David Barrett survived the Great Recession by making his business as boring as possible.In 2007, the founder and CEO of Expensify was trying to launch a prepaid debit card that would enable–and hopefully encourage–charitable giving to panhandlers in San Francisco. But, as forecasts of economic turmoil mounted, investors were interested only in ideas that sounded “sane and reasonable,” he says. So Barrett started pitching the safest related product he could imagine: an automated expense-report management system.
That worked; Barrett secured enough money to quit his full-time job in April 2008. He still intended to pursue the card idea, but soon hit a production snag–and with the economy in free fall, Barrett recalls thinking, “Shit, I really need to make a business out of this right now.” So he doubled down on business-expense management.
Almost 1.4 million small businesses with employees closed from 2008 through 2010, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. Expensify, now with five offices and a staff of 120, wasn’t one of them–a feat Barrett attributes to those pre-recession pivots. They taught him to “build a product that is needed in a downturn,” he says. “Sell aspirin, not vitamins.”
Recession war stories may seem out of place during this prolonged period of economic growth, but there are signs that a slowdown is on the way. A June 2019 survey from the National Association for Business Economics put the risks of a recession beginning before the end of 2020 at 60 percent. A third of the 2019 Inc. 5000 CEOs expect a recession to begin this or next year, with another third bracing for one in 2021. Whenever the downturn hits, these steps can help your business weather it.
Build your cash reserves while you can. Serial entrepreneur Mitch Grasso had a potential downturn in the back of his mind while raising capital for his latest venture, Beautiful.ai. The presentation software company raised $11 million in Series B funding in March 2018, just 17 months after a $5.25 million Series A round. “I chose to raise money earlier than I would have otherwise, even though it cost me probably a little more” in terms of valuation, says Grasso. “If there’s money on the table, take it sooner rather than later. You’ll always find a way to spend it.”
Conduct consumer research.
You might not be able to pivot your entire business model, so figure out what products and services your customers will need even in poor conditions, says Carlos Castelán, managing director of the Navio Group, a retail business consulting firm.
Ryan Iwamoto, co-founder of caregiving service 24 Hour Home Care, started asking his customers for their input when the federal government introduced sweeping rules for home health care agencies in 2016. He wanted to be “the first in market to educate them on all the regulations coming down in our industry,” Iwamoto says. “It allowed us to build better relationships”–and has helped boost his company’s revenue by more than 68 percent since the law changed, he reports.
Ink multiyear contracts with clients, not vendors.
Earlier this year, during a regular assessment of her company’s revenue targets, Sandi Lin considered the potential impact of an economic slowdown. The co-founder and CEO of Skilljar was happy to discover half of the customer training platform’s revenue was on multiyear contracts, meaning “at least theoretically, that even if all of our other customers went bankrupt,” Skilljar would have some runway–and less pressure to scramble for new business.
Lin applies the opposite approach for vendor contracts; while Skilljar is sponsoring a major customer conference this fall, she negotiated a minimal commitment on room nights and seats with the hotel and venue. Which is a smart business practice in good times, too; as Lin says, “the most important job of an entrepreneur is to survive.”