There is a lot of uncertainty in the air these days as no one really knows how the economy will fare here in the United States. We are dealing with the first forced shutdown of whole economies across the globe in order to protect those most at risk from contacting the highly infectious COVID-19 virus. While there are many arguments on the economic shut down with voices for and against, each with their own valid arguments, the reality is that we can’t impact our policy makers until at least November. However, as entrepreneurs we focus on what we can control, and in a wild economy like this it’s not just about surviving, it’s about thriving by identifying opportunities.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a black swan occurrence. The term was made famous by author Nassim Nicholas Taleb and is defined as “an unpredictable event that is beyond what is normally expected of a situation and has potentially severe consequences. Black swan events are characterized by their extreme rarity, their severe impact, and the widespread insistence they were obvious in hindsight.” Unlike the last black swan event, the recession of 2008, we are dealing with both a health crisis and a future economic crisis. Sadly, all the business books and classes in the world can’t help you if you’re in the restaurant or travel business these days. There are, however, some industries that will thrive in the coming months, as well as industries that have yet to be invented that could become a part of our everyday lives overnight.
Video communication tools are the most obvious winner in this emerging coronavirus economy. Zoom has become the go-to tool that people are using daily, but Google and Facebook are working to catch-up before Zoom becomes synonymous with online conference calls. This has fundamentally transformed how we communicate, possibly changing the way global business is conducted in the near term.
Like shared working spaces, this company just executed well; like previous workplace pioneer WeWork, Zoom has not only dominated the market but changed how we do business. It’s probably a bit ironic but that is how innovation works as fewer people are going to utilize working spaces and will acclimate to working from home. Over the past few years people were increasingly working at least a few hours a week from home, and COVID-19 may accelerate the idea of a 4-day work week. A study by Microsoft Japan last year noted the results of a shortened workweek: “working four days a week, enjoying a three-day weekend — and getting their normal, five-day paycheck. The result, the company says, was a productivity boost of 40%.” That means aside from communication platforms profiting we’ll see more industries focused on working from home such as office supplies, furniture that can be easily assembled (and stored), remote childcare, and online education.
Schools go online
It’s not just universities who are putting their courses online for upcoming semesters, but a complete revision of the future of education. The coronavirus has accelerated trends that were already underway; instead of a span of years now things change in a matter of weeks. It’s not just classes for college students but for professionals who want to brush up on their skills, as well as entrepreneurs who are looking for that edge. As this Forbes article covers the current situation: “colleges and universities as well as primary and secondary schools have made an enormous shift toward online and virtual courses. While the ability to do this so quickly is impressive, the effects on teaching and learning has been very mixed. Even schools that had a viable online course system in place before the crisis are struggling to adapt to an entirely virtual program.”
This can range from Zoom classes taught in person to high quality courses where the student completes modules like Foundr’s online syllabus. The question will be what role personalized education will play, as some students with learning disabilities may not learn the most effectively using current online methods. There is a feeling that people want more interactive experiences online, and this could translate to augmented and virtual reality. Despite Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus, and VR being “the future”, these verticals never gained the traction they claimed. Maybe now when people need a new way to engage, we’ll see a widespread adoption of these technologies in new and creative ways.
The doctor makes house calls – online
One of the reasons so many government officials panicked was their concern the healthcare system would be overwhelmed by the influx of patients suffering from COVID-19. Telemedicine has been a good turnkey solution in that people who may be infected are not infecting their health care providers. Additionally, the ease with which one can go online or send a picture to their doctor is simple. Just as we are becoming accustomed to Zoom calls, we will be used to setting up a telemedicine call with our doctor.
Both private money and grants will go towards the research of ways to combat this virus, including coming up with a vaccine. It would be irresponsible on the part of governments not to prepare for the inevitability of another pandemic, but many savvy entrepreneurs will create solutions to help medical workers that will be relevant when a future pandemic occurs.
Aside from telemedicine, the health and wellness industry were already on the upswing. Data is being researched how preemption can help one fight the symptoms of COVID-19. Lifestyle choices such as being overweight, and smoking put one more at risk of having serious symptoms. Being at home also impacts this industry as corporate wellness programs at the office are moving online to support a remote workforce. The vertical of wellness is broad and encompasses industries such as fitness, meditation, nutrition, mindfulness, mental health, and as this Medium article states that “according to the Global Wellness Institute is valued at $4.2 trillion.”
What is applicable about this vertical is that many of these technologies used are B2C, personalized, and can be accessed from an app on your smartphone. While wellness was already a hot trend, there is more awareness from people who may have neglected their health in the past. Deteriorating mental health has been one of the issues that has impacted people the most as they are sitting at home and dealing with stress of the unknown.
The local grocer online
This is not a surprising one as people have been afraid to leave their house to even buy groceries. Amazon has been at near capacity and struggling to fulfill its orders. While e-commerce has been around since the mid 1990’s never before have such large swaths of the population had to rely on online shopping to get their basic food needs fulfilled.
E-commerce is a saturated market, so new entrepreneurs entering this space won’t change things much, but the addressable market will change. Consumers who were reluctant to purchase products online in the past will have no choice but to do so now. The trust to pay with a credit card online is not going to play a factor as marketplaces such as Amazon, and platforms such as Shopify have gained customer’s trust. If an entrepreneur was considering launching an e-commerce brand online on Shopify now is the time.
The social distancing economy
What will this look like? This could encompass many verticals such as smart cities tech, drones, online events, AI, etc. What products will we use in the social distancing economy, and how will this impact our policy makers’ decisions? Will we have drones like in China hovering over us reminding us to keep our distance? The question is if this will even last; we could have this kind of economy during the winter, but things could revert to ‘normal’ during the summer months. The real gift that entrepreneurs give to the world is the ability to see around corners and come up with ideas and products we don’t even know we need yet.
Entrepreneurship in this space, and innovation in general are going to be messy. What drives innovation and formulating solutions at present is that people are still getting sick, and those solutions need to help save lives. Additionally, in 6 months’ time as things develop additional verticals connected to social distancing may open as well as society’s norms change (ex, online dating now known as Zoom dating.) The challenge is creating solutions that could live past this phase and maintain longevity, as we will eventually settle into a ‘new normal’.
The reality is that all this is new, and things could change as the situation with the virus unfolds. If anything, these changes in how we conduct our lives and do business are opening the eyes of many entrepreneurs who not only want to capitalize on what is happening to build a profitable business but also solve real dilemmas. In the end, entrepreneurship is about creating an impact, and dealing with the most pressing problems at scale.