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Small-business owners shouldn’t stop innovating during the pandemic

June 25, 2020, 3:00 PM UTC

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Butcher shops, perhaps obviously, are not a place you’d expect to pick up vegetables.

But as the pandemic rolled across the U.S., creating lines several blocks long for many grocery stores, Meredith Schmidt’s butcher began stocking vegetables and fruits. To Schmidt, who is executive vice president and CEO of essentials and small business at Salesforce, it was an example of a small business innovating to meet rapidly shifting demand as a result of the coronavirus pandemic—giving it an edge to compete with the giants.

“I don’t have to go anywhere else besides one store, and it’s this tiny little store that I can wait outside versus [waiting] in these giant long lines at Whole Foods,” Schmidt said during a Q&A hosted by Fortune. The butcher “is going to keep that. He’s not going to change that because it added a whole new revenue stream to his shop.”

During the virtual conversation, Schmidt and Alma Derricks, founder and managing partner at brand strategy firm REV, agreed that now is not the time for companies to be digging in their heels as they seek to be resilient. Rather it’s a time for business leaders to ensure they are also innovating. Some ideas may stick, some may not—but the key is to take the risk, said Derricks.

“This is a marketplace that moves faster than we’ve ever known before. The life cycle of companies is much shorter now,” said Derricks. “For companies of every size, there’s a rule of thumb to having some portion of your business that is ready for that. That 80% is business as usual but leaving 20% to experiment, to try new markets, to try new products. I think resilience comes from having that kind of flexibility in your spine.”

During the pandemic, one major shift among small businesses has been bulking up on technology. As social distancing rules and stay-at-home orders move commerce online, small businesses, known for lagging behind in their tech, are pressured more than ever to reach customers through digital channels.

In another example of going with the flow amid the coronavirus, Schmidt cited her local bakery in San Francisco. Those on social media know well that the pandemic has cultivated a passion for bread making among amateur chefs, with a love of sourdough booming in the city of the Golden Gate Bridge. Seizing on the moment, the bakery began offering a free sourdough starter kit every Sunday morning—a move that likely also pushed customers to buy a baguette or cupcake as they were getting their freebie.

“It’s actually brought business in by looking at this phenomenon that was happening in the city, and by saying, ‘I can service that,’” Schmidt said.