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3 Lessons in Creating an ‘Antifragile’ Business Strategy

Here’s how to thrive, not just survive, in a future recession.

In 2019 I was running a successful global business providing customer experience technology solutions to the hospitality industry. I never could have imagined that a little over two years later that my company would be in the contact center business. I’ve recently read the work of The New York Times bestselling author, Nasim Nicholas Taleb, who coined the phrase “Antifragile” to describe a business that gets stronger when under stress. So let me tell you what changes I made and the strategies that helped my company survive and thrive, given the challenges of the last two years.

When the pandemic struck, my business needed to rapidly downsize just to survive. Our team shrunk as our revenue dropped more than 60% almost overnight. Mid-pandemic I entered a new strategic partnership that pushed me from a path that serviced the edge of an organization (the hotel front desk) to the very core of the business (the contact center). A little over a year into the transformation I had grown the team again by 30% and saw revenue of the new product grow 500% YoY in 2021.

Today, businesses are tightening their purse strings in anticipation of an economic downturn. But if I learned anything from the pandemic, it is that it takes a specific set of strategies to survive in uncertain times. Here are three lessons I learned on resilience that can be applied to today’s fast-changing economic environment:

Lesson #1: You cannot have agility without an open mind

Looking back over the pandemic period of uncertainty and assessing why we succeeded where others failed has highlighted how important company culture is during periods of crisis. In my company, we hire and value team members who have low ego, leave their baggage at the door, and own the good ideas no matter who came up with them. The key attribute I look for is a spirit of open mindedness.

I remember in the early days of 2020, as my team and I were assessing a dramatic pivot in our company’s product, advisors were telling us to stay the course and continue to focus on the hospitality industry even amidst its collapse. Had I listened to that advice I am quite certain I would not have survived the following years of hardship in the hospitality industry. The inquisitive nature of my team allowed me to recognize a new (and daunting) opportunity in an adjacent vertical that looked ripe for disruption.

Lesson #2: Go for the Hail Mary

As a leader it is hard to admit when we don’t have all the answers. There was a period during the pandemic where I was tossing around some ideas just to see if any would stick. Several of the product ideas failed but luckily one of them stuck. This experience taught me that you can’t be afraid to try something different. In uncertain environments you need to find team members and business partners that are similarly fearless or, as we say in our company, “have grit.”

Once I saw that we had early traction I needed to make a tough decision. Do I go all in making this new product a success or do I hedge our bets on the hope of an eventual hospitality industry recovery? The idea of putting all of our bets on the unsexy contact center industry that is dominated by on-premises technology, entrenched legacy players and agents in faraway lands seemed daunting. I also had extremely limited data on which to make decisions as the momentum, although strong, was still in its earliest phases.

The deciding factor that pushed me to go all in on the new business strategy was the strength of a partnership I forged with a large technology company. Their conviction in our product, willingness to help sell the product globally and the early wins, helped me have the confidence that the “Hail Mary” was an educated risk.

Lesson #3: Think beyond short-term

In urgent situations, there’s a lot of pressure to make a decision right away. The benefit of the current cloud-computing environment is that it is relatively easy to spin up new projects and have the flexibility to scale up and down as the business requires. It allows you to think long term while being able to act in the interests of the short-term.

When you are in a crisis, it’s very easy to look for the quick way out or the short-term one-off hit. In those moments, I wondered whether I was making the right call turning away short-term profit for longer term gain. On reflection, the calls I made that kept the long-term strategy front of mind moved us forward, while some of the quick wins I signed off on disproportionately distracted the company from its goals.

With war raging in Europe, inflation and energy prices skyrocketing and the pandemic still causing chronic staff shortages, the key question executives must now be asking themselves is how do they create a business that thrives under stress? On my journey, open mindedness, a Hail Mary and thinking long term gave us the Antifragile business we needed to prosper.

Editor's Choice
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing
John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author
John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author
James M. Connolly, Contributing Editor and Writer