Adjust the Sails; Stay the Course

When it comes to a discussion about the year so far, if it’s one thing upon which I think we could all agree, it would be that this year has been all about change. Unlike previous years, where it may have been about major changes affecting some segments or communities, so far, this year has been about widespread and long lasting change that has swept across all sectors.

With no signs of letting up, this situation is calling (screaming?) for us to adapt if we are to persevere. As we continue to navigate these changes, perhaps anticipating things to get much worse before they get better, it goes without saying that the ones who are best able to stay the course are the ones best able to navigate the turns. Or the one best able to look outside of themselves and instead at a world in need.

But this can be a difficult process. Words and phrases like “transformation” and “paradigm shift” tend to dismay many as they appear to call for a great deal of work and effort. But even the smallest effort, once made in the right direction, can have the greatest impact.

It all begins with a change in the way we look at things.

Think Big, Act Small

We know that economies across the world continue to be adversely affected. We know that businesses (big and small) continue to react to what is happening, licking wounds and dusting themselves off. We know some sectors have been harder hit than others but, for better or worse, we know that this still remains a situation in which we are all together.

For the small business sector, these events continue to manifest on an existential level; potentially threatening its very survival, rapidly eroding profit margins and plans for sustainable growth, creating uncertainty and chaos at every turn, and all but dashing any hopes that may have been held at the beginning of the year.

So what hope is there for this vulnerable but essential sector? The very backbone of the modern day economy. Even as small businesses continue to struggle with limited cash flows, stagnated operations, and without question, compromised employee physical and emotional health and wellbeing – there is still opportunity.

We just need to find it.

Or, more specifically, we need to change the focus of our gaze; no longer just looking at what is going wrong but instead toward what can go right and what we can do to realise it. The question is how can we broaden our ambitions to that point? How do we realistically arrive at a point where we are able to look past what is happening now and start looking at what we want to happen in the future?

When the going gets tough…

Ironically, one of the things that COVID-19 has given many is time. It may seem that much is happening quickly (and it most certainly is) but the pandemic has also given us a time to think. A slowed down economy often gives us time when we can reassess our positions with an eye to improving them. Small business owners and entrepreneurs can take a look at the changing needs within the economy, perhaps taking a page from what products and services are starting to go into demand and where possible, adapting to suit.

It should not come as a surprise that it is usually during times like these that many people, having more time to reflect upon their careers, choose the entrepreneurial path. It may sound counterintuitive but it is not unreasonable for that one person, who, having tabled their entrepreneurial dream in favour of a standard 9 to 5 job, to reopen that conversation on how they can make the dream a reality. There are always growing opportunities in small business ownership, making it an ideal time to consider entrepreneurship adapted to present and projected conditions.

How many successful small businesses owed their origins to an entrepreneur taking a look around at their life and making that leap to change things? How many entrepreneurs have shared stories of how they made that conscious decision, in the face of uncertainty and the ever present threat of failure, to start a business because it was what they always wanted to do?

One thing that we know is that during, and in the aftermath of recessions, more people who are out of work will turn to starting their own businesses. Whether these people are still business owners in 3 or 5 years remains to be seen (and definitely something we have to work on).

But at least in the near term, interest in starting businesses is high and so is the desire for products and services to set up and get going in business. On an aside, many financial institutions have begun offering special packages to help small businesses during these times. Apart from loans moratoria (which came as a great relief to many), it is not a far cry to say that we look even further into similar special products, services, and training geared specifically to start-up business. What’s more, these can expanded to include as wide a gamut of potential entrepreneurs as possible.

If we are to expect an increased demand, then it stands to reason that we can do even more to meet this demand. COVID-19 may be a threat but it can also be a catalyst for the very change we need to overcome it.

Adjust the Sails; Stay the Course

The challenge that awaits small business owners and entrepreneurs, and by extension, the entire public and private sectors, is to find ways to turn opportunities into realities. Accomplishing such a feat was already hard before the pandemic. It will no doubt be even harder as we settle down further in this pandemic age.

Settle down, yes. But never settle.

Small businesses actually have an advantage that their larger counterparts do not. The push toward a more virtual way of life and commerce is a change that has been hastened by this pandemic. This is where the more nimble and imaginative of businesses come in.

Here is an opportunity for small business to lead the way in terms of new inventions, processes, services, and products better adapted to the digital and virtual age. We have seen the rise of companies like Zoom and Skype, which, while in existence for more than a decade, really took off as more businesses and governments began turning to online solutions when it comes to meetings and conferences.

The technology they offer may not be new per se but it definitely is timely and sought after. Such innovations have quickly moved from being “fads” to assets increasingly vital to our ability to conduct business and our capacity for economic growth. These innovations and many others have and will have a significant role in the new normal as they will provide the tools to make economies more competitive in an increasingly globalised marketplace; a marketplace that is eager to pick up the pieces following the pandemic. One of the strengths in our current economic climate is the export sector, and regional and international trade represent opportunities for small businesses. Unfortunately, in the past, many small business owners have not been as proactive as they can be about trading with foreign partners.

For example, our leaders of the future need to understand trading patterns and be able to identify opportunities therein. What does Trinidad import? From whom? Why? Outside of oil and gas, what do we export? And to whom?

Yes, Trinidad and Tobago is a predominantly energy based economy. But considering that price of oil was virtually negative a few months ago, we have clearly seen how exposed we can be. We have a vibrant agricultural sector, robust construction and manufacturing sectors, and creative and tourist sectors that are all in need of some careful attention and investment. These are areas to be explored.

And I believe that is applicable, not just to Trinidad and Tobago but I think to all of the markets in which we operate. Entrepreneurs and small businesses can consider what the needs are in this new normal and whether they are being satisfied. And if they are being satisfied can it be further improved? If they can be improved, how can they be done so sustainably? Of course, governments and policymakers have a significant role to play in getting these sectors into stronger, more sustainable positions, but entrepreneurs and the small business leaders of tomorrow have an equally important part to play in achieving success. Invariably, the process has to begin with data and I don’t know if the data is available. But that would be the challenge for our government, to make that data ready available, and the challenge for small business owners and entrepreneurs to use that data wisely.

All in all, entrepreneurs should never be dismayed when they look around at the way the world is because they should always be looking for ways to make it better. Adaptability has always been a primary focus within the entrepreneurial community. When a crisis occurs, the entrepreneur should already looking at how they can adapt so their businesses can continue to move forward. Potential entrepreneurs should already be looking at how they can create a product or service adapted to this crisis.

One main area to consider is how to make their business a bigger earner or saver of foreign exchange; to move beyond looking at the present and just competing among ourselves. We need to broaden our ambitions.

And the best part is that they are never alone. There are always big businesses and investors looking to them see how they might be able to help. What do you think? What are some ways that we can adjust the sails and stay the course?

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