To the Edge and Back: What 2020 & COVID-19 Taught Me about Running a Business

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Craig Howe, CEO of Rebel Ventures

I could tell our Operations Manager was nervous the moment I picked up the phone. “We only have $16k left in the bank,” she said after working up some courage.  

As the CEO, I immediately went into problem solving mode.  

  • What about our Payroll Protection Plan? “Spent.” 
  • What about our Line of Credit?  “Spent.”
  • What about our outstanding A/R? “Our clients can’t pay us”.
  • Did you check under the couch cushions? Silence on the other end of the line…

This was back in May when Covid was in the early stages of wreaking havoc on global businesses, and paralyzing sports properties which made up over 90% of our total revenue. For better or worse we were forced to either evolve our business, or shut our doors.  In hindsight, I consider this unprecedented challenge one of the biggest learning periods in my career, one that (in some ways) I’m thankful for having to face. As we head towards the end of December sports properties now make up less than 20% of our total revenue.  We’re coming off four of our biggest revenue months in agency history.  Our staff is back at full salary, and we’re actively hiring for new positions. 

 After successfully navigating a small business through the choppy waters of 2020, here are (5) lessons I learned that will forever alter the way I approach running a business.  I’m sharing these lessons with my utmost condolences for anyone who lost their business or a loved one during the Covid crisis.

  1. Give First.  Sell Later

Every individual and business have dealt with some level of hardship in 2020.  Initially, conversations with clients included standard phrases like “stay safe” or “hang in there”.  Gradually hardship became a given, and there was no longer a benefit to selling or pitching for business.   We decided to just start doing work for clients and prospective clients. Why not?  We had the bandwidth.  Then a funny thing happened, they started finding projects, engagements, and budgets for our services.

  1. Hang with a New Crowd

Having built our business around optimizing success for sports properties, we had developed an extremely niche area of expertise.  What we had failed to consider is what other industries may value this expertise, and how we could package and deliver that value to key stakeholders in those industries. This exercise was absolutely crucial to revitalizing our business, and an exercise that will hopefully increase our growth potential when our core sports property clients bounce back in a few years time. 

  1. The Power of Forced Evolution 

For nearly twelve months we had been discussing the evolution of our business, usually haphazardly at the tail end of a weekly executive meeting. Where do we want to be in 2-3 years?  How do we get there?  Then we would quickly turn our attention back to landing an exciting new project, or getting all hands on deck to pitch for a big piece of business.  This is a classic agency dilemma.  Suddenly we were forced to evolve our business in a matter of weeks.  Necessity is the mother of all invention, especially when not inventing means shutting the lights off.  Approaching business evolution with urgency is something I will never put on the backburner again in my career. 

  1. Over-deliver, No Matter how Small the Project.

In 2020 we treated every single project that came through our doors like the Mona Lisa.  We were doing a relatively small activation for a brand with one of our Athlete clients.  The remit and expectations were fairly modest, but we ended up delivering something that blew them away.  When we presented the final deliverable and performance metrics, we were asked if we could do this for (3) other athletes they had under contract.  Our answer was a resounding yes.

  1. Invest BIG Where you Find Gaps

As we started earning business in new industries we began to realize that our niche expertise was unmatched by other competing businesses.  We took this opportunity to really educate our new clients in this new space on what we do and how we do it, and then proceeded to deliver work and reporting that illustrated measurable value in areas they hadn’t necessarily prioritized in the past.  We’re thrilled to say that these areas are gradually beginning to become bigger priorities for their future business planning.