Business Owners: What 2021 will require of us

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Kristin Zhivago

President & Founder

Kristin Zhivago, revenue coach, is the president of Zhivago Partners, a digital marketing management company, and author of Roadmap to Revenue: How to Sell the Way Your Customers Want to Buy. Zhivago and her team of digital marketing specialists focus on helping clients get to “ka-ching” by making it easier for their customers to find them, appreciate what they’re selling, and buy from them.

Speak with Kristin on her direct line: (401) 423-2400

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If you are a business owner, and especially if you are a small business owner, 2020 was a very challenging year. Even more so if you were in an industry directly affected by the pandemic. There is hope, though. 

In fact, there is always hope if you are willing to “find it, face it, fix it,” which is one of our rules around here. 

As we move into 2021, the  most important contributor to your success will be your willingness to change, coupled with your faith in your ability to succeed in spite of all challenges. 

Let’s look at one encouraging example. According to this article from Bloomberg, global tourism fell 72 percent in 2020, through October. You would think, then, that a small business owner selling luxury yacht cruises worldwide would be severely impacted. And you would be right. But this particular business owner, who happens to be a client of ours (and someone we admire greatly for her grit), didn’t take 2020 lying down. We worked hard together to find new opportunities, and she was willing to invest (a reasonable amount, which was fine with us) in new approaches that might work. 

Take a look at the results: 

This is site traffic from online advertising. The dark blue line is 2020; the lighter blue line is 2019. You can see the impact of the pandemic in the February and March timeframe. 

Somewhere around the middle of March, we tuned into the Mindset of her customers using two words that summed up why they would even think of traveling during COVID. The result was a steady climb, continuing to move up until she had a problem with one of the ad channels (we won’t go into detail, but let’s just say that it was something totally out of her control). But, we adjusted, moving on without that channel, and the leads kept coming in. 

But then in December, just a few short weeks ago, she decided to invest in a retargeting campaign, which is where you advertise to people who have already visited your site. As you can see, she is now experiencing one of those lovely “hockey stick” situations. Oh, happy day. 

And remember, this is for a company that is in a market that has shrunk by 72 percent in 2020. 

I’m sharing all this to give you hope, and to help us realize what 2021 is going to require of us, so that we make it through successfully. 

What 2021 will require of business owners

1. Grit. 2021, like 2020 before it, will require courage, persistence, self-discipline, bravery, and an intense focus. We will need to think very hard about what people want and how we can serve them, in these new circumstances. You will definitely have to make choices you haven’t made before; you will have to make decisions that feel more like a bet than a strong strategy; but at the same time, you will have to avoid mistakes

2. Parent-like leadership. I’ve often said that when the CEO gets a cold, the rest of the company gets pneumonia. As the leader of your team, no matter how small or large the team is, you set the tone. If everyone sees that you are moving forward courageously and confidently, they will also. My husband and I have been discussing the fact lately that good leadership is really the same as good parenting. 

You accept your role and take it seriously. You communicate goals and limits clearly. You are never petty or whiny. You are absolutely fair; there are no favorites. You have no hidden agendas; everyone knows what is expected of the team and each individual on the team. You praise in public and criticize in private. 

Most of all, you are someone who cares about every person, and you are not afraid to display that caring. 

3. Careful attention to finances. Yes, as I said in #1, you will still be placing some bets—in new markets, new approaches, new tools, new people. But managing cash flow is one of the most pressing challenges every business owner faces. In uncertain times, it is even more important. I have come to appreciate the power of keeping funds in reserve, replenishing them during the up weeks and drawing from them carefully during the down weeks. If you are in a service business, pay very close attention to your payables. Know, every day, where you stand. Take action the minute a client gets behind. But the same applies to any type of business. Every day you should be watching your cash flow and profit margin, because one seemingly small financial glitch can grow into a bigger one almost overnight. 

4. Intense awareness of your customers’ Mindset. Frankly, this is Business 101 for me because, as a revenue coach for years, I became convinced that the opposite is the number one reason that companies fail. The minute the business leader stops paying attention to the customer’s Mindset, and starts paying more attention to “everything else,” the company starts to slide. 

One of the reasons our luxury travel client is doing so well is because she talks to her clients every single day. She is totally in tune with their Mindset. We have the same benefit in our business. We know exactly what our clients want and what they’re trying to achieve, and it is a daily joint effort to meet those goals. 

But you can be in touch with your clients and still miss the important clues they are trying to send you. An unhappy client will seldom tell you why they are unhappy, or even if they are unhappy at all. 

All of us, as business owners, have carried on with a vendor without much protest, even after we have become disappointed and have started looking for a replacement. However, prior to the decision to leave, we often give the vendor polite hints. “I would have preferred that you delivered this sooner,” is that type of hint. 

That’s why we treat “tiny hints” as Big Red Flags around here. No matter how small, we focus on that issue intensely and make sure it is resolved. If there’s a way to fix it, we will find it. We also know that no problem ever gets smaller over time. Problems that are ignored always become worse over time—and more difficult to fix. 

5. Don’t give up; you can reinvent yourself. If you started a business, it was because you saw a problem you could solve, and you set about solving it. That means you can do it again. 

Just because the situation changes, doesn’t mean you can’t change with it. I’ve owned my own business for a long time, since we opened our doors in Silicon Valley years ago, and we have reinvented ourselves several times since then. The trick is to face the fact that the situation has changed, and to be willing to adjust, willing to make even radical changes. 

It’s so easy to become wedded to your business structure, to the point where you resist changing with your market.

When I shut down our ad agency to become a “revenue coach,” we were at the peak of our earnings. But when the Mac emerged as a valuable graphics tool, I could see that the small jobs, the bread-and-butter jobs, were all going to go in-house. I shut down our agency, long before our competitors did. I invented my own “industry” (no one else called themselves a “revenue coach”—but there were zillions of sales and marketing consultants!). 

I was determined to do what I had always done: help CEOs and entrepreneurs increase their revenue. It was gut-wrenching to walk away from the successful infrastructure we had created, but over time it became a very rewarding career. 

And again, several years ago, when I saw that too many business owners were struggling with digital marketing, the best answer was a digital marketing management company, which is what we have built. 

I’m not saying all this to brag; I’m saying all this to prove that it is possible. You can reinvent yourself. If you have started a business, you have grit. You have a sense of purpose and responsibility. You are a strong person who has overcome numerous challenges and who wants to succeed. You can do this.

Don’t give up hope. Continue to look for opportunities where you can help others. Pay less attention to the naysayers and gloomy predictions and more attention to your customers and your staff. If you do this, you will be a bright light in the midst of a dark time. Others will be encouraged by your success and assume that they, too, will find a way through this. 

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” 

This is not the time to seek escape or to get discouraged. 

This is the time to stand up and start moving. 

This is the time to stand out because you didn’t give up. 

It’s an absolute opportunity to move forward while everyone else is frozen in fear. It’s the time to be your best and do your best, every single minute of every single day. 

That is what 2021 will require of us all.

My wish for you is that you emerge from 2021 more successful than ever. 

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