Five tips for running a localization business in China through COVID-19

Going through a financial crisis while your country is on lockdown is an experience we will most likely never forget. But even in this time of uncertainty, it could be an experience that will make your team stronger — perhaps by stimulating your business to embrace the available technology and practice crisis consciousness. Our company survived the COVID-19 crisis in China, and we took steps to ensure the business has not suffered any financial losses.

We run a small-size localization agency in Shanghai, China. We have 15 full-time employees and the company is three years old. As a service provider, we were expecting that the lockdown, which started at the beginning of February and lasted till mid-March, to have a tremendous effect on the business, and we were ready for the worst. However, it turns out our expectations were overly pessimistic. By the end of the lockdown, we managed to survive. And we would like to share how we did it, for the companies who are currently going through the same situation.

China’s winter business schedule is always planned around the Chinese New Year, which means many businesses like ours typically have very low business activity for at least two weeks during this period. This year the holidays started on January 24, but the lockdown happened immediately after that, so all activities and office work had already been suspended. Therefore, during this period, we lost all our event interpreting business, and the translation activity of clients that were not operating at all, representing the largest chunk of our business.

However, this did not mean that the crisis had pushed us into a corner. We simply had to become more creative and adaptable in order to survive the weeks that followed. Here are the five most important lessons I have learned from this unusual situation.

1. Assure the safety of your employees

Expectation: the team will lose touch and become distant and difficult to manage
Reality: the team became more connected

Making sure your team is safe is priority number one. Any business should always center around its people. We suspended all employee travel until the city returned back to normal, and in fact, some employees are still working from home to this day, even though most companies have been back to business for a while now.

I could not imagine for a second what could have happened to our business if one of my teammates became infected. This would not have only affected our office, but the entire building.

It was also a good opportunity for our team managers to implement their soft skills and show what kind of leaders they are. Showing people that the company is not only a place of work, but also a team that cares about one another, and supports its families is crucial during this time.

As a result, our employees developed a stronger bond with one another, and team spirit actually increased.

2. Business continuity and home office

Expectation: the team will become disorganized and distracted.
Reality: the team became more efficient and productive.

For managers, it is always worrisome to implement something very new to the team that requires new working habits to be formed. So we were skeptical when we introduced home working for all members of the team. But this was not a time for hesitation — assuring business continuity is essential for any company, as if there is no production, there is simply no company. It didn’t take much time to set up this new way of working, but ensuring that everyone stuck to it was a little more challenging. Of course this meant more (online) meetings, more calls, more time spent talking with each employee and so on, but when all the mini-trainings and setup was done, we realized that working from home has a lot to offer. No time wasted in traffic, limited social interaction and in turn fewer distractions meant that tasks were completed more quickly while maintaining the same level of attention.

Of course, for families with children, it was a more challenging time, but we noticed that some members with limited free time dealt with tasks faster and more efficiently.  Also, keeping one’s mind busy can save people from being overwhelmed by mass hysteria and panic.

Home office tools such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom were implemented with great success, and in addition to project management tools such as Asana that had long been in place. But in general, we believe that home working could play an important role in the future for many types of companies, especially in the digital and service industry.

3. New ways of business development

Expectation: the company will be stuck with one appropriate product or service.
Reality: there are many ways to develop new business.

The third lesson that we learned is how to think outside the box when it comes to new ways of finding business. For us it meant concentrating on social media communication (at a time when others were heavily using social media) to our advantage.

I have also realized that many people were in need of urgent legal document translation and medical related translation. We had shortlisted a few services that could be useful to people at this time and concentrated on those. Attending webinars and spending time in online group discussions have also brought us business prospects. Even sponsoring online events in the ways we can (providing video subtitling or remote interpreting) benefited both the local community and our business.

Some of our clients used the manufacturing slowdown to prepare for the upcoming seasons by taking care of their documentation, marketing materials and website translations, which also brought us business.

We have observed even more creative new business approaches from our community: live fitness classes, online education of children, webinars on all types of topics, delivery-only or take-out-only restaurants, adaptation of traditional businesses to e-commerce. Companies spent time in building relationships with influencers for upcoming seasons, with an emphasis on digital marketing in general.

It is important to remember that the lockdown will not last forever. Here in Shanghai, and for most cities in China, it lasted 6-7 weeks. During lockdown, I strongly recommend using all resources available to them to turn this challenging situation into an opportunity, whether it be learning a new way of presenting information or testing different ways of operating.

4. Self-education and online connection with the community

Expectation: I could end up wasting time.
Reality: I ended up learning more about new ways of how businesses can operate, how the current crisis situation has developed, and government incentives.

Attending these endless webinars and niche lectures might seem like being exposed to neverending sales pitches, which is partly true, as every organizer of a webinar or education session has their own goal in mind. But we found there was much more to these events.

Having access to online communities where one can share experiences, new information and ideas is a great tool to use. One learns that many people are experiencing the same issues, which can be reassuring. And keeping up and learning from niche professionals is never a waste of time. We ended up joining webinars on legal topics, crisis entrepreneurship, social media marketing, financial investments and many more interesting topics we always wanted to learn about, but thought we were too busy for.

Learning new skills is always a great investment in oneself, as one never knows when these skills might come in useful. For me personally, I found out that anyone can make time for self-education once the workflow is set in an efficient manner,

5. Handling finances

Expectation: the company will not survive if we do not lay off most of the staff
Reality: the company might break even and pay full salaries if you prioritize your expenses

We were mostly stressed about not being able to make it through the crisis, as well as not being able to keep the entire team on the payroll.

We believe that every SME needs a small “security fund” to ensure that the company can continue for at least two months of non-operation. But even if that’s not possible, cash flow management essentials will play a great role in times like these.

Limiting non-essential expenses will mean taking more work and responsibility in-house. Pay your people first, even if it means not paying yourself, and lead by example. For larger companies this could mean negotiating and dealing with employees by creating new ways of incentives, and temporarily postponing bonuses.

Some companies were forced to ask people to take this time as annual leave, take a pay cut, or implement more drastic measures, which thankfully we were not forced to do.

Making financial priorities is important at this time, even hard ones such as postponing vendor pay-outs, as well as being ready to receive late payments from your clients.

For us, the information on government incentives came two weeks before the lockdown was over, and it meant significant relief on social security payments as well as two months of free rent for offices that occupied government owed property. So, it is normal for government to take time and decide on how it can support businesses. We hope every government will provide maximum support to businesses and assure the economy pushes though this hard time.

Looking ahead

Staying calm is essential in times of crisis. It brings confidence to those people around you and allows them to focus on the things that can be done. Remember, whatever stage of lockdown your country is in, it will not last forever, and for many businesses this time can and should be spent intelligently. It is therefore in your best interests to concentrate on the things you can do to improve the situation, instead of spending all your time idly worrying about the things you cannot control at this time.

Ekaterina Chernavina
Ekaterina Chernavina is marketing director of HI-COM Translation, and a China-specific marketing specialist and advisor.


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