16 Apr How Can Your Business Respond to COVID-19? Insights from Serial Entrepreneur Jeff Hoffman
From Bob Webster, SEAF COO
SEAF and its Centers for Entrepreneurship and Executive Development (CEED) have been helping our portfolio companies and clients act on this very question. The challenges are immediate and significant, but there are strategies and tools to both weather the storm and pivot to new opportunities.
Jeff Hoffman was the speaker for CEED’s inaugural Global Leaders Talk webinar providing practical insights on how a business might successfully respond to COVID-19. He emphasized that while the bad news for small businesses all over the world runs from bad to devastating, there is nevertheless some good news, as chaos always creates opportunity and entrepreneurs live for opportunity caused by disruption. Jeff’s focus on this webinar was on how entrepreneurs can exploit chaos through the “3 R” strategies: Repurpose, Retool or Redeploy.
Repurposing Your Business
When one’s business is shut or locked down, an entrepreneur simply does not know how long they will not be able to sell its products and generate cash. What can you do? One strategy is to repurpose, which means to do a rapid self-assessment of one’s business’ skills and capabilities that you might be able to repurpose for a business opportunity created out of the chaos caused by COVID-19. Here’s a simple process of how repurposing can work:
- On the left side of a whiteboard, make a list of the talent, skills, capabilities, and resources of your company and team
- On the right side, create a chart of the COVID-19 related problems in the community around you
- Map your talent, skills, capabilities, and resources to see what you might be able to solve
- Develop new products and services you can deliver during the crisis
How can this work? Jeff cited one example of a small US firm that produced vodka for small liquor stores and restaurants that unfortunately closed due to lockdowns and thus stopped making orders. What did the entrepreneur do? She went through the repurpose exercise, listing out her chemistry skills, being able to work with alcohol, and having large mixing tanks as her company’s capabilities. She then mapped out the dire market need for hand sanitizer, the manufacture of which requires the same capabilities. Today, after repurposing, she and her employees are working round the clock, hiring like crazy and bringing in more revenue than before.
Another example is a consumer electronic company with delivery capability. The company’s orders had declined dramatically and the entrepreneur wondered what he could do. He decided to map out his capabilities, which included the ability to receive online orders and to deliver those via small vehicles. Restaurants had a great need for this technology, as they no such capability and were otherwise in lockdown (i.e. no customers!), to meet take out order demand and survive themselves. The entrepreneur repurposed and adapted his entire business.
“Repurposing is looking to see what problem you can solve now with the skills you have,” said Jeff.
Retooling Your Business
Whether you can repurpose or not, retooling represents an opportunity to take advantage of the significant downtime of your team to ask yourself, “What are the skills and capabilities that I would love my team to acquire but which we’ve never had the time to dedicate to this?” Your team is perhaps furloughed or at least idle with time on their hands, so now is a great time to retool by acquiring new skills capabilities so that when you come out of the other side of COVID-19 you are a stronger company.
Jeff cited the example of a consumer products company whose business had taken a sharp downturn as its retail store customers had shut down. In response to Jeff’s question, “What do you wish you could do”, the entrepreneur answered, “I wish I could do predictive behavior analysis for my consumer markets.” What is he doing now? All of his team has been taking free artificial intelligence courses for an AI certificate and they are designing a consumer predictive behavior algorithm so that when they come out on the other side of COVID-19, they will have a much stronger marketing and product development approach.
So, the question is, “What certificates would you like to get? What skills or education do you want to develop for your team that you never had time to develop?” Now could be the time to go for it.
Redeploying Your Business
Everyone can retool to some degree but not everyone can repurpose. However, when going through the repurpose exercise, consider the skills and capabilities your business has and ask, “Can my employees be sent out to help those organizations or companies that are on the front lines of addressing immediate challenges caused by COVID-19 in their communities?”
A software company was shut down due to the crisis and was unsure of what to do. As it turns out, this firm had strong SEO and SEM capabilities, as well as talented online marketing staff and graphic designers. However, all of these employees were furloughed. So, what to do?
The entrepreneur saw an interview of the medical director of a local hospital who was bemoaning the misinformation on COVID and thus the community’s lack of awareness regarding the proper behavior, understanding of how COVID spreads, what the appropriate treatments were and so forth. He stated that he wanted to put out proper information because people trust them, but they were unsure as to how as they were doctors and not online marketers. The software company decided to donate the time of his graphic designers and digital team to create a COVID awareness campaign for the hospital.
But the story did not end there. As it turned out, the hospital later received a government grant to help with its COVID response and was able to temporarily hire all of the company’s digital marketing staff due to this grant.
Even if redeployment does not lead to income generation, it can be a powerful employee engagement tool, as doing something productive, particularly being part of the solution, can be a powerful antidote to the sense of powerlessness that one can feel during a time like this.
Of course, many businesses are in such dire straits, perhaps even already shut down, such that deploying any one of the “3 R” strategies is simply not possible. However, for those businesses that are able to keep their doors open a bit longer, these strategies remain tools they can employ not only to weather the storm but perhaps even to come out stronger in a post-COVID-19 world. For more insight and examples from this CEED Global Leaders Talk, as well as some of Jeff’s insights on industry opportunities, please see the webinar.
Create A Small Business CEO Group in your Community
Another point Jeff provided was the idea of forming new communities for mutual support. He advocated reaching out to all small business CEOs in your community, including ones you would not nor normally associate with, such as competitors and those in completely different industries, and set up a weekly zoom call, say every Friday, in order to share survival tips. Every Friday, the working group could share with each other, “What did you do today? Who was able to get a 90-day extension on their rent from their landlord and how did you pull that off? Who found a new government program to help businesses through the crisis? Who found a great way to negotiate terms with suppliers in a way so that you didn’t lose the contract?”
While global, SEAF’s CEED program is a great example of this. CEED is creating those communities for entrepreneurs to share, find areas of collaboration, seek opportunities together, see their challenges from another perspective, and find solutions. CEED knows how entrepreneurs learn and grow, which is why it focuses on the 4Cs – community, capacity building, connections, and capital needs. CEED is providing this to entrepreneurs across ten countries and is now working to do so in a virtual way with entrepreneurs from across the globe.
Opportunities through Disruption
In addition to Jeff’s outlining the 3R strategies, he also discussed how the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic was creating opportunities for businesses worldwide. The three industries noted below were already on the edge of disruption, and COVID-19 might just be what leads them to being disrupted: online work, online education, and online healthcare.
Virtual Working Tools: With so many companies now learning to work from home using the tools that already exist, such as Slack and Zoom, virtual or remote work could become the norm. Right now, there is much discussion on what we like and do not like about the limited tools, so if you have an idea on how to make virtual work more effective and satisfying, you have a tremendous business opportunity. And, this is not just a local, regional or country market opportunity, but a global market opportunity.
Online Education and Live Events: So many schools and universities were so unprepared for moving quickly to virtual classrooms, as were the live events organizations (e.g. conferences and concerts), but now that this Rubicon has been crossed, we can expect a huge market opportunity for those who can develop, market and distribute online education and event tools to make the experience as effective as possible.
Telemedicine: What do you do when you can’t go to a doctor? Is there a way to share medical records virtually with other health care providers? What things do you drive to a doctor or a medical center now that new technology will allow these to be done virtually? Can more preventive care practices be handled virtually? Jeff cited the example of how it is now possible to have an EKG done via an app and support cables on your phone, rather than having to go to a medical office for this important procedure.
These three areas represent massive opportunities at the moment, and we look forward to seeing what creative advancements and inventions are created out of this crisis.
Jeff Hoffman Bio
Jeff Hoffman’s first startup was a software company called CTI, where he earned the title twice of one of ’25 Most Influential Executives’ in travel and tourism. He also founded and became the CEO of Virtual Shopping Inc., a software and hardware developer for online retail.
In 1997 he founded Priceline.com, again acting as CEO for the family of companies. He left Priceline.com to launch and be the CEO of Black Sky Entertainment. Here he produced concerts for some pretty big names, like Elton John. While serving as CEO of Black Sky Entertainment, he took up the CEO post of Enable Holdings as well.
Currently, Hoffman acts as the founder and partner of ColorJar, a venture accelerator firm. He looks to inspire entrepreneurship in others, having been the Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Georgia Tech and in mentoring other entrepreneurs. For his continuous work, the Lifetime Achievement Award in Entrepreneurship was awarded to Hoffman in 2010.