The Entrepreneurial Response to Tough Times in Business: From Crisis to Creativity

The pandemic might be in the rearview for most, but with employee burnout at an all-time high and fluctuations in the economy still rocking the boat, it is still a tough time for many businesses across all industries. The challenges we have collectively faced over the last few years remind me that difficult times in business often become the seed of something great: They force and inspire entrepreneurs, innovators, and creators to rethink their businesses. They provide the blank slate to retool your business and push your limits…but the real question is, will you take advantage of the time?

When I reflect on the ways I’ve seen companies respond to the economic turbulence over the past few years, I’ve noticed two primary reactions:

  1. Some scramble to save themselves: their gut reaction is to cut back everywhere, whether that means letting employees’ go without a second thought, renegotiating the lease, or cutting back on expenses, they dig their heels into the ground and face change with a defensive posture.
  2. Others lean into the change. They recognize that the world has changed a lot, things have changed, and we need to continue to change as well. They go on the offensive and ask themselves how to create new value for people, instead of cutting back on expenses.

For example, at Roam, a lot of our competitors’ first reaction was to immediately lay off, furlough or fire as many employees as possible, because they wanted to conserve what little cash they had. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an article about one of our competitors that came out, and it was shocking to me how insensitively their leadership talked about the circumstances. They laid off six hundred employees right out of the gate, and boasted that they were “proud” of their team because of how courageous they were in making the tough decision to cut staff so significantly. 

Meanwhile, Roam CEO, Peyton Day looked at the same situation and came to a different conclusion. We thought, it doesn’t take much courage to lay off a bunch of people, but what does take courage is to figure out a way to keep them employed. From there, we made a commitment to our employees that we were going to do whatever we could to keep everyone employed during this time period, not knowing how long it would go on. We leaned into the change, and viewed it as an opportunity not to save on expenses, but to deploy our team to create new value that didn’t exist.

In critical moments, challenge your team with the question: 15 years from now, when you look back on this trying time, what story do you want to tell about how you responded and will you be proud of that story? We decided to focus on three key areas to use our team’s productivity to create value and create a story we would all be proud of:

  1. Find new ways to create value for your employees and your customers
    As many organizations did, we had to close all of our locations for two or three months during the height of the pandemic. And during that time, instead of laying everyone off, furloughing people, etc., we channeled the excess capacity and spent time brainstorming. We created project teams to pursue the most promising ideas coming out of those sessions and as a result we:
    • Created and rolled out a new Roam App for members
    • Created and rolled out a Partnership with Kefi to assist working parents with childcare
    • Created and rolled out a new partnership offering Virtual Assistants and social media help as a new membership offering
    • Created and rolled out a new Corporate Membership (we had never really approached corporations to offer memberships)
    • Created and rolled out a Member Referral Program
    • Created and rolled out new safety protocols and procedures that we needed for a post-COVID world
    • Repurposed our newsletter to create virtual member events for community, connection, and personal growth
    • Created and rolled out a new partnership with Safe Hands
    • Successfully executed the Grand Opening of a new location (postponed due to COVID)
    • Created and launched a new podcast called “Make Work Matter”
    • Created and launched a new office sales strategy and campaign
    • Developed and launched a new hospitality strategy and trained the entire organization
    • Got a head start on the next years’ Strategic Planning

One of our Managing Partners captured it well when they said: “I feel like we got three years’ worth of work done in three months.” Instead of feeling like wasted time, it gave us the space needed to tackle all these things we never had time for during normal operations, and produce things that created tremendous value post-COVID. We essentially created a new playbook for the new world in which we find ourselves.

  1. Use the tough times to train & develop your people
    Additionally, we did a lot of training and development during that time because for the first time in the company’s history, everyone was available. Normally we’re all busy running the Roam locations, and the only way you could get people together was after hours, so this unexpected pocket of time was coveted. Now when we look back on that period, most of our employees agree that it was one of the best seasons we’ve had for each of us to train, develop and take our skills and knowledge to the next level. If we are going to expect our people to grow our business, doesn’t it make sense that we would use our business to grow our people? Truett Cathy, the founder of Chick-fil-A, used to say “Businesses don’t succeed or fail…people do.” While it may not feel as intuitive, utilizing the tough times to get creative about growing your business starts with growing your people.
  2. Explore what success looks like on the other side.
    Difficult times also offer an opportunity to explore what it looks like to be successful on the other side. Take our competitor who immediately laid off six hundred people, for example. When the wheels start turning and they begin to crank their business back up (as many finally are now); how do you think that will work out? Will they have made the needed adjustments for the new situation we find ourselves in? What are they going to have that’s of new value for their customers? And how loyal are their employees going to be if they were that disloyal to them? On and on it goes.

During my time at Chick-fil-A, we had several seasons like this where we went through a downside. Out of the first tough season came the Chick-fil-A Corporate Purpose, which is now the central organizing idea for the whole corporation. From the next one came the notion of Second Mile Service (read more on that here), which seemed like a crazy idea at the time, because it was born during the 2007/2008 banking crisis and was predicated on the idea of exceeding customers’ expectations with excellence. During a time when most of our competitors were cutting back on their expenses and employees, Chick-fil-A was adding hours and resources in order to train employees to give Second Mile Service. As a result, Chick-fil-A is now known more for its service than its food!

If you find yourself in a difficult season, I encourage you to find the opportunity or the “seed of greatness” in your circumstances by asking yourself these questions:

  • What story do I want to tell?
  • Am I happy with the story I’ve written so far?
  • Will I be proud of that story ten years from now?
  • What story do I want our team to tell?
  • Will they be proud of that story 10 years from now?

While the answer may come naturally to some, others of you might need a little boost in identifying your next step, or a spark to ignite your plans. Stay curious, continue leaning into the change, and together, we can Spark a Revolution of brands more defined by meaning than money, brands that achieve success in a manner that redefines it.

I’d love to connect with you on social media, you can find me on these platforms:

Together, we can Spark a Revolution of brands more defined by meaning than money, brands that achieve success in a manner that redefines it.

David Salyers
Founder, Spark A Revolution

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