Covid business innovation: Don’t wait for the phone t…

Tales of woe and business failures are legion as the Covid-19 pandemic wreaks economic havoc. But there are ways to survive, and thrive, through innovation. Just don’t wait for the phone to ring…

There is a typical Jewish joke, which heralds from the Catskill Mountains resorts in New York state, which I first heard as a kid, from my uncle Percy Sieff, the well-known South African TV personality and actor, to some the co-host of the popular radio show “Check Your Mate”. It goes like this: 

A man called his mother in Florida:

“Mom, how are you?”

“Not too good,” said the mother. “I’ve been very weak.”

The son said: “Why are you so weak?” 

She said: “Because I haven’t eaten in 38 days.”

The son said: “That’s terrible. Why haven’t you eaten in 38 days?”

The mother answered: “Because I didn’t want my mouth to be filled with food if you should call.” 

For anyone with a “Jewish mother”, you’d get the not-so-subtle guilt inferences. And this joke came to mind when thinking how best we should deal with the pandemic within our businesses in 2021.  

Which brings me to another related classic. 

“Do you know the difference between a Jewish mother and a Rottweiler? The Rottweiler eventually lets go…” 

In defence, I need to confess at this point that I was blessed with quite the opposite. An independent, entrepreneurial, strong-willed, intellectually brilliant and, fortunately, unclingy mom. But insofar as the unfortunate comparison goes, Covid-19, in this instance, also refuses to let go and for us to get on with our lives.

So, back to waiting by the phone and not eating, should you get the call. It’s not coming. 

Growing up in Port Elizabeth and working in my father’s retail shops since the age of 12, I always had a deep fear: What if nobody walked into the shop? Fortunately, my dapper dad is hugely charming and carried wonderful items, many of which were ahead of their time in South Africa, like Le Creuset products, which although a household name in upper-income houses today, was a fringe and expensive French brand in PE during the 1970s. So people did walk in and we got by, although our fortunes were largely linked to the economic success of the city. His turnover was devastated when Ford ceased manufacturing in the city. Many clients left along with it, not just at that company, but also those who formed part of the full supply chain to the company, and then those who served the supply chains to Ford’s principal suppliers. The impact was profound.  

For many businesses today, the pandemic has had an at least equal or greater negative impact. E-commerce has rightfully come of age and, for those refusing to embrace new distribution channels for their businesses, Covid-19 has forced the transformation.

For restaurants, the provision of takeaway and home delivery services has become critical to medium-term survival. Anyone in the hospitality industry without significant innovation, value-added services or side hustles is finding it brutal. My heart breaks particularly for this industry, and those in travel and tourism. Both employ vast numbers, many of whom possibly see themselves as unskilled or unqualified to do anything else, yet are brilliant at what they do.  

In my book “Willing and Abel: Lessons from a Decade in Crisis”, I reflect on the incredibly hard time we experienced in starting our company in the downturned and overtraded market of 2010. I realised that the concept, “if you build it, they will come”, as made famous by the Kevin Costner movie Field of Dreams, was only the stuff of Hollywood. It sadly doesn’t work that way in the real world. So our thinking evolved to “let’s build it and then fetch them”. The phone wasn’t going to ring. And it didn’t.  

So what can you do? 

Well, all businesses, if they operated well historically, will have solid relationships with their client base. So how can you look at altering your services and offerings to this base, taking the pandemic restrictions and challenges into account? 

I know sit-down restaurant owners who quickly shifted into delivering family meals at good value. They had the foresight to collect their client information while trading normally and then started SMS-ing and mailing their base. I know others who shifted overnight from food to supplying masks, sanitisers and all Covid-related business supplies to their old restaurant customer base, who own other businesses. Both of these owners are surviving by accepting the situation, either through shifting their product, pricing and distribution models — in some instances, all three — or in other cases, capitalising on their relationships to sell entirely new products that are in demand during these trying times.  

Here are a few things you can ask yourself: 

I write this article at a time where many may be too deep in their own trenches to see the existing possibilities or new opportunities. Someone you know may be battling to see the wood for the trees and others may be “hoping for better times” as a strategy.  

But one thing I know for sure is that you cannot be sitting by the phone right now waiting for it to ring. You have to be out there, actively looking, innovating and thinking about fresh solutions and low-hanging fruit that can use your products, skills or experience. And don’t forget about how technology makes geography less important. DM

Mike Abel is regarded as one of South Africa’s leading marketing and advertising practitioners. He is the Founder & Chief Executive of M&Saatchi Abel and the M&C Saatchi Group of companies operating in Africa. He is the former CEO of M&C Saatchi Group, Australia and before that, co-led the Ogilvy South Africa Group as COO and Group Managing Director, Cape Town. Mike has been awarded Advertising Leader in South Africa by both the Financial Mail and Finweek : and his company was named Best Agency in SA in 2015. Married to Sara and with 3 young sons, Mike is a regular speaker, writer and is passionate about politics and contemporary African art. His company is proudly also the home of the phenomenon called The Street Store, the open-source, pop-up clothing store for the homeless. It has gone on to become a global movement providing a free shopping experience for hundreds of thousands of homeless people around the world.

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