Editor’s note: Billy Warden is a writer and the co-founder, with Greg Behr, of the p.r./marketing firm GBW Strategies.
DURHAM – The stock market was nosediving. Panic gripped millions of Americans. I decided to start a business.
At the time, early 2008, many offered sympathies. Surely, the conventional wisdom went, no seed – outside of poison ivy – could flourish in the sour soil of the Great Recession. But my business partner and I sensed something other than catastrophe unfolding; we saw a coming change that could sustain the kind of public relations/marketing business we had in mind.
Flash forward from 2008 to 2020 and the all-consuming crisis we know as the coronavirus pandemic. The situations are different, for sure. Doctors, not bankers, are the stars of cable news coverage. And certainly, today’s troubles are deep and serious.
Still, from the general position of making a major move during weird and dangerous times, here are four things to consider, from business angles to your mindset:
‘SHUT DOWNS’ DON’T SHUT OFF CREATIVITY
Today, we hear terms like ‘shut down’ a lot. In 2008, we heard the economy was ‘crippled’ and ‘paralyzed.’ But the truth is, the economy is resilient and dynamic – and the human imagination even more so.
The “severe shock” of 2007-08 “fueled a surge in entrepreneurship,” according to economics professor Robert Fairlie. By 2009, entrepreneurship “was 17 percent higher than it had been three years before.” Airbnb welcomed its first customers in 2008. Uber soon followed.
In North Carolina as well, creative go-getters founded their own start ups rather than attempting to find a place in the then-sluggish world of big business. It’s no coincidence that the American Underground and other Tar Heel startup hubs launched around 2010. They were meeting surging new demand from young companies seeking affordable office space and other support.
Point being, if you’re inclined toward entrepreneurship, don’t get stuck in the seemingly endless rut of dire news. We are all at risk now, whether we’re starting a business or not. Be smart, but don’t feel paralyzed. Markets endure, innovation is welcome and you can make great things happen, perhaps even solutions to our most vexing problems.
New approaches to consistent needs: All entrepreneurs take a chance, that’s the glory of it. But during tough times, a daring entrepreneur may take some comfort in knowing he/she is at least addressing a well established need.
Back in 2008, for example, my partner and I were pretty sure that while many businesses were in jeopardy, plenty would not only survive but need ongoing communications help. Our bet was that the decision-makers would take a more critical look at agencies with massive overheads (armies of staff, blockbuster rents) and at least be curious about more cost-efficient alternatives.
Far from being a barrier, the financial crisis proved to be our entry point. C-level decision-makers were under pressure to save money without sacrificing results. The managers who had survived lay-offs were eager to put their individual stamps on how their companies conducted business. The proverbial door was open, and we hurried in.
Part of what’s so stunning about the coronavirus pandemic is the way it has upended monumental sectors of our economy and culture: K-12 education, higher education, food supply, entertainment, tourism. To say these involve well established needs is a woeful understatement. For innovative thinkers and doers, the doors to society’s mightiest citadels are now open.
RIDING EXISTING MOMENTUM
Market economies are always evolving. Smart executives continually strain to see around corners. New ideas are always in play, and today’s budding entrepreneurs can use recent trends to gain traction and momentum.
My business emerged just as social media was blasting open a brave new communications frontier. We eagerly embraced the enticing new technology, making Facebook and its successors part of our pitch.
Today, interest is surging in work-from-home services. But this was a trending topic well before Covid-19, which means an entrepreneur who wants to explore the space can quickly bone up on the lexicon (e.g. ‘asynchronous work’) and the fast-emerging players (@FirstbaseHQ, @figmadesign) en route to forging partnerships or building a better mousetrap.
On the same theme but at a macro level, the notion of ‘bridging the digital divide’ — bringing robust internet services to disenfranchised communities — is now even more mission critical for society.
BUILDING SOMETHING IS A SANITY-SAVER
I have a relative who stays plugged in to news via TV or radio just about every waking minute. I suppose she’s well informed. She’s also, even in better times, a nervous wreck.
It’s not just the unceasing flow of alarming information that gets her; it’s the powerlessness she feels to do anything about it. In 2008, I was sometimes anxious, but I reveled in the small degree of control that came with plotting and executing a new business. Every proposal, every meeting became not just a chore leading to a paycheck, but a puzzle piece in putting back together a shattered world.
Human beings are wired to learn, create and strive to somehow master their environments. Of course, our current environment is tremendously challenging. No one should doubt or minimize that. But in troubled times, our built-in tendencies toward discovery are more necessary than ever.