Like many, when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit in early 2020, Rajeev Kapur’s company 1105 Media saw an immediate impact: the B2B media and marketing company lost 45% of their business overnight.
1105 Media helps clients grow their businesses through marketing services such as account based marketing, digital and print content creation, and events, which take shape in the form of multi-day educational and training conferences that attracted participants from across the globe.
But during the shutdown, face-to-face events were swiftly cancelled. Kapur estimates at the time, their events made up 40% of their business. In mere days he faced challenges in restructuring, rebuilding and pivoting — essentially saving the company — head on. The result? By year’s end, the company saw its second most profitable year in its history.
Curious as to how he did it?
Late last year Kapur released his first book, “Chase Greatness: Enlightened Leadership for the Next Generation of Disruption” in which he highlights the issues business leaders face if they don’t evolve with the times. Through the book he also offers practical advice for leaders looking to remain profitable while also improving company culture and the lives of their workforce.
“It’s about looking at that word ‘great’ and breaking it down to figure out what really makes someone, a team or a group that way,” he says. In his case, as he thought through the attributes of what makes someone great, a relevant acronym emerged: Gratitude, resilience, empathy, accountability and transparency.
Here’s what Kapur learned as an enlightened leader through the early days of COVID-19, which allowed him and 1105 Media to come out profitable on the other side.
Pay attention and act when you can
Because Kapur frequently did international business and business in Asia specifically, he recalls hearing rumblings of the severity of the pandemic from his peers long before it hit North America in late January.
Kapur went back to his team to share what he had been hearing and why it was worrying him. “We decided to start making some small changes to see if we could get ahead of it. The team wasn’t too happy, it might have felt a little bit like overkill, but we did it anyways,” says Kapur. “I wasn’t the most popular guy, but that’s fine, I don’t have to be.”
By late February, Kapur and his team saw more and more event attendees drop out. They were able to complete one event at the end of the month and one the first week of March before the shutdown turned their lives upside down.
Be empathetic to your team’s experience
“I won’t lie, early on I was worried about whether we were going to be able to pivot fast enough,” he says. He was also worried about maintaining his company’s culture with everyone working from home, as well as considering operational and financial concerns. “It was, how can I do this and still be a beacon and not show any panic on my face? How do I keep showing gratitude for everything they are doing, and the fact that we only lost 45%?”
Kapur knew he wasn’t alone; the situation created growing worry amongst his team too, so his first move was to give everyone a pause to process.
“We literally woke up the next morning thinking, ‘what are we going to do?’ because there’s no playbook,” says Kapur. “But rather than panic everybody, I gave everyone the next couple of days to chill out and go through their own stages of grief, really get it out of their system before trying to tackle the challenges ahead. Once they did, we got together and said, ‘okay, what’s our next move.’”
Don’t shy away from tough decisions but be fair in those decisions
After he and his team took a moment to breathe, it was time to act, but what they had to do wasn’t easy. There were layoffs, furloughs and 20% pay cuts across the board — excluding anyone making less than USD55,000. “That was really important,” says Kapur. “That those making less than that didn’t have cuts because those people might already be struggling a bit.”
Next, Kapur worked with his team to renegotiate with vendors.
“I told my team to reach out to every single vendor we work with, whether they were a freelance content contributor, an artist, a provider of services or whomever they might be, and ask for a 20% discount moving forward, or we would no longer be able to work with them. It was a tough thing for our vendors, but it was better than nothing.”
Eighty percent of their vendors complied, with others arranging varying payment terms to keep their businesses collaborating, which was helpful for 1105 Media, as they didn’t receive any governmental financial support during the pandemic.
“Resiliency is all about finding other ways to accomplish your goals or similar goals. As leaders we have to make the tough decisions in the face of challenges.”
Prepare to pivot – fast
Like many companies, COVID-19 forced a shift to digital events and products for the 1105 Media team’s efforts. And it happened quickly. From the first U.S. announcement of the shut down to 1105 Media’s first virtual event: Just two weeks.
“We were one of the first companies in our industry to launch a virtual event. You must be willing to do things you’ve never done before, to bend not break, and be really flexible. When our customers want to try new things, we have to keep trying.”
Harness your learnings for growth
In their shift to virtual events, Kapur and his team soon saw their margins increase. Without paying for rental space like hotels, and worrying about food and beverages for attendees, profits were almost 50% higher than their in-person events, and their customers still had a desire to participate.
“That was interesting, our data showed people still wanted to be engaged,” says Kapur. “One of the things I tell my team is when you have a problem, you have to go to the frontline. So, we worked with our own frontline, we sent out customer surveys, we talked to all of the decision-makers, and we talked to customers all day long about what they wanted to see. Especially on the corporate side, people were really shifting to digital offerings, so we started expanding upon and adding all kinds of virtual events, content and products. We literally could not put out enough inventory.”
By June 2020 Media 1105 saw their cash flow increase, by October 2020 they were able to reinstate pay from the previous cuts, and the company closed out the year by bringing back 80% of those furloughed.
“For our industry, 3% growth is considered really good, and right now we are growing more than 20%,” Kapur says. “In leadership you just need to figure out how to be great and chase that all the time.”