How to turn around your business following a crisis

David Lewis discusses how he navigated his own company through choppy waters to illustrate how small companies can survive setbacks and live to fight another day.

I’ve been the managing director of my digital design agency for more than 12 years and we recently celebrated our 40th year in business. There’s been a lot to celebrate recently, but there have been points when I didn’t think we would ever make it this far.

Started by my father in 1973, the business grew to provide design and marketing services to the fashion and knitwear industry. After surviving the recessions of the ‘70s and ‘80s, it seemed we were invincible. Then, out of the blue, the Borders’ knitwear industry crashed at the turn of the millennium and saw our annual turnover plummet and the majority of our clients shut up shop or erase their marketing budgets. The industry had been our bread and butter for so long that at the time recovery seemed impossible.

Running your own business can be a challenge and when things go wrong it can be tempting to cut your losses and run. Having weathered the storm and emerged stronger, these are my tips on how you and your business can survive a crisis.

Don’t just cut costs, innovate

Following the crash, our immediate reaction was to cut costs and try to ride it out. I can remember sitting in board meetings discussing how we could save £50 here, £100 there, or if we should just turn the lights off forever. When threats of closure and debts are looming, it can be tempting to cut expenditure, hide and hope that everything will sort itself out. But turning your business around requires confident and bold moves in the face of adversity; this is no time to bury your head in the sand.

Use your time to nurture existing relationships and make sure that nobody forgets you’re there. Continue to project the image of success. Confidence in front of your customers, staff and suppliers will help you promote a healthy and changing business.

While initially we concerned ourselves with winning new clients in the sector we were used to working in, what ultimately saved LEWIS was the decision to relocate, broaden our skillset and invest in technology at a time when CD-ROMs were seen as revolutionary. The move was the catalyst for our transition to digital and we’ve continued to stay at the forefront of trends in mobile and multiscreen marketing over the years. Look for opportunities to innovate within your sector. Focus on your strengths and what you can be the very best at.

Don’t fixate on failure

Identify exactly what went wrong and use this to set your strategy for growth. Chances are it wasn’t the result of a disastrous failure on your part, and even if it was, use this as an opportunity to learn. Ask yourself what was successful, what you would do again, where you could have performed better and what you can avoid repeating in future. There are valuable lessons to be learned in analysing past mistakes, so don’t scrap everything you tried the first time. Challenge yourself to look at what worked and build on that.

So much of running your own business revolves around planning, projecting figures and predicting the future that when something goes wrong it’s easy to feel as though it’s all your fault. The plans that fail often teach the most valuable lessons. Plan for the future, of course, but don’t be blinkered to other possibilities and accept that things rarely turn out exactly as you expect they will. But move on, don’t dwell on the past. So much time, effort, energy and heartache can be wasted on looking back at the ‘What if’ and the ‘If only’ scenarios. You cannot change the past so move on and refocus.

Ensure your team is the best it can be

Whether you’re working with a team of two or 50, good people are essential to the success of your business. Look at the team you have, examine their strengths and think about how you can use these to your advantage. Likewise, if there are members of your team who aren’t fully committed to turning your business around, now is the time to think about moving them to a new position that allows them to fulfil their potential or even let them go. Surrounding yourself with a loyal, talented team will put you in the best possible position for growth. People make your business and it’s important during this difficult time that everyone has the same vision or it will never work. Everyone must pull in the right direction and be committed to the cause. Your team will appreciate openness and your leadership which will in turn ensure they play their part.

Small wins can be the catalyst for big changes

In 2002 we were asked, out of the blue, to design a small animation for Scottish Provident. It wasn’t a big job, we invoiced around £480 for that initial piece of work but they have over time become one of our biggest clients. Our work with them opened doors to other brands such as Scottish Mutual, James Hay, Cater Allen Private Bank, Santander Wealth Management and Santander for Intermediaries.

Moving in to finance may not have been something we would have consciously pursued, but it was essential in allowing us to gather confidence and move successfully into other sectors. On the road to recovery, stay positive and celebrate every small success, you never know where it may lead.

Pride yourself on offering excellent service, regardless of the project size, and you will reap the rewards now and in the future. Building relationships now at this time will pay for itself time and time again in the future.

Accept that it may take time

Things will not bounce back instantly. Don’t be fooled that an amazing opportunity will drop onto your lap. It’s going to take hard work and courage. Things will never be the same and neither should they. We needed to evolve and change, we don’t look like the company we were before or after the downturn. We’ve moved with the times and reinvented ourselves time and time again. Change is good.

David Lewis is managing director of design and digital agency LEWIS.

Further reading on turning a business around


David Lewis

David Lewis is managing director of digital and design agency LEWIS.

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