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COVID-19 Accelerated Innovation: How Can Your Startup Embrace Change Moving Forward?

William Putsis

William Putsis

Co-Founder at Brij
Dr. Bill Putsis is professor of Marketing, Economics and Business Strategy at the Kenan-­­Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and also teaches on Executive Programs at the Yale School of Management. Bill is the president and CEO of Chestnut Hill Associates, a strategic consulting firm that he founded in 1995 and partner in CADEO Economics, a management consulting firm specializing in using applied game theory to manage and preempt competition. He is also a co-founder of Brij, a startup aimed at helping small businesses and The Platform for Strategic Growth.
William Putsis

The COVID-19 pandemic was a catalyst that accelerated innovation and change in almost every industry. What used to take some businesses five years to accomplish remarkably took them only five months during the pandemic. From online grocery retailing to working at home remotely and shifting to an online model, businesses had to embrace change in how they delivered services at unprecedented rates. This has been true for small and large businesses alike. Many businesses had no choice but to rethink how they created value for customers and how they operated.

New ways of delivering existing services were created. Entirely new products and services were developed and launched in record time. While some businesses were better positioned to deal with the challenges the pandemic presented, others struggled.


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Given this, three relevant questions for all entrepreneurs to consider in the context of their own company and industry are:

  1. Why did it take a pandemic to accelerate innovation and change?
  2. How did your business fare?
  3. What will your business do differently to stay ahead moving forward and thrive coming out of the pandemic?

Businesses that were far along on their digital transformation — those who had already moved to a more agile organization and who had a deep understanding of their customers — were in a better position to deal with the challenges the pandemic introduced and to seize market opportunities it presented.

Other businesses were not so fortunate: Coming into the pandemic, what used to take some businesses years to achieve still took them years, putting enormous pressure on their business models. Traditional local retail is one such example. Many locally owned retail businesses as well as many franchise high-end retailers could not adjust so quickly, as evidenced by the many closures in 2020 (i.e., Bath and Body Works and Victoria’s Secret).



The opportunity to create more value for customers was always there

Every industry has examples of a product or service that was traditionally delivered one way, and how it was fundamentally changed in response to the pandemic. The opportunity to radically change how a service was delivered and how customers were engaged has long been an option, as the technology to enable it has been available. So, why did it take a pandemic to force change in some industries and for businesses to discover that there were different ways of working that also create more value for both their companies and their customers? When the pandemic fades and is no longer a momentary catalyst for accelerating change and disruption, what will be the driving force?

Within the last year, many businesses learned that they could change their typical operations. They learned they could fundamentally change how a product or service was delivered and consumed, creating more value for the customer. Why didn’t they see this before and act on it? These are fundamental questions that every entrepreneur must consider.


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How to embrace change moving forward

There are many lessons to be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. It would serve entrepreneurs and small business owners well to reflect on their business model before the pandemic, what they observed about their business during the pandemic and what learnings they can take away to help make their business more agile and resilient after the pandemic in a world where the pace of change only accelerates around them.

Here are four key things to consider moving forward:

  • Speed. If you discovered that it took a pandemic to get done in months what usually takes years, identify the underlying root causes and address them. Your business needs to be able to keep up with the pace of change without having a worldwide virus to force it. Next time, it will be a competitor, or a new entrant not constrained by a legacy culture or traditional industry practices that disrupts your business and creates more value for customers. From Uber to Airbnb to Warby Parker, we’ve seen this happen in many sectors of the economy over the past decade.
  • Opportunity. Don’t underestimate the opportunities that exist to proactively transform how you can create value for customers, disrupt your industry and differentiate. It is possible to do things differently than your business may have imagined previously. When everyone in an industry does something the same way, a wonderful opportunity exists to find a way to do it differently and create additional value for your customers.
  • Advantage. Did you come into this pandemic well positioned? If your business has the ability to think differently, is digitally capable and can quickly develop and implement forward-looking strategies, you are in the position to put your competitors on the defensive, create more value for customers and drive growth. Don’t wait for the next pandemic to strike and force your competition to change. Be proactive and continually find opportunities to rethink what you do and how you are uniquely creating value for customers. It will be harder for competitors to catch up.
  • Risk. Pre-COVID, some businesses resisted taking risks that changed the status quo or could potentially result in failure. During COVID, risk presented itself differently, and was not doing what was difficult and needed to be done. Post-COVID, businesses have a choice at which path is riskier. How does your business perceive risk?

Key takeaways on innovation and embracing change 

The winners moving forward will be the entrepreneurs who are agile and are proactively willing to rethink everything they do. Applying some of these lessons to your own business will help it be in front of change, not behind it.

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