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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/deal...

Dealing with the Coronavirus as a business owner in Beijing

Translated Tuesday 4 February 2020

February 4, 2020

ilya 伊流沙 Cheremnikh
Chinese language institute owner and co-owner of an e-bike tour company in Beijing.

Hello from Beijing,

As you all probably know, China is currently dealing with the outbreak of the coronavirus. There is already a lot of news about the virus itself, so in this article I want to share my own experiences dealing with the virus and its consequences as a person and a business owner living in Beijing.

I would like to explain why I decided to stick around in Beijing, what the daily life looks like here, what the business challenges are and how I am trying to deal with them.

About a week and a bit ago, when things started to look serious, the news of the causalities from Wuhan started pouring in and the virus became the biggest news on international media, there was a lot of talk among the international community in Beijing. All kinds of rumors started circling around and the general consensus was to get out of China as soon as possible.

I also started getting messages from friends and family checking in on me and asking me if I am going back home.

As you already know, I decided to stick around.

There are a few reasons that led to this decision:

From what we know so far from both official and unofficial sources, the amount of sick people in Beijing is relatively small (about 200) and so far the majority are recovering. Also, even though there is a lot of criticism toward the initial response of the government, right now the impression is that the government is taking the situation very seriously.

Many travel routes are cancelled and every person coming to Beijing is thoroughly checked. In addition, people coming from out of town have either been quarantined or are self-quarantining and the majority of the folks in Beijing just stay at home. And lastly, to put things in perspective, Beijing is a few hours flight away from Wuhan, so if we were in Europe, it would be in a whole different country altogether.

Besides that, as a small business owner, I feel it is my responsibility to be around for my local staff and our clients, stay positive, and come with creative solutions to keep the business running. More about that later.

Beijing feels quite eerie at the moment. You hardly see any people on the streets. Even up to a week ago we would meet up with friends, hang out, and look for ways to entertain ourselves; this week it feels like everyone is on his or her own.

Even though the WHO stated quite clearly that it is mostly important for people who are actually sick to wear masks, not wearing a mask on the street attracts a lot of staring from strangers and makes you feel like you are clearly doing something wrong. Last night, I was in one of the few restaurants open and I wiped my nose. The staff froze and stared.

Coming up to February 2nd, the first official day after the Chinese New Year when everyone gets back to work, I got myself prepared for the worst and designed my game plan. My main goal at that moment was to not lose the school if all classes got cancelled. I was calculating how long I could keep the school going with the money I have.

Two thoughts came to mind – first, we need to cut costs where we can. Second, we need to create new sources of income. I had to take some drastic steps that I would never usually take – I messaged my landlord to ask for a discount on the school’s rent. Given that for the last 10 years I always paid on time and I never ask him for anything, I was hoping he would agree. Luckily, he did.

Next, I sent private messages to all our full-time teachers and the office manager and asked whether, given the circumstances, they would be willing to switching from full-time to part-time work. Their responses have truly surprised me. Sending this message to them was very tough and it took me two sleepless nights to formulate my apologies about the situation. Fortunately, the replies from my team were mostly messages of comfort and encouragement. Some teachers even offered to go on unpaid leave until things get back to normal.

When that was done, I started thinking “What’s next?” Putting our efforts in promoting online classes was the obvious solution but the question was how to attract people to learning when everyone is in panic mode and learning isn’t really a priority at this time. It was clear to me that a regular discount promotion might not work and I had to try something else.

Monday at the office we still had one class going on at the school (the rest were cancelled or moved online). We got the school sanitized in advance, bought lots of disinfectant, had air purifiers running in all rooms, and made sure that the two students and the teacher hadn’t been to Wuhan and were feeling well. As the class was going on, the local police and community representatives dropped by and created a huge commotion, criticizing us (loudly and aggressively) for running a class at this time.

Even though there was a message from the government that businesses should encourage working from home for another week, the message was vague and not mandatory, so the visit really surprised us. We decided to abide by the police’s orders and close the school for physical classes for at least another week.

At that point there was really no other choice but going online. What we ended up doing was to arrange a few weeks of completely free online group classes. We drafted two messages: one for our students, organizing for them online review classes on different levels, and the second one for the general public, offering free classes for complete beginners, and a new Chinese Through Media class for advanced students who want to keep up with what is happening on the Chinese media at this time.

I figure people are stuck at home anyway, or stuck out of Beijing waiting for a good time to come back. Time is something that people currently have and in abundance. The way I see it, offering some free classes does not cost us too much, it allows us to support the community, and eventually it can also be good for business - new people can try classes with us and hopefully turn into paying customers later.

The messages went out yesterday and today, and though I did expect that we would probably get a couple dozen replies, I couldn’t have imagined the actual number of sign-ups we got! In less than 24 hours, we now have over 100 people in different WeChat groups waiting for their classes. And what is more, the promotion also attracted some real business in the form of people asking for regular classes, and an embassy contacting us for classes for their employees.

It is too early to tell, but maybe this time of crisis will turn out to be an opportunity for us? I surely hope so.

For now, as time is something I have and I have really nothing to lose, the only thing left to do is to get out all the plans that I was saving for when “I will have the time” and just do them now. Starting group online classes was one such plan, recording classes on video is the next!

My plan for the next days/weeks is to start shooting short YouTube videos that can be both used as a review for our courses as well as complete stand-alone courses for learning Chinese, starting from the beginning and using the materials and methods that we have developed at the school. We have always had amazing feedback on how we teach Mandarin, and I have always wanted to turn that experience and knowledge into video. Honestly, it is very exciting.

As I see it, keeping positive is the only way to deal with a tough situation.

I wish everyone to be healthy and safe. To all the business people who are struggling: keep positive and don’t give up!

Let me know how you are dealing with the crisis. Would love to hear your comments and stories.

Publié par

ilya 伊流沙 Cheremnikh

Chinese language institute owner and co-owner of an e-bike tour company in Beijing. Fluent Mandarin speaker.

I wrote my first ever LinkedIn article about how I am dealing with the coronavirus in Beijing as a business owner.

Would love to hear your thoughts and comments.

Wish everyone health and safety!

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