlough.

“If they don’t get enough volunteers, then they’ll place on furlough people over 55s and those caring for dependents. However if I took ERTE [furlough], I could volunteer as a driver for hospitals or charity support services. I get bored staying at home – I’d prefer to help if I can.”

Similarly, self-employed taxi driver Toni has found he can continue working, but in a different way:

“Usually my work is airport pick-ups. Now there are no flights, I’m working for companies, usually shuttling people to and from the port. I tried working in the city centre but there’s no-one around and if I do take a passenger, I can only take one person at a time and I have to disinfect the car completely after every passenger. No vale la pena. [It’s not worth it.]

“This week our drivers’ association has announced that they’ll pay us to take health workers to and from work. This helps with the transport situation for these essential workers and, although less than normal, at least I can continue earning.”

7. If you have an entrepreneurial idea, put it into action

Mum of two Sara works self-employed for a small truffle business. Not the chocolate, the expensive funghi. Her work would usually involve selling at fairs, demonstrating and talking to growers.

“My usual work completely stopped overnight. Events were cancelled, meetings postponed and now the school is closed, I have to be at home 24/7 for my girls.

“However, I’ve been able to work on an idea I’ve been developing for a while now: online courses for farmers to learn how to cultivate truffles on their land. It’s niche, clearly it’s not going to make us millionaires, but it’s something I can focus on while we get through this crisis.”

Yoga teacher Jana has had ‘build yoga app’ on her to-do list for years but never had the time to do it. Until now.

“I have an idea for a yoga app that offers something different from the usual Netflix-style array of videos to follow. And I can offer the content in three languages. What I need is help so I’m hoping my technically-minded friends can use some of their quarantine time to help me build this app. Although they all seem to be working on their own entrepreneurial projects…!”

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8. If you don’t have a financial buffer, resolve to grow one

Davide is Italian and runs a small cafe near the marina in Valencia which he claims does the best cappuccino in Valencia. Which is quite possibly true, along with the best sourdough pizza, cannoli and so on.

“I’m not in a good way. I’m devastated that we had to close and I’ve been talking to my gestor [legal representative] about whether I could use the oven, sell pizza and pastries, but I don’t want to risk getting a fine. And the fines are big! It could be thousands of euros.

“My family in Italy are fine at the moment but I’m worried 24 hours a day, about them, about my business, about what this will do to the whole economy. People with plenty of money will be alright but I had to pay a 3,000€ fine recently which wiped out much of my savings – I don’t know how long I can go on like this.”

Davide reminds us that anyone starting up as self-employed should have a minimum of three months in savings, preferably more, for use in an emergency. Some emergencies we can imagine, like needing to fix the car. But some – like coronavirus – we didn’t see coming.

If you’re self-employed or run a small company and will have to borrow from family or get a loan to tide you over, resolve to take all steps necessary to build up a buffer of savings after the crisis. Save big by not buying new equipment or not trading up your car, and save small for example by sticking with the same mobile instead of upgrading and cutting back on your paid-for marketing.

9. If nothing else, be patient

This situation is unlike anything we have lived through so no-one has all the answers. Ricardo owns a comic shop (or should that be ‘graphic novel store’…?). He had to close the shop but he’s found that after he’d done everything he could, rather than expend his energy worrying or being frustrated, all he can do is be patient:

“My advice is reduce your outgoings as much as possible, ask for help, and be patient. For example, I asked my landlord and he’s lowered the rent. And I’ve asked my bank about lines of credit. I’m fixing up the store to be ready when we can re-open and I’m making some improvements to the website. There’s nothing I can do to get the shop open sooner so we have to be patient.”

Play-park in Valencia. This would usually be full of children, and the bars behind it full of patrons.

Now and next

The official number of unemployed people in the region (Comunidad Valenciana) now stands at over half a million. This includes more than 170,000 people who have registered as out of work since the start of the coronavirus crisis. The total figure is as now as high as it was during the financial crisis of 2008. (Source: Levante, 28/03/20)

There’s no doubt that coronavirus is not just a health crisis but a disaster for the economy. But after two weeks of enforced cuarentena, life has settled into a more steady acceptance. Journalists report facts, associations lobby the Government, Police enforce the rules. People help their neighbours, look after their children, prepare for summer.

When this is over, I’ve vowed to do what little I can to help small businesses in my area. I’ll shop local more instead of at the supermarket. I’ll have coffee in my local bars. I’ll pay for a yoga class instead of practising at home. You could take a look at our Tide Crisis Code for our suggestions on to do the right thing to support small businesses during the coronavirus outbreak (and please share the code with your friends and contacts).

Meanwhile, #yomequedoencasa (the Spanish quarantine hashtag means, ‘me, I’m staying at home’).

Have your say

How is the coronavirus affecting you and your small business in the UK? We’re keen to hear from you – get in touch with us on LinkedInFacebook or Twitter.

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Photos by Suzanne Worthington

Suzanne Worthington

Suzanne Worthington

Senior Writer

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