How smart companies use crises, wars and disasters as opportunities

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The world of work has been different since the beginning of March 2020. The corona crisis affects companies enormously. Orders are falling, entire industries are struggling to survive. In September there were still 85,000 employees on short-time work. See the crisis as an opportunity? For many, this may sound like a cynical phrase. A small, medium-sized office and industrial cleaning company called BüBa shows that it can really work.

Her specialty is actually the professional cleaning of offices, from basic cleaning to cleaning large window surfaces to cleaning kitchen appliances, serving dishes or ordering coffee beans. Usually a good deal – but almost superfluous in times of permanent home offices. So what to do

BüBa took advantage of the fact that the Corona crisis has also created new needs – and with it new markets. So a huge demand for protective equipment, masks and disinfectants developed almost overnight. Whether a company, public authority, doctor’s practice: suddenly everyone needed such a donor – and BüBa took this opportunity.

Because if someone has enough disinfectant, it’s cleaning companies. What was still missing were the necessary pump dispensers. This is where the employees come into play. One of them got the idea that Ikea would sell such dispensers. And how can the masses of dispensers be brought to the company cheaply for filling? Another employee had the solution ready: the company used the ride-sharing service for transportation. BüBa therefore embarked on a completely new path – and switched from a service provider to a production company within a very short time.

Imbalance of supply and demand creates opportunities

What does this story show? “Entrepreneurial opportunities always arise when supply and demand are not perfectly coordinated,” says Nikolaus Franke, director of the Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Vienna University of Economics and Business. This is exactly the case with changes. There is a deficiency that needs to be remedied – and the Corona crisis is now the example of a very extreme change in a very short time.

Good employees and an innovative and agile corporate structure are the key to successfully mastering a crisis. This is shown by a survey of 130 companies that Franke carried out with the Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. According to her, the behavior of customers, cooperation partners, suppliers and also the state played a rather minor role in overcoming the challenges of the corona pandemic. For the majority of companies, over 70 percent, the decisive factor was the innovative nature of the employees and their creativity.

Nikolaus Franke, director of the Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Vienna University of Economics and Business.

Nikolaus Franke, director of the Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Vienna University of Economics and Business.

University of Economy Vienna

The case of BüBa is just one example of many. Entrepreneurial opportunities are available in every area of ​​everyday life that has changed drastically as a result of the Corona crisis. “Our communication is different from a year ago,” says Franke. Instead of in person, many meetings now take place online.

Companies like Zoom, which offers software for video conferencing, experienced a huge boom as a result. Between December and March, the number of monthly users rose from ten million to 200 million. Another example are all the possibilities that arise from the fact that people are less likely to leave the house and are correspondingly bored. “Our shopping, travel, leisure and work behavior has changed,” says Franke.

Crises, disasters and wars

A look back in history shows that crises have always influenced entrepreneurship: for example wars or other epidemics and natural disasters that created huge problems in the past. Often they gave a huge innovation boost. “In the 19th century, for example, the sewage system was further developed to combat cholera, so that wastewater does not get into drinking water uncleaned,” says Franke. Floods have caused people to build dams. Today we use it for water energy.

And the two great wars that raged in the world in the past 100 years have not only brought about suffering and destruction, but also the Red Cross, jet planes and radar systems, among other things. The tea bag is also a good example. Because tin cans were too heavy, the American trader Thomas Sullivan sent his tea in small silk bags during the First World War.

The ballpoint pen made its breakthrough during the Second World War. The Briton Henry George Martin recognized it as the ideal writing tool for flight crews because it didn’t spill like a fountain pen or erase like a pencil. His company delivered 30,000 pieces to the Royal Air Force.

Recognize the problem, act actively

Necessity makes inventive: catastrophes sharpen the human mind. Often times, changes caused by crises are long-lasting, says the expert. This will fuel certain markets and decline others. “The progress that we have made in digital communication, for example, will not go away again after the corona pandemic,” says Franke.

However, you don’t just have to recognize a problem – you have to act actively. What else can the company produce if customers no longer buy the previous product due to a change? In order for a company to be able to react quickly, it needs agile and innovation-oriented structures.

These were also named as the most important lesson from the Corona crisis by 66 percent of the managers surveyed by Franke and his team. Flat hierarchies as well as fast, learning-oriented and flexible processes enable a company to adapt quickly to changing conditions – and then a crisis can suddenly turn into an entrepreneurial opportunity.


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