Is 2020 the worst year ever?

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Is 2020 the worst year ever?
Is 2020 the worst year ever?

Think that 2020 was a bad year until now? Imagine living in AD 536 C.

After this great recap by Ann Gibbons in the magazine scienceMany experts consider this year one of the worst, if not the worst, in human history. Why? It turns out that a volcanic eruption in Iceland created a cloud so large it darkened the skies over Europe and Asia for months. As a result, temperatures dropped, snow fell in summer, crops failed, hunger spread, and millions of people died of starvation. To add insult to injury, historians believe that this massive change somehow sparked the bubonic plague that would wipe out almost half the population of the Eastern Roman Empire and hasten its collapse.

So don’t complain about 2020. We have Netflix. Whether you mastered the challenges of 536 or 2020, not much has changed about owning a small business. That’s because the core tenets of business ownership are timeless.

For example, those who saved survived.

Despite the challenges, thousands of small businesses (farms, shops, taverns) were able to survive in 536 and the years that followed, largely because they were carefully run by forward-thinking owners. They saved every penny and used whatever they could hide from the tax collector and whatever was left after paying the rents to invest in their businesses and save money to help them through tougher times. In 2020, I saw many overstretched businesses fail after the pandemic. But others with resources, both cash and credit, are painfully making their way through these challenging times and will ultimately move on. I don’t care if it’s the year 536 or 2020, cash is and will remain king.

In 536, like in 2020, knowledge meant income.

Those who were able to cultivate had a better chance of survival than those who did not. Homeowners who know how to cook and make beer created products that supported themselves and their families. Other market insiders traded in animals, products and equipment. Artisans made pottery, builders built, bakers made bread, weavers made clothes and blacksmiths forged horseshoes, agricultural tools and furniture. Even those who could sing, tell jokes, and entertain could charge the public and royal sponsors for their services, and those who succeeded in professional classes (architects, lawyers, accountants, engineers) learned their craft through years of training. All of these people had skills to care for them. Unfortunately, those who had not acquired skills had fewer opportunities and less wealth. Are things very different today?

Cyclical economies have created opportunities.

The 2020 pandemic, like past epidemics, wars and other disasters, devastated many businesses, but these types of events also created opportunities. Innovative entrepreneurs thrive today because they sell more online, make protective gear, and provide other vital services. In 536 innovative entrepreneurs supplied the rich with food, forged weapons for armies, exchanged foreign currency and offered refuge for travelers and soldiers. The shrewd avoided the least-in-demand items (new farm tools, fancy pottery, imported luxuries) and switched to others (knives, wool, beer, groceries, staples) with potentially higher profits. As today the markets rose, fell … and rose again.

Finally, as now, the small businesses that did not diversify suffered the consequences.

In 536 the giant corporations were the Church and the Crown. The small businesses that sold their products to these organizations flourished in good times, but when church collections fell and kingdoms were overthrown, as invasions took place, cities were plundered, central authority denied, and local tribes elevated. These companies have often found themselves on the wrong side of history without the customers and suppliers to support them. Today, small businesses that have only sold to certain industries, regions, or larger specific customers and suppliers face similar problems. You can’t put too many eggs in one basket. Not then. Not now.

Pandemics natural disasters. Economic recessions. It happened in 2020. It happened even worse in AD 536 C. Some things will never change. However, one thing will always remain the same: the principles of running a small business. Besides, we now have Netflix.

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