Learning how to adapt is the reality of any successful business, but COVID-19 was perhaps the ultimate stress test. In a matter of days, businesses in industries such as travel, entertainment and hospitality came to a grinding halt due to lockdowns. Many companies couldn’t withstand the shock of the pandemic and the economic havoc it wrought. And in the first year of the pandemic, the US Federal Reserve estimates that 200,000 more businesses shut down than usual.
Others not only survived the disruption, but thrived. Before the pandemic, for example, Instacart was gaining momentum—but the grocery sector was, for the most part, not digitized. All that changed when COVID-19 hit. According to founder Apoorva Mehta, the app saw five years’ worth of growth in just five weeks. Instacart grew more than 300 percent year over year, and its valuation doubled in 10 months—reaching an astonishing US$18 billion.
Others saw the pandemic as a chance to launch new ventures. When COVID-19 dealt a severe blow to a New Jersey-based deli’s event catering service, which accounted for 50 percent of its revenue, the owner transformed his indoor space into a small market stocked with produce and other kitchen essentials. The move was so successful that the owner was able to open a second location.
At my company, one of our key divisions runs large-scale live events—so we had to pivot to survive. Knowing this, we started exploring different ways to repurpose our event equipment. We considered converting our audiovisual equipment cases into medical units for emergency hospitals. We also contemplated creating UVC lights to sanitize shopping and luggage carts. In the end, we decided the market could benefit from outdoor experiences. So we built a ticket-based attraction where consumers could walk a half-mile through the woods to get an immersive and interactive audiovisual technology experience. In a matter of months, we generated several million dollars of revenue, and we have no plans of turning back.
If you’re an entrepreneur considering a pivot, here are three steps you can take to determine whether it’s a good move for your business:
1. Read the room
What are your customers saying? Are you losing customers? Is your win rate declining? Often, your company’s sales team can answer these questions, but salespeople probably aren’t going out of their way to tell you about all the rejections they receive. After all, rejection is just part of their day-to-day reality. So, make a point to check in with your salespeople on a regular basis, and document your findings so you can pick up on patterns in your customers’ comments. Hearing one comment isn’t impactful, but there’s probably something there if several people convey the same observation to you.
2. Stay on top of the news
I start my days by reading The Wall Street Journal because it keeps me up to date on what’s going on worldwide. Current events might not have anything to do with my industry, but when they do, I want to be the first to know so I can make sure we’re capitalizing on opportunities. For example, there was enormous traction around our UVC light idea at the beginning of the pandemic, and we were really excited about it. But as we learned more about COVID-19 and how it’s transmitted, the urgency around UVC dwindled. That was our signal to refocus our efforts.
3. Put yourself out of business
When I was a salesperson years ago, I used to pose a question to myself that still serves me to this day. I would ask, “If I were a salesperson for a competitor trying to beat me, what would I do?” The goal is to find weak spots. You need to get objective and look at your company from an outside perspective. That competitive mindset will help you stay fresh. That’s ultimately how we came up with the idea for the outdoor experience I mentioned above. We knew COVID-19 would forever change the entertainment industry, and we needed to innovate before our competitors did to capitalize on new market opportunities.
The pandemic and 2020 did a number on businesses throughout the world, but those that made it to the other side did so because they maintained a culture of openness and innovation. COVID-19 wasn’t the first market disruptor—and it certainly won’t be the last. To prepare yourself, keep these strategies in mind and employ them when you need to pivot next.
Contributed by Bob Marsh, the chief revenue officer at Bluewater, a design-forward technology company that helps craft moments that connect and inspire. Specializing in retail technology, displays and fixtures, as well as AV integration and event tech services, Bluewater works with top brands like Walmart, Ford and Rocket Mortgage.