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The term “small business” covers half the American workforce, in tens of millions of companies that made it through the darkest days of the pandemic. It sweeps in more than 4 million owners who chose to start a new venture in 2020 — the largest single-year increase in new business originations in at least a decade, and perhaps ever, according to data from the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Soon to follow are all the entrepreneurs who are watching a post-crisis world take shape and preparing to place that proverbial bet on themselves.
The resilience is unmissable, and the pendulum is swinging in the right direction, behind factors spanning massively available capital, pent-up consumer demand and all the survival-inspired innovations that are now permanent extensions to pre-virus business models.
That enduring lesson of Darwinism? It isn’t about big and small, or fast and slow, or finches and tortoises. It’s that the fittest are always those best able to adapt to change, and even exploit the changed conditions for new advantage.
Whether the frame of reference is nature and biology in the 1800s or business and economics in the 21st century, it is always the case that in times of disruptive change, new leaders emerge.
Markets morph from what was, and the competitors within them adjust to what will be. And in these periods of transition, something rare occurs: first-mover advantage presents itself to both incumbents and new entrants, with winners determined by who responds best to the reordering of the old competitive situation.
The factors shaping this surge and small business as the engines of the recovery:
1. Cheap money to fuel the future
Unlike the last major economic disruption, which struck at the heart of the world’s financial systems, capital is now plentiful and available at terrific rates. The financing pipeline is flush with trillions available in the form of government assistance, traditional small business loans, alternative lenders and options that extend all the way to Kickstarter.
2. Shaking off survival thinking
This is about discarding a single-minded focus on making the next payroll or lease payment, or clinging to the security of the existing gig. It takes courage to shift out of survival, and the foresight to peer around the next couple of corners. It’s less about conceiving the next iPhone than having the awareness to know that a new normal is taking shape and move ahead of those still in heads-down survival mode.
3. Technology equalizes
Even in our digital age, as recently as 10 years ago it would have been a lot harder to enter a market segment populated with entrenched players competing on an established physical presence, hard capital assets and even the size of a labor force. The cloud makes those barriers to entry far less formidable. Market analyst firm Gartner’s data says the crisis is driving an 18 percent increase in global business spending on cloud capabilities this year with 70 percent of organizations saying they will increase their cloud investments.
Add the speed and reliability of 5G to the existing advantages of a cloud computing model — to reach customers, to pay people, for access to business information, to develop and deliver products — and the playing field has never been more level.
The Roaring Twenties Redux
Too many among us continue to suffer the profound economic and well-being effects of lockdowns, lockouts, layoffs and personal losses. At the same time, at the macro level, the system is brimming with money and pent-up demand. Many Americans didn’t buy the new car or take the last vacation and may well be sitting in homes worth considerably more than they were a year ago. The example of the Roaring Twenties and consumer behavior coming out of that crisis is worth remembering and factoring into 2021 business planning.
Whether this is the moment that your side hustle becomes the main hustle, or your motivation is the allure of greater control and self-determination, this can be an amazing time to start a new business.
The argument in favor is compelling, but the decision is not without uncertainty. Considerations include how to think beyond basics of your new idea, or the impulse to run your own show, and start right from Day 1 — the right systems, the cloud platform and apps, the financing, and the right set of advisers for your accounting, bookkeeping, legal, real estate and human capital needs.
On a personal note, to those entrepreneurs who are preparing to launch or did so recently, Godspeed. For those that made it through the depth of the global crisis and are still standing, heartfelt congratulations. The race to adapt to the contours of a post-pandemic world and earn first-mover advantage is on.
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