Late last week, like many who freelance and consult, I received the news we all dread to hear. A client had called a halt to “business as usual” and was suspending my project. It was a double blow for me, as it was also the first project on a new path. After a year of intense disruption caused by cancer, ill health and uncertainty, it had felt like things were finally starting to track back in the right direction.
Subconsciously I knew this would happen. My work was researching various South East Asian markets to look for opportunities to expand. As February rolled on I watched China struggle, Japan battle with the Diamond Princess, South Korea crush the virus and Viet Nam’s healthcare miracle. It was obvious something was happening when I started getting emails back from potential distributors asking for delays, and possible partners suggest they weren’t able to commit in the “current climate”.
At home I watched the scene unfold with painful inevitability. Italy closed down, first in a bungled effort to contain the virus in certain states, then triggering the zero option as it shut down the country. Others followed, and I watched supply chains fracture as staff stayed away, borders closed and companies went on hiatus. By the start of last week it was certain the UK would also close – the question was when.
Over the past few days I’ve spoken with several business owners who are feeling the pain. There’s uncertainty as to whether they’ll be able to open again. The Government is paying 80% of staff wages, but that still leaves 20% to find. Offers of state help have turned into loans that will need to be repaid at some point. Evictions are to be stopped, which is little help when rent debt piles up and adds to the future burden of businesses already struggling to survive.
Commentators and consultants are piling in, talking of global recession and an economic impact that could be with us far longer than the fall-out of the 2008 financial crisis. Everyone – from states to citizens – will take on more debt that is likely to hurt the poorest in our society the most. The overwhelming tone of these opinions is negative. Despairing, even.
Behind the dark skies there is optimism. Every recession brings a swathe of new opportunities. Some behaviours will change and lead to new products and services. Smart entrepreneurs will spot lasting gaps they’ll step in to. Companies that have survived will see customers return.
The right thing to do now is batten down the hatches and prepare for the storm. Just don’t let survival become the all-consuming focus for the coming weeks. Invest time and energy in popping your head above the parapet. Take a look see not only if the proverbial “green shoots” have sprung up but also if there are opportunities you could reasonably tap into. Now could well be the time to reach out to potential channels, suppliers and partners. Perhaps even competitors.
One thing I’ve learnt from the various recessions I’ve survived is those businesses who mix robust management for today with strategic planning for tomorrow are the ones most likely to thrive.
As for my fledgling business? I know few people will be interested in digging into markets and strategic trends. It won’t stop me from preparing for when they are, nor from building up the relationships I’ll need in the years ahead. If anything, I’ve been handed an opportunity I’d be a fool to waste.