As we catapult through the first quarter of 2021, the majority of those I speak with have little if anything good to say about last year — in fact, most of the comments I hear are not suitable for print. Of course, this is understandable when we consider the impact of COVID-19, the shuttering of many businesses, particularly those in the retail sector, civil unrest and a political divide seemingly wider than the Grand Canyon.
Despite this downtrodden view of 2020, I prefer to have my glass half full. Sure, there were some things happening in 2020 that were challenging. However, isn’t that the case every year? I’ll grant you the challenges of 2020 may have been a bit more severe than we would experience in a typical year, but problems are problems, and unfortunately, problems never go away. Once we tackle one, there is another waiting in line to take its place.
So, when looking back on 2020, while I certainly experienced and witnessed the same challenges as others, I prefer to remember 2020 as a year of opportunity. Before you stop reading, give me a chance to make my case.
There is little doubt that every businessperson would rather experience a positive business climate and consistent success than the opposite. As the saying goes, all boats rise with the rising tide. In my career I have been fortunate to experience a number of “rising tides.” I worked in the computer industry during the transition from mainframes to distributed client/server systems. I worked in the office technology industry during the transition from analog to digital and again as the industry embraced software and professional services delivery. I was a direct beneficiary of each of these market shifts and I was quite happy to think that in some way I was helping to drive these changes.
However, as I think back to those times, I have to wonder whether the performance my respective organization was delivering was optimal or if I was just benefiting from the mounting swell and leaving opportunity behind. As much as I might like to think that I was capturing the full value available from the market, honesty would force me to admit that despite great success there was still value left to be had.
And herein lies why 2020, in my view, was a year of opportunity. Being in the business world for nearly 30 years now, what I have noticed is that many businesses do their best work in times of difficulty. Challenges force businesses to engage in activities that may be overlooked during great times. In essence, success can hide many faults. In times of distress, businesses find ways to adapt – as they must. Whether it be economic downturns, recessions, or a global pandemic, successful businesses often throw out the traditional playbook, taking what might be considered risks in good times.
2020 provides some excellent examples of business adaptation, many of which are continuing today. For example, in the restaurant industry, we witnessed small businesses take immediate action to invest in their dining activities, ensuring they could still host patrons both inside and outside. We also witnessed many of these same establishments change their menus and begin offering drive-up and take-out services. Still others partnered with other local businesses in driving campaigns to attract new customers. Despite COVID and shutdowns, these innovative businesses have survived and as things improve, will likely maintain a new set of services capable of bringing added customers, revenue and profit.
In businesses across various industry sectors, we have seen investments made in work automation. Whether in accounts payable/receivable, human resources, claims processing or a host of other areas, challenging times often provide the impetus to target process improvement. For businesses that took this approach, while these projects will have increased their initial expenses, the benefits derived will be perpetual. Would these businesses have engaged in these activities if not for 2020’s difficulties? Probably not.
Even in the office technology industry we witnessed organizations taking actions that otherwise might have never occurred. For example, how many office technology providers are now selling office sanitizing services? How many have added health screening technology to their existing portfolios? Would office technology providers have entered these markets if not for the pandemic? Maybe they would have; however, one can make a strong case that business challenges drove the industry toward these opportunities. How about acquisitions? Have we seen any material slow down in industry acquisitions? As is well known, challenging business conditions often present excellent opportunities for those companies with capital desiring to expand. The office technology industry saw its fair share of these investments in many ways making 2020 the year of investment opportunity.
What did your business do in 2020? Did you bemoan the challenges facing the market, circle the wagons, hunker down and hope to survive? History would indicate that this approach is a recipe for failure and companies who adopt this position perform poorest in comparison to others when things improve. Or did you adjust your business plan, look for efficiency projects capable of delivering long-term value, invest in assets and move into new business areas? If you did, congratulations, as you’re well positioned to grow as the market recovers.
The history books will likely portray 2020 as a year of challenge and turmoil. I however, will prefer to remember it as “A Year of Opportunity.” Hope you didn’t miss it!