There’s no doubt that businesses have been hit hard this year. Just walk down the street and you’ll notice a flurry of ‘permanently closed’ signs, boarded windows and empty buildings. According to recent Yelp stats, 55% of the businesses that closed never came back again.
It’s all doom and gloom. But while some people look at the situation and run for the hills, others see life-changing business opportunities. By visualizing the path leading to success, these go-getters manage to prosper while navigating the chaos. To them, ‘backing down’ is an unknown concept.
Here are the stories and life lessons of 7 influential entrepreneurs that thrived during the pandemic, and built businesses to last. They succeeded in the most uncertain, threatening economy to date, and you can too.
We Slowed Things Down
Yousef Abuzuaiter, Founder of OhFresh, an exotic health food company geared at ending food deserts in America, slowed things down when COVID hit.
“On the way up, we sometimes forget to build the foundation to support our levels of growth. I decided to slow things down and take time to develop alternative processes and methods. This tough time brought us closer to our employees. We empowered them to take initiative and make decisions. We couldn’t have done it without working as a family.”
We Went All In
“When COVID hit, I was running a successful youth sports league about to have its biggest season in history. After canceling, we found ourselves drowning in refund requests and financial instability.
But Arin visited his community park and spotted an opportunity. “There was a man selling wood-fired pizza from a trailer. That evening, it hit me. There was a huge demand for fresh food while restaurants were closed. I could leverage my database of community members built up from my youth sports business. I called one of my colleagues who has experience in the food truck industry to team up.”
He went all in, and it was the perfect complement to his sports business. During a period of low morale, he rides into different neighborhoods and makes an impact, bringing communities together with fresh pizza.
Arin Finger’s story is living proof that it’s not as hard as you might think to pivot into new territory — at least temporarily — when your main income stream is ripped from under you. Leveraging their existing resources gave them a leg up in the food truck space and ensured that their odds of success were much higher.
We Listened Closer
Matthew Pierce, Founder and CEO of Versus Systems, a video game software company, prioritized his workforce. “We’re as empathetic as we can be to our players, customers, and employees. This year has created innumerable challenges. Respond by listening to the needs of your people,” Pierce says.
Pierce values the people that make it happen most.
“We’ve worked hard to listen and focus on our team’s comfort. We moved to a work-from-home model, added multiple holidays into the calendar, and added days off to promote community engagement.
We’re conscious that our co-workers, partners, and clients have lives outside work. We acknowledge their concerns and ease their burdens wherever we can. Our strategy has meant that we are incredibly well-positioned for growth. It all starts by listening, and taking care of one another.”
There are countless companies that completely forget about the well-being of their employees whenever their finances are in hot water. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with paying attention to the economic side of things during downtrends but that’s never an excuse to neglect the needs of your workforce.
By putting the wellbeing of his employees first, Pierce has helped his company wade through the high waters of the past year.
We Doubled Down on Social Media
Mitch Glaser, Cofounder of Fredi, knew the importance of adaptability even before COVID.
“As an investment banker at Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs, I was forced to adopt wellness measures to stay afloat. These techniques were so beneficial to my mental and physical health, I decided to build a company around them.”
COVID has made his company’s message even more relevant to those struggling with the remote workplace transition. E-commerce demand and social media engagement are growing, and Fredi’s success is a product of doubling down on social media.
“COVID has confirmed that adaptability is everything. From TikTok’s rise, to floods in China driving up ingredient prices, to backdated shipping. It’s why we operate a lean team. While this means we must shoulder more of the workload, it offers more financial flexibility when navigating unexpected setbacks.”
The lesson in Mitch’s story is you should remain both agile and versatile if you hope to weather the storms that may come across your business. It’s also a prime example of just how valuable prior experiences can be when you’re running your own company. His time as an investment banker boosted his mental fortitude and taught him how to remain calm.
We Focused on Long-Term Strategy
Danny Cortenraede is the Managing Partner of Wannahaves, and President of 433 digital media agency.
“We are focusing on developing long-term partnerships with EA, Nike, BMW, and athletes that understand the value of building a brand. We noticed that during COVID, after having to downsize and review our strategy, our community and sales have increased enormously. 2020 is about making smart moves, looking at a long-term approach,” says Cortenraede.
It’s far too easy to get caught up in the prospect of immediate returns and short-term goals but we shouldn’t forget to look at the bigger picture. Danny reminds us that there are many things in the business world that are well worth the wait.
Wannahaves’ pandemic survival story is also a reminder that we should strengthen our existing relationships with clients rather than falling victim to shiny object syndrome and only focusing on new prospects. Retention is far more important than acquisition, especially during turbulent periods.
COVID created an ongoing demand for customized websites and applications due to the influx of entrepreneurs. Grady Flinn, Founder & CEO of Flinnwest Solutions, shares: “I have been in the digital industry for 25 years. A digital strategy is no longer an option; it’s a necessity. Many new companies are now seeing the value of a digital marketing plan.
At first, the pandemic took a toll. Many long-term clients backed out of contracts. Our office shifted to accommodate employees working from home. It was uncomfortable, but all great entrepreneurs learn to evolve in the face of adversity. Now we can proudly report that we are performing better than ever!”
While an initial downturn is to be expected whenever uncertain times hit, Grady was actually in a really good spot considering the circumstances. This pandemic has forced companies to accelerate their shift towards an online presence as brick-and-mortar stores or physical offices simply weren’t viable anymore.
With an added emphasis on the digital world, no one was shocked when the demand for well-made websites sharply rose. A website is the first thing that customers see when searching for a company and thus entrepreneurs who have shifted their focus to the online side of things are more than willing to pay top dollar for quality.
The growth spurt that online retail is evident in stories like Amazon hiring 100,000 new employees. One might say that this is merely an act of altruism on the part of Bezos but companies as successful as Amazon aren’t the type to hire new recruits out of goodwill unless there’s enough consumer demand to justify it.
If there’s one takeaway from this it’s that building a business with future demand in mind — such as those that support online expansion — is a very good way to sustain growth and stay afloat even in the middle of a global recession.
We Found Our Reason Why
Evan Hamlin, Co-Founder and CEO of the artifact jewelry brand Alexander Drake, changed his path in life. After a consulting career that took him to places like Abu Dhabi or Brazil, he got an MBA from Wharton and turned to Silicon Valley.
“I decided to join a small startup called TellApart, which was a great decision because of my equity.” TellApart, with under 100 employees, became Twitter’s largest acquisition in 2015. His next start-up was acquired by Salesforce in 2018 for $800M. These back-to-back exits made Evan desirable to recruiters, but he was set on pursuing his grandfather’s legacy.
“The passing of my grandfather made me take a sabbatical. I poured my energy into my passion project. I left a six-figure salary to start a jewelry business. When things get too comfortable, something in me starts to wither and die.”
His advice is to be clear on why your brand exists. “Start with the soul and work outwards. Market opportunities are ephemeral, and you should always expect rapid competition. But if people resonate with your brand’s purpose, they’ll come to you before anyone else because of your ‘why’”, says Evan.
Evan is a clear testament to the belief that loving what you do is more important than securing the highest salary. Genuine interest in your craft brings drive, and with drive comes inevitable profit. It should come as no surprise that the man with two high-profitable exits has managed to continue his fiscal growth even amidst a crisis.
There’s so much to learn from these amazing entrepreneurs. No journey is perfect, and even the sharpest people can struggle to reach fulfillment and prosperity. But their hardship serves as a very important lesson: You can do it, too.
Entrepreneurs are ordinary people with a plan and some optimism. And like these entrepreneurs once did, even on the brink of failure, you must adapt, press forward and create your own path. It’s time to take control, and end 2020 on a high. Even when life is looking bleak, never let this pandemic stop you from thriving.