The unease of doing business

Chetan Mahajan | Updated on June 11, 2020 Published on June 11, 2020

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Taking a small enterprise online in a bid to get through the lockdown is dubbed an act of greed on social media

* Ever since the pandemic, we have had to cancel events and refund lakhs of rupees

* Here we were, trying to survive by taking our business online, and people found it wrong and immoral?

“Aren’t you ashamed of yourself, trying to make money in this calamity? Have you no morals? Is there no end to your greed? I will report this as an unethical post on Facebook. Shame on you!”

No, I don’t run a black market for hand sanitisers or N-95 masks. Or an escort or at-home massage service. I don’t deal in drugs either.

I teach writing.

My wife and I live in a Himalayan village and run a centre where people learn new skills and enjoy serenity. I teach people to write better. My wife, a psychologist, helps people deal with stress and anxiety through her practice and workshops.

Ever since the pandemic, we have had to cancel events and refund lakhs of rupees. Writers from the US, slated to visit in April, did not come. Revenue languished at nil as we entered our peak season. We have to pay rent, the salaries of eight staff members and the kids’ school fees. The going was tough.

So, we offered courses online. I renamed my writing course the ‘Lockdown Writing Workshop’ and started marketing it online. It didn’t take long for the shaming comment to land in my inbox. I wondered what I had done wrong. Maybe the person had lost someone to the novel coronavirus, I thought. But this was still March — the lockdown had barely begun.

The next week my wife offered her five-day emotional well-being workshop online. “You should offer this free. It is wrong to charge for this,” came another response.

We were flummoxed. Here we were, trying to survive by taking our business online, and people found it wrong and immoral?

Although enough people signed up and found value in the courses we offered, I was intrigued by those who found charging money for a service offensive. Making money during the pandemic had acquired an evil connotation... as if we were exploiting the situation, and our little enterprise was the greedy, evil “profit-at-all-costs” corporation. But we weren’t being opportunistic or trying to make money from the pandemic. We were simply trying to survive.

Strangely, some folks expected us to turn altruistic and offer everything free because of the difficult time. But that would mean paying my staff in altruism instead of money. And that would mean their kids eating altruism instead of food for dinner.

I started asking around, and many such stories surfaced. A friend in the food business had recently set up his fourth — and most expensive — restaurant in a mall, investing over ₹1 crore. That probably took everything he had earned and some debt. The pandemic had destroyed all projections, and he was now looking to sell the restaurant. As I discussed this with an acquaintance over the phone, he said, “Oh, it’s all right. They also make a killing when the going is good.” As if that makes the present loss less painful.

Another friend conducts art retreats in various resorts and had taken gutsy chances in life to become a full-time artist. The pandemic has destroyed her travel-based business, prompting her to offer online art classes for both adults and kids. She markets on WhatsApp and is often asked by people to teach for free in this “difficult time”. A few of them even negotiated hard on her already low fee. And then, the Zoom sessions revealed the palatial homes of the tough negotiators.

A third friend, the co-founder of a beverage education and training institute, requested my wife to conduct a session for bartenders on handling stress. She readily agreed; the participants had many questions. “With no income, what is the best way to save for the family?”asked one. Another wanted guidance on dealing with the stress of losing their job. Was it a mistake to join hospitality, asked the third. My wife happened to mention the session for bartenders to a few family members. They seemed surprised. Why would bartenders need counselling? Now, mine is a literate family, very sensitive and aware of our plight as a small business. Yet, it was hard for them to imagine why bartenders might be in trouble. Then I realised everyone in my family was salaried and had no clue what it meant to be self-employed or an entrepreneur.

My wife explained to them that the bars were badly affected by the lockdown and likely to be the last sector to recover. Many bartenders have lost jobs. The bars are often small businesses run by entrepreneurs, and many have lost their savings and defaulted on debt during the lockdown.

It struck me that it is difficult even for smart, sensitive people to imagine the stress of others who are unlike themselves. We cannot live other people’s reality because we cannot see the world from their perspective.

Unfortunately, from this non-empathetic place, some folks choose to judge and shame small businesses. It reminded me of the old fable of the blindfolded men and the elephant. Except, in our case, the guy who felt the tail thought it was a snake and was strangling it.

So the next time you come across behaviour you don’t intuitively understand, ask a few questions. Dig deeper. And try not to judge.

Chetan Mahajan is the author of The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail and the co-founder of the Himalayan Writing Retreat in Kumaon

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Published on June 11, 2020
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