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Early March, Deepshika Kumar Anand was in for a business shock. Her startup SpeakIn, which arranged for speakers for corporate events, received several cancellations, bringing business to a halt. “Events were cancelled, there were no new client queries and even clients who had asked for speakers, now wanted refunds," says Noida-based Anand. Within a couple of weeks, funds had dried up, even with salary cuts for employees, and the business she had worked so hard to build was at risk of shutting down, with no “return to normal".

After few days of introspection, Anand was back at her drawing board, refiguring an online model for her offline one. “Leveraging our expert network, we proposed online webinars for companies with industry leaders and created conversations around businesses in current times," she explains. As event management companies still struggled to survive, by April, Anand and her team successfully pivoted the business into a learning platform that organizes virtual sessions with thought leaders and webinars aimed at corporates. Till date, Anand and her team have conducted more than 200 sessions, launched an e-learning app that includes content in most Indian languages and are on the way to becoming a robust business.

Though the past few years were uncertain for businesses because of technological disruption, covid-19 has brought in a need to pivot as soon as possible. The pandemic is unlike the dot-com crisis of 2002, where only the technological sector got affected, or even the financial crisis of 2008, where people had at least some idea of how to deal with implosion of financial bubbles, says Sourav Mukherji, professor (organizational behaviour and human resource management), at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. “Businesses are groping in the dark with our entire economy impacted," he says.

Relook, rethink, reinvent

In these dark times, survival of businesses depends on dynamically reinventing business models. “Business resilience is the ability to recover, rebuild and thriving during a crisis, and the ability to do that repeatedly," says Prof. Mukherji. Throughout history, the businesses that survive crisis like the 9/11 terrorist attacks or wars have had a hardwired sense of resilience in their DNA, he explains. “They accept reality, act fast, adapt and move into new markets with a deep sense of purpose," he says, adding that businesses that can anticipate changes so well that they never get into the crisis mode are the only ones that will survive in today’s world.

Survival is definitely the first step to ensure that your business sees another day, agrees Mumbai-based Yukti Jhangiani Verma. Like others, her retail-store based startup Kosha, which sold mountaineering apparel for travellers, shut down suddenly. “It felt like a mountain expedition with weather gone bad, food supplies over and my team cooped up in a tent without the possibility to climb up or return to base," says Verma, a mountaineer at heart. Verma’s production and sales were at a standstill, but even when the lockdown opened up, there was no sight of recovery as consumer demand in specialized apparel had dwindled.

Till February, Verma had been all about scaling up her retail outlets. By the end of March, she ditched all earlier plans and immediately took a U-turn, starting to become lean to survive in the new normal. “By May, I had reduced our inventory cost by 80%, discontinued consultants and given their work to my senior team and asked more than half of the workers to return to their villages."

Knowing that the lack of travel-related demand might not emerge soon, Verma also turned her business focus to consumers who live in the mountains rather than travel to them. To keep money flowing in, she is producing surgical scrubs for hospitals and has launched rainwear for monsoons. “You don’t stop after climbing one mountain. You come back, and train for the next climb and the dangers it represents," says Verma.

Delhi-based Sumit Garg, co-founder of Luxury Ride, a pre-owned luxury car sales company, too, saw that his retail-focused business model was at stake during the nationwide lockdown. Rather than wait, he started to ramp up his online website and connected with customers. As the lockdown opened up, retail customers still stayed away from outlets. Garg developed a hybrid model: Customers could view all available cars in their city and he would bring the cars to their homes to inspect and buy. It worked, as by May, Garg’s online business saw an increase in sales to 60% from 40%.

A dash of pessimism helps

Turnaround into new verticals is possible only if you are nimble. When Near. Store’s core business of taking orders for local kirana stores online came to a standstill because of the lockdown and no local supplies, they put their energy into a new possibility—a community ordering platform that allowed housing societies to order directly from large and small brands. They launched this within eight days of the lockdown. “In hindsight, it was a great strategy to partner with brands who could deliver bulk orders," says Ashish Kumar, co-founder, Near.Store, based in Mumbai. By June, the business had offerings from 60-plus brands and revenue grown 10 times. “We adapted quickly as we were nimble and could put together a new line of business and launch it in a week," says Kumar, adding that a good balance of resilience and healthy pessimism helps you in surviving in uncertain markets.

Nimbleness is hard to achieve but helps you survive, insists Srishti Dhir, founder Hub and Oak, a premium co-working spaces company. Dhir was left with a lot of real estate costs—building maintenance, rent—leading to huge losses.

To improve her business’s nimbleness and survive, she put an end to rented spaces, and instead headed to hotels to turn their unused rooms and banquets into spaces to hire. “This is a light asset model where we don’t own the inventory but only market and sell unused spaces within these hotels," says Dhir. Moving to a leaner business vertical has helped Dhir make sure her business survives in the new world.

Business adaptability, believes Shyam Thakur, who runs Delhi-based food chain Momo King, is essential. As sales for his takeaway Himalayan food chain dwindled, he turned his retail spaces into cloud kitchens, which could be rented out to brands and focused on the delivery-only model. The model is doing so well that Thakur is planning on opening up 15-20 cloud kitchens by the end of 2020. “You need to focus your energies and adapt your business to suit your customer best," he says.

SpeakIn’s Anand agrees. Adaptability is an essential part of bouncing back, quick and eager. It was the fact that she moved fast and changed her business model that she could survive. “The prompt response gave us first mover advantage. We were even able to find investors for our new business model."

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