Adaptability is a critical component to survival in any business - more so now. If you are not willing to adapt, you will fail.
Failure is nothing to be feared; in fact, it is a requirement for any business, provided you are willing to learn. In every business venture I have led, I have applied my own set of principles to guide through many challenges. Needless to say, the biggest learnings emerge from the biggest mistakes.
I became a fan of McKinsey’s “Pyramid Principles” early on and, since then, I have lived and breathed them. They are a simple top-down type of structured thinking that starts with the conclusion first. Give credit to its author, Barbara Minto, who taught many generations of business leaders to see things from multiple perspectives.
From this, I devised a set of rules around them, which have proven to be effective, especially now, as they are simple and adaptable.
At the start of 2020, I too was filled with hope and excitement, more so with the impending launch of Tradeling, the B2B e-commerce marketplace. We had a win-win business model. The technology platform we developed in less than 100 days was the result of 10 years’ experience in building tech startups in the region.
And being in a hyper-connected world, with the global e-commerce industry thriving and valued at $3.9 trillion, we were in the right place – or so I thought.
We focused on the food and beverage as the first vertical and were confident of its success. But my ‘caution antenna’ was alerted when we first presented Tradeling at Gulfood. We had hundreds of suppliers eager to join us, but the obvious sign of trouble was the lack of Chinese visitors.
Put a stop
The entire world soon came to an abrupt halt as a result of COVID-19. The roller-coaster ride was about to begin. Our second vertical, office supplies, was also headed for disaster as businesses pulled down shutters and people worked from home. All in all, it was a perfect recipe for disaster for a business at its launch.
This is where my set of principles came into play - I can honestly say that my rules stem not from vanity but humility.
Rule 1: Do not panic
Panic clouds your thinking and pushes you to non-diligent measures. Staying calm is the sign of a strong leader. When seas are rough, when visibility is limited, you need to be at your best so that everyone can hold on to your confidence.
Rule 2: Stay humane
Do not lay off. Hiring a team member to me means a personal commitment to embark on a joint journey. It is a long-term promise you make as a leader. With every team member, we also touch the lives of others who are supported by them, which makes any decision to lay-off, to be the very last resort.
In a crisis, my recommendation is to reallocate salary budgets from top-down so everyone stays.
Rule 3: Be tactical
Successful organisations take business decisions for the long-term. That does not mean they are not agile or flexible. They have a wider thinking horizon.
Be tactical in your views, explore other revenue-generating streams and execute them – because every challenge presents a new opportunity.
This is how my rules helped us: By introducing a new, unplanned vertical to our business in the middle of the pandemic, we kept our ship afloat. We capitalised on an opportunity at the right time, creating a digital marketplace for business buyers to trade in masks, gloves, sanitisers and protective equipment.
As businesses return to the workplace, our first two planned verticals are delivering far more than our forecasts.
We did not panic, we remained tactical and we executed our long-term vision. We did not lay off a single person.
On the contrary, we have gone from 40 to a team of 70 plus, and we continue to hire.
Gone through the worst of it
We are prepared and ready for the future because we have weathered the worst. And I learnt that no matter how tough the going is, the outlook is brighter as a result of adaptability and resilience. The crisis has hit us, but we hit back by staying calm, staying humane and remembering our long-term purpose.
I urge other businesses to relook at their business models and purpose... and build anew. If they do, they will discover their own unique path to overcome this crisis.
- Muhammad Chbib is CEO of Tradeling.