Entrepreneurs can make the most of the new normal

May 08, 2020

How can business leaders and entrepreneurs take pole position after COVID-19? John Stapleton explains how they can thrive in uncertain times and drive competitive advantage from the emerging new normal.

The Irish Government issued its Roadmap for Reopening Society & Business over a week ago. So, Ireland has a plan. Sometimes plans raise more questions than answers – but it is a plan nonetheless and a lot more than many other European countries have in place.

For business leaders in general, particularly entrepreneurs, any form of a plan is a good thing. A plan delivers clarity. A plan removes (at least some) uncertainty. This plan comes with lots of caveats (e.g. that infections and death rates remain under some degree of control) but businesses can at least now figure out some scenarios of how to prepare for recovery and re-instigate their businesses given the enforced eight-week hibernation. I can imagine financial directors and controllers up and down the country have been pumping out spreadsheets outlining scenarios ‘X,Y,Z,’ given the different effects the lockdown relaxations will have on their particular business and how quickly they can take advantage of the new business and market ‘freedoms’.

While some industries have been more affected than others, all our feeling the impact of COVID-19. My industry is food and drink. Many think this has been booming during COVID, but it depends on your route to market. If you supply food service (e.g. hospitality/restaurants/events), you have been in a very deep hibernation. If you supply retail, it is a mixed bag. It’s all going to be a different story for each business across all sectors.

One thing for sure is business will not return – ever – to what it was like in January or February. Everyone’s behaviour has been significantly and suddenly affected. While the rules are about to relax and, with them, our behaviours, many new attitudes will stick, at least in part. Just like empty retailer shelves in March were not really driven by panic buying, but rather by every shopper placing a few extra items in their basket (because everyone was cooking at home significantly more). This shows that a slight shift in behaviour by many people can have a profound effect; ultimately, we all need to figure out what this means for our industry and our business going forward.

Working within the new normal

One thing that unites all entrepreneurs, however, is that we are used to adversity. We court adversity – even in the good times. Entrepreneurs also tend to be quite good at seeing the opportunity in uncertainty and turning that uncertainty into competitive advantage. The status quo favours the corporate, who has the resources to drive efficiencies and growth in more certain and predictable times. Entrepreneurs are much more agile and can react and take advantage of new market forces. The real trick for entrepreneurs now is to understand what is coming round the corner – to begin to define the “new normal”.

How many people will continue to work from home – just one day per month more than they did before? How many people will continue to work out at home to something they streamed on YouTube in the last few weeks? How many businesses will decide they don’t need such a large, swanky office in the centre of town and down-size, move to the suburbs or decentralise? How many businesses will reduce travelling to physical meetings and move to web-conference? Do you really need to physically be at that quarterly meeting in New York, or will an annual visit do just as well while the rest are held on Zoom? You only need many people doing a few of these things 5% of the time to move to a “new normal”.

These days, I work with a range of small, early-stage businesses. My message to them is that the Government’s plan is great (and it is great), but the Government doesn’t run your business. That’s your job. This is the time to take control of your business’s destiny. Take the time to define what the “new normal” means for your industry and position yourself to take best advantage of this shift. Entrepreneurs are agile, so play to this strength. Entrepreneurs thrive in uncertain times, so take the opportunity this presents to get to into pole position to be able to kick on purposefully and drive competitive advantage from the emerging new normal. You don’t need to be the best in the world; you just need to be better than your competition (who haven’t recognised the new normal yet).

John Stapleton is an entrepreneur and speaker. He is also a business adviser for Bord Bia.