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12 Years In 12 Months: What 2020 Taught Me As An Entrepreneur Despite all that happened though, behind every cloud is a silver lining, and so we cannot overlook some of the positives that has come with all these changes.

By Nyla Khan

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.


At the stroke of midnight on the first of January 2020, the world welcomed a new day, month, and decade. 2020 was a leap year, and there are various schools of thought about such years and how they are filled with unusual happenings- of course, the world has witnessed several leap years in the past, but 2020, well, what a year it has been!

From the onset, we were beset with reports of several natural disasters, airplane crashes, and the spread of the then novel coronavirus. Indeed, by the end of January 2020, it already felt like a whole year had gone by. No one could have then predicted that the world would experience government shutdowns because of a global pandemic, in which precious lives would be lost, businesses having to reinvent or close, or the health and wellbeing of people continually being at risk.

Despite all that happened though, behind every cloud is a silver lining, and so we cannot overlook some of the positives that has come with all these changes. Be it an increase in time spent with family, a renewed respect for values like compassion and gratitude, or even a rise in innovations and opportunities thanks to the development of a more digitalized world, there's a lot to be thankful for in 2020.

I personally like to describe 2020 as a period that's felt like "12 years in 12 months," and as such, here are 12 twelve lessons I've learnt through the course of the last year:

1. Innovate or leave The COVID-19 crisis forced companies to find creative ways of solving complex problems. Companies that innovate to make their product respond to customer needs, versus those that choose not to will survive periods of disruption similar to that of this year's. It is now basically a choice to innovate, else you go out of business.

2. Work smart > work hard Hard work is great, but smart work is greater. Working hard will require more investments of our energy than when we are strategic about it. For example, at the workplace, it is prudent to invest in tools and platforms that can make life stress-free in terms of scheduling, workflow, enterprise resource planning, and database management, just to mention a few. They may cost a little money each month; however, considering the ease of doing things that it presents to both the organization and the wellbeing of its employees, they are definitely worth considering.

3. Adopt a lean approach to organizational operations One of the work practices that has spiked as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic and its restrictions is remote working. This has allowed organizations to operate within lean management techniques. At my company, Mirai, we are the region's first learning innovations consultancy powering organizations with learning that empowers their people. In practicing what we promote to our clients, we operate a core team that is small, while also making use of a wide network of experts that we reach out to depending on the requirements of the project. This makes it easier for us to run a lean organization in a cost-effective way. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we were already using Zoom meetings and online project collaborations in terms of work procedures, which enabled us to scale across three continents within our first year and a half. Having used this approach successfully, we believe that remote working and taking advantage of the services of freelancers can be used on a global scale in the operations of organizations.

4. Be tactical in adjusting business models to meet current demands When responding to market volatility, you need to think of your business model before making crucial decisions. For instance, there was a period during the year when places suffered from shortage of face masks due to the pandemic; so many businesses saw this as an opportunity and invested in buying masks at a higher price to sell. The price hikes were however short-lived, and by the time prices returned to normal, many sellers experienced a loss. The lesson here is to make sure you understand your business model and operate within it, by being measured in taking risks.

5. Spend time more efficiently The increase in remote working has led to the reduction of in-person meetings, hence saving time efficiently and effectively. In-person meetings, after all, take up a chunk of the day, especially when you work in business development. People can rediscover how to create new connections via LinkedIn, pitch for business online, and even make global sales an exciting move going forward.

6. Reemphasize the need of being financially prudent The year 2020 has seen tough times on our individual, community, and government finances, which has taught us all a lot of valuable lessons. As a business, this is a time to save and be patient with your capital. Spend wisely and keep your reserves intact, unless you have a lot of capital to play with. For instance, you may not want to respond to stocks as aggressively as before, especially when it appears to be an opportunity to buy stocks that have crashed. This is because markets are unpredictable at this point, and it makes more sense to keep your capital safe.

7. Be wary of a polarized world When variations of a country's population increasingly show dissimilar patterns towards political leanings consistently, polarization occurs. The outcome of the US elections, along with happenings in the Philippines, India, and Vietnam in 2020 show that the world is increasingly becoming polarized between right and left. Not only are governments divided, people are also divided, and this shows that polarization is also reflective of how we have reduced individuals and our relationships with them based on their political leanings. It will be interesting to watch as most countries around the world are feeling the effects of this trend.

8. Pay attention to the needs of people around the globe According to a UNICEF report in April 2020, 1.4 billion students were out of school globally due to impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The effect of this could result in a loss of four years of learning. Statistics like these can be very troubling, because it further exacerbates the existing inequality that exists in the access and quality of education. Global stakeholders of multiple industries can take advantage of this period to rethink our current education system, and provide practical techniques that will help bring solutions. After all, remember than during a crisis like this, it's the most vulnerable of populations that suffer most. For us here in the UAE, perhaps the lockdown's key effect on us was being forced to work from home- but that's not the same story for everyone else in the world. In countries like India, for example, a lockdown resulted in a lot of people losing access to their livelihoods, with work like farming, blue collar jobs, etc. being forced to a standstill. For those of us who fared better, it is therefore a good time to self-reflect and see what we can do to impact lives positively. We can decide to donate our time, expertise, or money by choosing a cause and supporting it.

9. Look for human connection The lockdown period exposed how so many of us have focused so much on other realities of life, while often neglecting the very people we love and care about. Due to this, reconnecting with old friends and family seems to have become a consistent theme throughout the year. Never has the need for human connection, nature, and social spaces been treated with as much gratitude as it has in the recent months since lockdown restrictions were lifted. There have been substantive acknowledgements that we are social beings and feeling the need to belong does not make you weak, rather, you should actively try and source the things that make you stronger and resilient.

10. Pay attention to mental health We all know that the mind is a very powerful tool, and as such, our mental health reflects on us not only as individuals, but on society as a whole. Our state of mind determines our motivation and outlook on life that can also affect productivity positively or negatively. This is why there are health policies nationally, in organizations, and even in families. During the COVID-19 lockdown period, I was diligent about meeting my therapist, which really helped considering the uncertainties that existed around that time. It is important that we not only address issues of mental health, but create avenues that will allow for education concerning the topic, so that it can be given the needed attention. There are several ways in which we can improve our mental health personally- for instance, journaling at night helps me a lot with fighting anxiety. I also recommend that you download lifestyle apps such as Bloom, and to buy the Dialectical Behaviour Therapy Skills Workbook, which is available worldwide.

11. Keep being you There is nothing more real than being you and sticking to the mission and vision you've set for your company. For growth purposes, there will be periodic adjustments here and there, but do not overly concern yourself with competition. Keep doing what you do best. Once you believe in your product and focus on your innovative unique selling proposition, no one can replicate that.

12. Show passion for the right things Passion is what drives us to do the things we do. I have learnt that if you are passionate about what you do, the hours in the day never feels enough.

There is more to learn as the days go by, especially since the impact of 2020 lingers on in 2021. It is therefore up to us to take the lessons and make them practical for the progress of ourselves, our communities, and our world as a whole.

Related: A Fresh Start: Business Trends For 2021 (Through The Lens Of Digital Transformation)

Nyla Khan

Co-founder, Mirai Partners, Willow Tree Kids, and Kids World Nurseries

Nyla Khan is the co-founder for Mirai Partners, Willow Tree Kids, and Kids World Nurseries. She is a Forbes 30 Under 30 millennial educator who has over the past ten years lived, worked, and pursued the same dream of wanting to create sustainable and scalable change for the most vulnerable among us. Over the past two years, as the co-founder at Mirai, Nyla brought artificial intelligence and literacy assessment to governments across the MENA region, with a potential impact on millions of students. On the other hand, with Willow Tree Kids and Kids World Nurseries, she and her team have been pioneering a new nursery for “the new normal,” along with launching the first machine learning-enabled personalized early learning platform.

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