How to Succeed When Business is Slow

There are a lot of reasons why your business might be slow right now – it could be the macroeconomic environment, the nature of your business, the current part of your particular business cycle, or a dozen other causes. Instead of focusing on why things are slowing down, I’m going to to focus on 4 tips you can use immediately to turn these slow times into sources of innovation and profit. These tips are battle-tested, and helped work my companies out of the worst recession.

Tip #1: Never close early

Closing because business is slow is like fasting because you’re hungry – it’s counterintuitive. Don’t ever fall into this trap. I saw it all the time with other businesses around me – 3 other businesses to be exact – they’re all out of business now.  The owner would send everyone home at 3 or 4 in the afternoon, s/he’d lock up, and head home.  Lights out.  Fridays in the summer, they were closed.  Minor holidays, closed.  When I asked why they were closed so often, the answer was always the same “business is just so slow right now”. You’ve got to be in your business, with the lights on, finding the next opportunity that will define your future. It just so happens that slow times are the best times to find these opportunities…

Tip #2: Reach out to old contacts

Talk to anyone and everyone you haven’t spoken to in a while: media contacts, old clients, and vendors even.  You’ve got lots of time on your hands, and networking is one of the more difficult things to do when you’re busy.  I’ve found that reaching out to people during the slow times has lead to some good conversation at the very least, and some amazing new opportunities that could be transformed into entire businesses at its best.  It can often lead to some projects that can help pay the bills – maybe not exactly the work you’re looking for, but you’ll learn the needs and wants of your contacts, and might be able to generate some cash flow. In my companies’ slowest periods, we certainly weren’t above doing odd work or jobs that were tangential to what we do just to add some revenue. Get out there and network!

Tip #3: Cut every expense possible, including yourself.

If business isn’t great, you’ve got to stop the bleeding.  Be judicious with your cuts – I once saw a business owner turn the lights off in his office to “save electricity” while he was working.  Don’t do this.  You look desperate, closed, and most importantly, who can work with the lights off?  But you’ve got to trim things down: cleaning staff, memberships, fringe benefits, and even your take-home salary.  Chances are, you’re the business’s biggest expense, so think about how low you can go to save your business.  Do you want that paycheck for 3 more months, or 15 more years?

Tip #4: Expand your role and add value to your company.

There are a lot of things you can do that will add value to your company immediately and might give you your next idea – however, a lot of these things are not glorious, and people will shrug them off as banal. They can do so at their own peril. Here are some of my favorites: pick up a copy of Fast Company, Inc, Entrepreneur – whatever business or industry publication you like, and start reading.  Clean the office/store/restaurant.  Write some blog posts for your blog for when things are busy and you won’t have time.  Teach yourself to be more creative.  Get the idea?  Do something! One of the most successful businesses I co-founded was thought up on a down-day when nothing was happening, and I was just reading an Entrepreneur magazine article that got me thinking in the right direction.  Remember point #3 about cutting expenses?  Cleaning the office, updating the website, and other chores may be things you’re currently outsourcing at an expense!  You’ve got time – do it yourself, and save the money!  You can always task it back out to someone when things turn around, but for now, do it yourself.  Learn how to develop a web page, do a tax return, use SolidWorks….you get the idea…these are real, valuable skills that you wouldn’t normally have time to do.  They contribute real value to your company, and make you a more valuable executive at your own company.

No matter what is causing it, a slowdown period at your business is either a chance to go home early, or an opportunity to explore new possibilities and projects at your business that you wouldn’t ordinarily have time to do. You stand a better chance of staying in business by adopting the latter attitude.  Slow days at work simply mean you have an excess of time on your hands – but time is a valuable resource and something most business owners would kill to have more of – use it wisely, and see these days as a huge opportunity.  Good luck!

Want the inside track on my latest ultra-efficient business hacks and tips? Follow me on Twitter @DenODonnell – I share my favorite business content on Twitter, usually before I get to writing an article about it on Starterist!


  1. This is a wonderful post. Thank you for sharing!!!!

  2. Dennis O'Donnell says

    Thanks, Jennifer! Best of luck with whatever project has you reading here!

  3. This was great Dennis. I recently started a personal training business where everything is 1 on 1 training and not like a typical gym where you have 50 people in the facility at once. Training clients more 1 on 1 will take some time for the business to grow but it allows me to make better relationships with each client that comes to the facility. There have been many slow days and many to come. Your post gave me some ideas to do on those slows days. Thank you Dennis.

    Maurice Buchanan

  4. Dennis O'Donnell says

    Hi Maurice! Thanks for the comment – I love hearing about how other businesses get along, and I’d never thought about the way a 1-on-1 business might work (very busy 1-on-1 time followed by very slow time without a client) – it’s unique. I hope your personal training business thrives, and you find some great new angle to your business during your down time!

  5. Hi Dennis,

    Thanks for this post. I am going through a very bad slow. I sincerely appreciate your post, especially the mistake that I make was in the 1st point ” Never Close Early”. Many thanks for the post.



  6. Dennis O'Donnell says

    Hi Shilpa –

    Thanks for the comment! When things are a bit slow, closing early is incredibly tempting – it’s a mistake a lot of people (myself included) are guilty of making in the beginning. Stay open, though, and I guarantee you’ll see results in the long term. There’s a popular Woody Allen quote that really sums it up: “Eighty percent of life is just showing up”. Good luck!

  7. Thanks for the tips. As I was reading this in my boutique I had one set of lights off because we are extremely slow. Your comment about looking desperate and scared is totally on the mark so I turned the lights back on VERY QUICK!! We are a new business and I understand the buzz isn’t out yet but I can not deny the fear I am experiencing. Blogs like this provide motivation to keep pushing. I believe in our mission and the location is great.

  8. Dennis O'Donnell says

    Hi LaToya,

    Thanks for reading – glad to hear you’re finding a helpful perspective here. I’ve actually walked around Shadyside in Pittsburgh – a friend of mine lived there for a time, and you’re right – it really is a great area! Keep your head up – there’s a lot of articles out there about how successful people are, but unfortunately, not enough of them emphasize the less glorious daily tasks and efforts that brought them there. I hope the best for your efforts.

  9. David Banner says

    Hi Dennis,

    I have a question about tip #2. What if your business isn’t really appropiate to make callbacks to past clients? I work privately with clients, and in the past I’ve made callbacks to clients, but it never really works when I contact them back. Well..once in awhile it works, but I’ve run a bigger risk of running clients off with follow-ups than waiting for them to contact me.

    I’m very visible, so it’s not like the client can’t find me. So for me to contact them back would seem a bit forward at best, invasive at worst. So it’s hard for me to really make a move. Sometimes I just have no choice but to sit and weather the storm…slow isn’t the word. Stagnant is more appropiate.

  10. Dennis O'Donnell says

    Hi David,

    That’s an interesting situation. I don’t know exactly what your business is, but am really curious based on your comment – if you’re willing to disclose, I’d definitely like to hear about it! With that said, #2 definitely includes clients, but really my intention was to put more of a focus on “general networking”. Meaning that in your case you might not be out there actively hustling and soliciting business, but hey, if you’re talking to friends and people in your industry in general…maybe going to conferences and trade shows….whatever you can do to keep in the loop and your ear to the ground – you might find your next opportunity. Networking is one of the most difficult and time-consuming things an entrepreneur can do – but if things are stagnant, then you’ve got time to do it! Just one more not-often-thought example – volunteer your time or get involved in the community. Again – it’s that idea of connecting the dots and putting yourself out there in a very broad sense.

    I hope this helps – sorry if the answer was a bit broad itself!

  11. I liked your post , I own an auto repair shop and for 3 years we have been real steady . I started in nov. which is normally a bad time to start but I did and we did good. we have a lot of customers that write great things about us and they are happy. of course over three years there was 3 people that were unhappy but they where the ones that worked on there own car and wanted to get repairs for no cost or at our cost . we did our best to help them but they did not want it. short of that the police dept loves us we work on there cars and normally we have no issues. right now it has slowed to a crawel and I am not sure why. economy or the new insurance plans or holidays , I would like to get to the bottom of what is the reason it has went from we love you to a stand still , we are open 6 days a week good hours and lots of free road side assistance and nation wide warranty , clean building , nice waiting room , and friendly staff . but yet it stays slower than I have ever seen it . we have always done to help with cost for the customers that need help and I am trying to come up with a good way to let everyone know we are here to help. I updated our web page and have passed flyers out , sent e mails , and made sure the phone is always answered within 2 rings. any input as to whats going om in the world to make it this slow would be great. thank you

  12. Dennis O'Donnell says

    Hi Ken!

    Thanks for reading, and sharing your story – really interesting. I did check around really quickly, because you definitely had my interest on this one, Ken. At first glance, you definitely seem to be engaging and friendly with your customers, which is really nice to see – and I’m sure people pick up on this. That said, I can’t really say what it could be exactly – it could be something terribly subtle, or more likely, nothing at all. Sometimes business is just slow – you did mention that November is normally the worst time of year? The one thing I feel confident saying is that you’re approaching it correctly – you’re continuing to reach out, and be friendly, available, and incentivizing people to come in.

    I have one last thought for you – in my experience, a loyal customer base takes more than just a few months or even a few years to build – and I think this is especially true with a business like yours, where a customer only sees you a few times a year at most. It’s about slowly building a momentum – you can’t get a massive boulder rolling by slamming your weight against it….it takes time and consistent effort. Before you know it, you might just gain the reputation as the friendliest, most reliable shop in Glendale – but it generally doesn’t happen overnight. Good luck!

  13. Wov! good to c few people like me, trying to find out “Why am i slow suddenly?”. I spent last 24 hours being very slow and being a 3 month old business it worried me terribly. I have a frozen yogurt and smoothie business, opened 3 months ago. I was doubling my sales for first 3 months which ended on Friday, 28th Feb. I was excited to c how Saturday March 1st looks like! just note that my last 4 saturdays have been blow out! Guess what happened yesterday, it was less than half.. Today sunday worst than yesterday. Right now I am having bad thoughts about opening biz first place… I am very practical and know that Rome wasn’t built in a day. but sometime the anxiety takes over and u can’t help but google right? The good thing is this brings me back to doing more for marketing that i was always delaying. Its truly an opportunity to finish pending marketing etc.. My only question to experienced biz people is “Does beginning of month have any effect on people’s spending habits?” Has anyone else noticed this kind of slowness in the first week of month?

  14. Dennis O'Donnell says

    Hi Froyo,

    I really hope other people chime in with their experience around your question: “Does the beginning of the month have any effect on people’s spending habits?” I’ve had experience running two separate companies, in two different industries, and the only thought I can offer is: it depends on your particular business. There’s definitely a cyclical nature to business – this isn’t news – but every industry is different in what their peak times are. Glad to hear you found some motivation behind this post – one thing is for sure – when things get slow, it’s always a good idea to start hustling and put your own energy behind the business. Best of luck with everything!

  15. Great post.

  16. Dennis O'Donnell says

    Thanks, Jeff!

  17. Thank you so much… I will use your tips when business is slow.

    Powerful & Wonderful post!