I’ve talked to many businesses who were doing great before the COVID-19 pandemic. These organizations were relatively new (less than ten years old) before the pandemic. They had fought hard through the early days. In January, profitability was good, and sales were through the roof. Their team was firing on all cylinders, and 2020 was set to be a banner year. They were in the business lifecycle stage we call Fun.

And then March hit, and all that momentum evaporated in a moment. Restaurants shuddered. Offices were closed. Key clients were lost. The new sales faucet completely turned off.

The last four months have been a real struggle for businesses like this.

I read a report early in the pandemic that said the average small business had about two weeks of cash in reserves. In a crisis that has already taken four months and is far from over, two weeks of cash, even eight weeks of PPP money, is simply not enough.

This is particularly painful for business owners. They had paid their dues in Early Struggle. They worked unbelievably hard to do the right things to get their business off the ground. And now, through no fault of their own, here they are again, wondering if their business will survive.

A three-phase action plan

Early in the crisis, I wrote up an action plan for businesses to not only cope with the pandemic’s realities but also use it as a catalyst for even greater growth over the medium-to-long term. I released the content in an ebook, The Upside of a Downturn, which you can find HERE.

If you’ve not already downloaded and ready the ebook, I would strongly recommend you do that now. The rest of the article will build on those steps I’ve laid out there.

The three phases laid out in The Upside of a Downturn, are 

  • Phase 1: Build a clear strategy for your team.
  • Phase 2: Re-tool your sales and marketing.
  • Phase 3: Move fast.

Three Essential Principles for Fun Organizations

In addition to those phases, here are three principles that can be applied on top of the strategy to help businesses in Fun get back into winning form.

1. Setup the system for Operators

Fortunately, businesses who were in Fun have a critical asset that will allow them to get back what they’ve lost over the last few months AND actually come out ahead of where they would have been if the pandemic had never happened. 

What is that critical asset? Operators!

Operators are wired to finish and to fix, and organizations in Fun are usually full of them. They do scrappy all day every day. That’s why it is common for us to find many Operators in Fun businesses, where they don’t have mountains of systems and processes getting in their way.

These difficult times are the glory days for Operators. Many I have spoken with have talked about feeling sharper than ever. The crisis gave them focus, and it highlights their strengths in a team. Here are a few characteristics of an Operator:

  • Relentless 
  • Task finisher
  • Action-oriented
  • Great improviser
  • Happy to work long hours

With fundamental skills like these, it’s easy to see why they do so well in times like these.

While the other three styles each bring value in challenging times, here are the pitfalls of each type.

  • Visionaries love to start and solve. In a crisis, Visionaries can go into overdrive, creating and creating and starting fires all over an organization, but not hanging around long enough to see anything through to completion. In particular, they must resist the temptation to pursue new markets right now. More on this later.
  • Processors love to control and limit risk. In a crisis, strong Processors can fall into an overly-protective, inwardly-focused mindset. It’s easy to understand why with the genuine threats facing the organization. But now is not the time to implement more systems and processes. You’ll probably need to bend or even break some existing methods to enable you to respond faster.
  • Synergists love to build consensus. In a crisis, natural Synergists can try too hard to make things comfortable for their team, trying to protect the individuals at the expense of the business. While I am all for taking care of and supporting your staff, the best way to do that is to make sure everyone is working harder than ever to find a way of adding value to customers.

Do your best to limit Processor and Synergist demands at the leadership level.

2. Continue to focus on sales within your existing market

There is a strong temptation to pivot what you sell or to whom you sell. While this could be the key to your success, it could also mean the end of your business. Here’s one question that will help you determine the difference between whether your pivot will end with winning and losing: 

Are you pivoting within your market, or are you pivoting to another market?

Pivoting to another market is dangerous and should be considered a last resort. In the vast majority of cases, pivoting to another market is entirely unnecessary.

I can understand why you may want to pivot to another market (like a distiller producing hand sanitizer), but here’s what is actually happening. You are tossing out whatever momentum, market knowledge, and sales know-how that you still had. You’ve primarily started over in one of the most challenging times to start over. 

Instead of pivoting to another market, you need to pivot within your existing market. The series I wrote on How to Get Your Sales Back on Track will show you how you can keep your product and service offering largely intact and put your operators to work on pivoting the way you sell and market instead.

Additionally, you can do the following exercise to understand how you can pivot your product or services within your existing market.

  1. Define who your target market was before the crisis. 
  2. Determine whether or not that market is going to come back after the crisis.
  3. Identify the 3-5 key ways (or more) your customers in your market is struggling right now.
  4. Brainstorm how you can use your current resources (everything from staff, to flexibility, to comfort with risk to subject matter knowledge)
  5. Take this information to your current market and tell your customers how you can help them now.

This last point is SO important. The last thing anyone needs is for a vendor to say, “How Can I Help.” We need you to show us how you can help now. We need to bring your expertise, your skill, and your ingenuity. When you do, you will find so many new opportunities. And in the end, your willingness and ability to serve now when it’s not easy will be rewarded by loyal customers for years to come! 

3. Don’t let quality drop

Pivoting is no excuse to be sloppy. Sure, some mistakes and the market may be slightly more forgiving, but keeping a sharp eye on quality is a vital guard rail for you to establish as a leader. Your Operators are great at producing quality work, so long as you are providing quality direction. 

Because things are changing so rapidly, your meetings need to be functioning at 100%. Don’t let meetings (or meeting attendance) start to slide. As much as your Operators would rather be out there doing, you must get some time together to give them the clarity they need to do their jobs well and stay focused on what matters most.

How to use your meetings to keep your quality up:

  1. Keep central “Why” and use it to establish organization-wide priorities.
  2. Facilitate information sharing across departments to shorten feedback loops as much as possible
  3. Intentionally bend or suspend systems and processes together to limit want on non-compliance individually
  4. Pull weeds for the Operators: Help your team clear their to-do lists and get rid of what is not working. Doing this will provide them with space they need to focus on and creatively problem solve.
  5. Celebrate wins. Few things fill us up like a genuine attaboy for a job well done. Use your meetings to recognize high quality work publicly.

To those who rise above

If your business was in Fun when this crisis hit, I’m sorry. The effects are likely profoundly disappointing. However, it doesn’t need to end there, and I hope this article has given you clarity on what you need to do to get back to winning form.

P.S. This stuff isn’t just theory, it really works. I’ve spent much of the crisis consulting with businesses who were in Fun. Now that we are a few months in, I can tell you there is a marked difference in those who have taken these steps and those who haven’t. It’s not too late to get back in the game! Go for it!