Why 2020 Made Us All Better Entrepreneurs
As the pandemic altered our lives this year, I think we collectively went through four phases. The first was panic, as we feared for the future. The second was adaptation, as we tried to make sense of our world. The third was a “new normal,” as we cautiously lifted ourselves back up. And the fourth — and most important — was this: I wouldn’t go back.
Not everyone is at that last phase yet. For many people, it’ll take more time to get there. And to be clear, when I say, “I wouldn’t go back,” I’m not blind to the immeasurable loss that so many people felt this year. But I will tell you this: Over and over, entrepreneurs tell me about the same experience. They were forced to change this year, and it was hard and difficult, but it ultimately improved their businesses and expanded their lives.
For example, I talked to artist Meg O’Hara. She once made her living painting landscapes for ski resorts. When the resorts closed, she started contacting skiers directly — and earned significantly more money, from significantly more clients, than she ever had before. “My business fundamentally changed,” she tells me. “I don’t think it can go back.”
I talked to Marisa Sergi of L’uva Bella Winery. Her company once made a wide range of wines — but COVID forced them to look deeply at their SKUs, ditch the majority of them, and concentrate only on the best performers. The result: “I foresee that this decision will build a company that has longevity,” she says, “because we’re really focused on executing on the highest level.”
Then there’s Leigh Ann Cannady, whom I first connected with at the beginning of the pandemic. She runs Forsyth Academy of Performing Arts, a school for kids in Georgia. At first she felt lost, given the in-person nature of her business. Now she’s running smaller classes…and discovering that the kids get more attention, her staff is more relaxed, she no longer needs to spend on marketing (because small classes fill up fast), and she’s making the same margins as before — but everyone is happier! “We never would have guessed that COVID would bring something so great for our business,” she says.
What’s happening here? I asked Brian Berkey, an assistant professor in the legal studies and business ethics department at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He told me this: “A crisis like this can shift the window on the options we are willing to collectively take seriously.” Ideas that seemed crazy before are now worth trying. These solutions were always available to us — but we just wouldn’t have looked for them until we were forced to.
This is what it means to reach that final phase — the I wouldn’t go back phase. Even when we can return to what we used to think of as “normal,” we will keep elements from these unusual times. We know things now that we didn’t before. We can be better because of it.
There will also be more of us — more people who take control of their futures, who hoist the weight of their world upon their own shoulders. In the third quarter of 2020, as we all moved into that “new normal” phase, the number of new business applications in the U.S. skyrocketed. There were nearly 1.6 million of them, a 77.4 percent increase over the previous quarter, and the highest this country has seen in a decade.
That’s what human spirit looks like. When we hit a wall, we don’t just stand there staring at it. We adapt. We transform. We accept that the past is gone and the future is unwritten, and we can carry the lessons from both. We can strive to be great while also realizing that there’s plenty of greatness to come — so long as we’re open to it. So long as we recognize the vast potential of change. So long as we’re able to arrive somewhere new, and look around, and say: “I can make the most of this.”
That’s why we’ll never go back.