It’s pretty scary reading the papers and listening to the news these days. We are all left wondering how this current downturn will play itself out. Unfortunately I don’t have a crystal ball and make no claim to any ability to predict the future. I don’t know what is going to happen any more than any commentator on current affairs.
That said, I’d like to propose two ways of looking a the current global situation:-
- learning from the past
- learning from the future
Learning from the past.
You may already know this, but I’ll ask anyway. What do the following companies have in common:
- Hewlett Packard
- Texas Instruments
I deliberately organised the list this way so that you might be misled by the first five entries that they were all technology companies. But you would have know that Revlon was in the cosmetics business and probably (although I had to refresh my memory) that Ryder was a transportation and logistics group.
If you haven’t worked it out yet, I’ll tell you. All these companies were founded during the Great Depression. My source for the short quiz above was this article by David Silverman (although Silverman in turn tells us we could all do this research independently by checking Funding Universe .)
David also points out that a number of well known brands and products of today were established during the Depression. So while many businesses were going to the wall, it was as hard as it ever had been to raise capital and consumer confidence was at an all time low, some individuals were bold enough to launch new enterprises that have passed the test of time and some companies launched new products that have turned out to be stayers.
Now I have to put a disclaimer in here. This is, by necessity, a first look analysis. I generally criticise research which looks at successful anythings to try to find what the successes had in common. This applies to companies, leaders innovators, entrepreneurs and anything else you might like to name. We don’t know from this brief analysis how many companies started during the Depression went bust and how the success rate of startups during that period compares with that of startups during more bouyant times. So I am not suggesting this proves a downturn is a better time to innovate than during a boom. I am suggesting though that some people who have tried have found success in doing so.
And this first level analysis makes some sort of intuitive sense. Even if we think of it in terms of ‘survival of the fittest.’ Anyone can make money during a boom but in tough times, only the fittest (or perhaps in a business sense, the smartest) survive. A recession shakes us all around and sorts us out. During a recession we have to find new and smarter ways of doing things. We have to use our advertising dollars smarter. We have to work out which parts of our business never really made sense anyway but coasted along in the boom and which parts of our business could be the source of sustainable growth into the future.
All sorts of questions come to mind regarding our employees. Which ones stuck by us in the boom when they could have made more money elsewhere? Who shows real promise with creative thinking and can come up with some of the new ideas we need to survive and prosper? Who have just been hanging on and coasting.
Finally, as other businesses fall over around us what are the new opportunities? We can be fairly sure we are not going to grow by copying outdated business models or just copying products that our erstwhile competitors can no longer provide. But what new products and services do these holes in the market call out for?
“Oh for a crystal ball,” you may well exclaim. This is where we move on to my second way of learning: