Entrepreneurship in the Era of COVID-19
Mays Business School, May 20th, 2020
“Creative destruction” is a phrase used by Joseph Schumpeter, an early 20th century economist and probably the “OG” scholar in the field of entrepreneurship. Schumpeter was talking about the role of entrepreneurs in our society as agents of change. Entrepreneurs recognize opportunities that others often miss and create new markets for products and services that sometimes have the potential to disrupt or even destroy established industries. In a sense, change and market disruption is nothing new to entrepreneurs. For that reason, we can anticipate that their skills and unique way of looking at the world will play a critical role in our social and economic recovery from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many of us shy away from risk. We try to live our lives and achieve our desired goals while mitigating risk as much as possible. That’s one reason why we struggle with such unexpected and extreme developments as those set-in motion by the global pandemic. In fact, we may feel that our “risk-meter” is off the charts, with few options for bringing it back down. There are reasons to suggest that entrepreneurs, on the other hand, perceive risk very differently. Research shows that they tend to make an objective assessment of the level of risk in the market environment and then work to control or guide outcomes in the best way possible, given that degree of risk. Under the current conditions, entrepreneurs may react by simply resetting their risk estimates at a higher level. With this updated information, they can start planning new strategies and taking actions to improve their likely outcomes, while many of the rest of us remain focused on, or even paralyzed by, the risk itself.
There are other characteristics and perspectives we associate with entrepreneurs that may help them face the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. First of all, entrepreneurs are persistent. They find ways to thrive in harsh business environments. We have observed this in emerging markets, areas of the world often lacking financial capital, legal, regulatory, and other resources and institutions we tend to take for granted in developed economies. Entrepreneurial activity still emerges in such settings, growing organically through informal economic systems outside of the traditional institutions. Entrepreneurs are also resilient. They find new paths forward in the aftermath of devastating events. Research following the 2008 global financial crisis shows that many young, entrepreneurial ventures were well-positioned to weather the storm. Startups are generally smaller and may be more agile than established firms, making it easier for them to quickly react and adapt even to extreme and unexpected changes.
Entrepreneurs know how to build businesses through conventional planning, but they have other tools in their toolkit that can help them react and adapt. The business planning process we frequently teach in MBA programs involves causal thinking, the careful assessment of how current conditions and possible strategies can lead to future results. This calls for upfront resource planning, the development of market and production strategies, and the analysis of which outcomes are most likely to occur after executing the business plan. Many entrepreneurs certainly have this skill – think of the carefully constructed plans they often present to investors when seeking capital investment. This process is popularized in TV and streaming shows such as Shark Tank or Elevator Pitch. The problem we have right now is that COVID-19 has thrown everyone a curve. We don’t necessarily have the context to effectively analyze and predict future outcomes. For that reason, most causal-thinking business plans probably aren’t going to work until we get further along in this extraordinary period of uncertainty.
Fortunately, many entrepreneurs can leverage other tools to successfully identify and pursue opportunities, even under difficult conditions such as those presented by the COVID-19 crisis. First, rather than wasting time in the current market environment writing up a wish-list of resources, they would like to have (and are unlikely to get), entrepreneurs are very good at bricolage; making use of what is at hand to construct something useful. The closest many of us get to using bricolage is probably when we have to scrounge something for dinner – we grab some cans from the pantry, leftovers from the refrigerator, maybe pulling the odd tomato from the plant growing on the back patio. Luckily, entrepreneurs tend to be much better at this technique.
My favorite examples of bricolage during the COVID-19 pandemic showcase creative efforts to provide products that help prevent and treat the infection. Cummins Inc. has a stockpile of materials used in producing air and fuel filters for diesel engines. With the shutdown of their engine production line, this inventory would be sitting in giant rolls, collecting dust in a warehouse. Through some creative connecting of the dots, the technical managers at Cummins realized that this material could meet the standards for producing the vital N95 masks that may soon help us begin to safely return to work. We have seen a similar process of bricolage in Ford Motor Company with their use of stock auto parts in the production of medical ventilators. Numerous breweries, distilleries, and even perfume companies are using their materials and equipment to produce hand sanitizer. We can only imagine the countless other acts of entrepreneurial bricolage that are happening all throughout the economy.
Entrepreneurs have another trick up their sleeves. Many of them show skill in effectual thinking. Similar to bricolage, effectuation starts with a look at the readily available skills, tools, and resources. However, the interesting difference in this type of thinking is that it doesn’t start with any particular outcome or destination in mind. Refer to our search of the kitchen pantry at dinnertime – this might involve looking through our available supplies, and instead of preparing a meal, we find spaghetti noodles and marshmallows and decide to start a quick project to build a model of the Eiffel Tower. We had no prior intention of pursuing this project – the available materials, the situation, and our own interests may have organically led us down this path.
Our social network society makes this type of effectual thinking more effective. As entrepreneurs brainstorm various uses for their available skills and resources, they need to test and refine these ideas. This requires a sounding board to communicate their thoughts to potential customers, partners, investors, or others who can help refine and advance the project. Researchers have shown that social media platforms such as Twitter can enhance this process by allowing entrepreneurs to work through their effectual thinking more quickly, getting input from followers, and directing them toward new and unexpected opportunities. Crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo provide another example of this rapid feedback process. Investors and campaign participants can preview early-stage ideas, post comments and questions, and ultimately let their money do the talking by offering financial support to worthwhile projects. These social network platforms have dramatically improved the pace and potency of effectual thinking for entrepreneurs.
As we speak, entrepreneurs are undoubtedly scanning the new environment shaped by SARS-CoV-2. They are imagining unexpected opportunities to match available resources to market needs, serving end goals that none of us (including them!) could have anticipated a few months ago. It’s hard to say what they will come up with next, but some areas of activity seem likely. As social beings, we’re all growing tired of these periods of isolation. Entrepreneurs may find new ways to balance our craving for social interaction with our need to control the risk of infection. Internet streaming and digital interaction have been the most obvious domains for these activities, but others could certainly emerge.
Through entrepreneurial thinking, we can crowdsource the restart. Businesses throughout the country face the challenge of reopening while protecting the safety of their customers. We have already seen creative solutions as restaurants and stores find new ways to provide curbside and delivery service, sometimes even offering unconventional grocery products or packaged deals. As they return to in-store dining and service, entrepreneurs will find a wide variety of ways to enable social distancing and limit the risk of contagion. The best ideas are likely to catch on, further speeding the pace of the economic recovery.
We live in unprecedented times; working to balance aggressive actions taken to limit the health impact of COVID-19 with pressures to reopen our businesses and restart the economy. This is creating risk, uncertainty, and challenges to our prior business models and ways of viewing the world. Fortunately, we have an extraordinary group of individuals in our society who often view the world through a different lens. They understand risk, thrive in conditions of uncertainty, and are uniquely equipped to handle these challenges. Fortunately, we have entrepreneurs.
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