Call it a silver lining, of sorts. For most small businesses, navigating through the current crisis has been a nail-biter. But in some cases, being shuttered or just facing slow demand has also had one welcome upside: the time to focus on important projects companies were too busy to attend to pre-COVID.

Targeting different customers. Introducing a new line of business. Improving work flow systems. Those are just some of the projects small companies have focused on. "It was a huge opportunity," says Ben Walker, CEO of Transcription Outsourcing, a Denver-based transcription company. "We were given time we wouldn't normally have had."

Revamping Vital Work Systems

Redesigning and introducing new work flow systems can significantly boost productivity, as any management expert will tell you. But it's also a slog. That's why Ben Walker, whose clients include courthouses, law firms, and doctors' offices, decided to use the slowdown in his business to tackle a complex new work-flow management system.

His current transcription system required a lot of manual entry. That meant for every file scheduled to be transcribed, an employee had to input multiple data into spreadsheets, including the client's name, the length of the conversation, and when the file was submitted, among other information. Plus, each file required a transcriber's version with redacted information, such as the client's identity or the fee charged. The result: Thousands of lines of data that needed to be double-checked for accuracy.

After about six weeks, Walker came up with a new system. Now all the versions of a spreadsheet are interconnected. Thus, a new workflow data management platform pulls the data into a main spreadsheet that automatically feeds the right information to a version for the client and a different one for the transcriber.

"It would have been insane to develop this and switch hundreds of clients from one platform to another under normal circumstances," says Walker. But the pandemic-induced lull made it possible. And now, as business ramps up, Transcription Outsourcing is reaping the benefits, Walker figures the system has made his work processes about 75% faster than previously.

Stepping Up Marketing

For many small companies, when business is busy, marketing often is the first task to be pushed aside. So it might not be a surprise that many such projects have jumped to the top of the to-do list recently. That's also because, in slow times, companies tend to turn to marketing to keep their name top of mind with existing customers and reach out to new ones.

Take Justin Hill, who heads Hill Law Firm in San Antonio. For about a year before COVID hit, Hill had been mulling over the idea of starting a podcast. His concept: run a series of hour-long community-oriented talks with a cross-section of local officials, nonprofit leaders, and others that would serve as more of a public relations effort than a lead generator.

With that in mind, last year Hill took an online class on interviewing techniques. But it was only after his state shutdown that he really threw himself into making his podcast happen. Given that in-person meetings weren't possible, it seemed like a fortuitous time to tackle the project. So Hill spent several weeks picking the brains of podcasters. He had an easy time finding a videographer -- because so many professionals were looking for work, Hill surmises -- and other technical specialists to advise him on the best equipment to buy and how to use it.

He also set a production goal: Run a program two to three times a week while businesses were shut down, then about once a week later on. Hill knows that keeping the podcast going when his firm is back to a normal schedule will be challenging "This probably will become a Sunday event," he admits.

Jared Silver, president of Menlo Park, Calif.-based Stephen Silver Fine Jewelry, also used his state's shutdown to launch a podcast, devoted to high-end watches. But that effort was part of a multi-pronged digital marketing strategy that also included relaunching the web site to feature more content, such as five-minute educational videos on topics like different sapphires and how to set a top-of-the-line timepiece. "It's all part of our plan to turn our web site into a sought-after place for content," he says.

Attracting New Customers

Silver also used the time to introduce a sideline he'd been thinking about for a while. Traditionally, the company conducts most of its business in a retail store in the tony Rosewood Sand Hill Hotel, as well as at a private showroom nearby. But in March, when demand was especially slow, Silver sped up plans to launch a remote estate-jewelry buying platform.

To that end, he gathered a small group of specialists in branding, gemology and other areas via Zoom to hammer out a plan. By the end of the day, they came up with the blueprint: Use Google Hangout and Zoom to appraise jewelry online, then pay for the seller to ship the pieces to the company, where experts take a final look and make an offer. Ten days later, they had the platform up and running.

David Zimmerman faced a different problem. Even before the pandemic hit, he'd worried about what would happen to Reliable Acorn, his Charlotte, N.C.-based internet marketing consultancy, if something were to happen to him. So he decided to start documenting the various processes he used--just in case. But he didn't do much more until he found himself with more time on his hands, courtesy of COVID. That's when he jumped head-first into an all-out effort to record and delineate every process.

In June, he realized he'd created something more than he'd first envisioned. In fact, he could turn the documents he'd created into a new product line, aimed at small businesses that generally couldn't afford his services. Called Curious Ants, and available by subscription, it provides step-by-step guides to the online marketing processes he uses for his existing clients. Customers can choose from different levels of service, two of which offer virtual office hours with Zimmerman.

Too Little, Too Late

Of course, attempts to activate plans put on hold don't always work, especially if an enterprise is already in trouble. Andrea Garcia, co-founder of COMMS/NATION, a Weehawken, N.J., public relations and creative design agency, points to a New York City restaurant that desperately tried to accelerate back-burnered marketing campaigns to keep the establishment in business. Eventually, the owners approached Garcia, who provided some free counseling. But by that point, it was too late to really effect change. "They called me in at the ninth inning," she says. The restaurant closed soon after.

Moral of the story: Reviving mothballed projects works best to enhance the business or help it branch out. But doing so probably won't change fundamental cash-flow problems, or elevate a sinking ship.

Boosting Productivity

In many cases, back burner projects also provide companies with another benefit: an opportunity to provide work for employees who might otherwise have had little to do. One of Ben Walker's workers "who really likes doing this kind of stuff" did most of the programming for the new transcription system, he says.

It's not just employees who've been kept occupied. Walker, for example, went into the office during the lock-down, and with no one else there and a slower-than-normal workload, his productivity skyrocketed. "I came in early and stayed late," he says. "There was no stress from clients or other demands."