Wow. What. A. Year.
When my Dad and I were on the slopes in Courcheval on Saturday the 14th of March (our last day) we had no idea of the magnitude of what was about to hit the entire planet. Ski resorts had been closing that week one by one but the three valleys was one of the last to follow suit. A few hours after we left the slopes that day, the lifts shut down and that was it for the season. That day we’d spoken to one guy in a bubble lift who worked for a European short haul company - he told us this was the end of his company and that he wouldn’t have a job to go back to. At the time I thought he was being a little dramatic but in hindsight, he was probably on the money. At least he was determined to enjoy his last day of skiing before the inevitable happened. One of our chalet party worked for Virgin and another BA, they had differing opinions and levels of anxiousness about this new flu we were hearing about via friends and family back home. Roll forward 3 weeks and who’d have predicted companies of that size could be bought to a complete standstill, having to park their entire fleets up on the runways of our major airports!
It was a strange week - in the day, enjoying the slopes and amazing views, you were blissfully unaware of what was unravelling around the world and in the evenings everyone sat on their phones and ipads recounting stories of this flu to each other. How bad could it really be?
I first suspected it wasn’t good when I looked at my email midweek to see a new client putting a job on hold. Little did I know quite what was about to happen.
Dad and I drove back through France on the Sat/Sun in what felt like an episode of Top Gear - trying to beat the closure of ports and borders, every minute hearing news of what else Macron was shutting down around us. I arrived back in the UK on Sun 15th and drove straight back to Exeter. On the 16th, Borris announced that we should all stay at home if we could and within a week the country was in a full lockdown.
The week that Borris announced we should stay at home was easily the hardest week I’ve encountered at Optix. Over 40% of our retainers were put ‘on hold’ and projects that were about to kick off were paused. I could see the business we’d spent 20 years building, slipping away. One day we had three extremely tense calls with clients who were in contracts, which I never want to have again. I learnt the term “force majure” for the first time and I wasn’t interested in seeing how that might play out in court!
As a business we got our ‘war room’ sorted and called the board together. For at least the first month we met daily and spoke on the phone 3 or 4 times, keeping each other up to date with any developments. We had to make decisions on everything from finance to staffing to client relationships quickly and without any deliberation. James, Rob and Jamie were absolute stalwarts as were the other senior members of our team. In fact one really positive thing that has come from this whole ordeal is that we really saw who cared and how much people were willing to dig in for us.
The first and possibly most important decision we made was not to fight anyone contractually. Although we believed we probably had a good legal case, we also realised we’d come out the other side without any of those clients, so what would be the point – short term cashflow maybe, but that’s not how we operate or want to be known. One of our values is to support and we played to that heavily. If clients needed holidays, breaks or pauses and we could see they were genuinely in real trouble then we’d be supportive, knowing they’d come back at some point and thank us for doing so. With this decision made, we then turned quickly to the cashflow. This exercise largely fell to me with help from our finance team and the rest of the Board. I spent days pouring over different models. ‘What if’ scenarios a plenty. We had to guess what would happen if things didn’t return to normal quickly and what that might mean for us in terms of our finances. At first we planned for 3 months of disruption. First mistake! Then Jamie suggested we look at a more pessimistic outcome of 6 months. I’m writing this entry 9 months into the pandemic and a very likely 3rd wave approaching! Needless to say, we took our cashflow predictions right down to the bone for 6 months and then built it back up very slowly from there. We’d be taking a 2 year step back on these models.
When I presented these depressing figures to the Board we agreed to look for financial support. We were in a strange place in that we couldn’t actually furlough very many people as we still had 60% of our retainers in place and a number of web projects that we had to deliver. We also really wanted to keep the team we’d worked so hard to build in jobs so that when the world got back to normal we wouldn’t be trying to build up again.
I called our bank manager.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever had was to build the relationship you have with your bank manager in the good times as you never know when you’ll need them if times got tough. This was one of those times and I can honestly say that the last 10 years relationship building paid off. I had spent a lot of time in that first couple of weeks talking to fellow business owners, just trying to understand what everyone was going through and sharing stories of advice and support with each other. I knew that quite a few had gone for CBILS loans but were struggling as they didn’t have direct relationships with their institutions. We were lucky. Well if you call relationship building luck!
I spoke to Adrian at HSBC and he told me what he needed. I’d already done the cashflow so I just needed a write up. I got to work and within a few days our request was signed off and we had the money in the bank. That was a good day. We had some reserves as we’d been a profitable business for the last 20 years but having the bank loan as well gave us space and time to think. It wasn’t so much survival now as stabilisation.
Over the next month or so things did in fact start to stabilise. After the initial loss of client work we didn’t experience too much more and in fact we were starting to bring on board new clients. That phase, I’ve likened to being a manic startup again. I reverted to type and became a man possessed, talking to anyone that would talk to me! I had a piece of paper next to me at all times with every single sales opportunity on it and I re-wrote it every few days. One of the most draining aspects of this, was the duel life I was leading. I would wake up and have horrendously depressing conversations with clients that were in the shit and then my next call would be with a new prospect where I had to pretend everything was fine and put my best sales voice on. It was the same with the team. At a time like this and as leaders you need to strike a balance. You want people to know how serious the situation is but you also need to provide hope and belief that you will get through it. I don’t know if we got this right but we did the best we could. Rob came into his own here, running daily welfare calls with the team. We even setup a slack bott which asked the team to tell us how they were feeling each day and if there was anything we could do to support them.
For what felt like months, I was absolutely exhausted.
At the same time we rallied the team to start thinking of ways we could adapt and things we could do for our clients to support them. We knew there would be a shift to digital that would probably help us in the long run, but everyone was in survival mode and not thinking about the long game. We came up with all sorts of clever ideas which we communicated with clients. Optix TV was born (a live stream straight onto YouTube orchestrated by Becky and Crystal and run by James) where we did a mixture of talks about things like ‘pivoting your business using a digital mindset’ and ecommerce advice alongside other interviews. All in the name of helping and supporting with advice and education. We knew that the way you conducted yourself in these times would be remembered for one of two reasons and we were damn sure we wanted to fall on the right side of that.
We decided to take our Digital Academy online headed up by Becky and Jack. What sounded like a small undertaking was far from it. James and Jack spent the next few months writing, recording and editing hundreds of videos. At the time of writing, we now have six of the 12 courses we’ve developed online and that gives us access to a new global audience we’re looking forward to developing over the next few years. We also decided to invest in a new product to help companies measure their NPS scores. That product is near launch now and I’m very excited about bringing it to market in the new year.
One very interesting thing that happened, almost immediately after lockdown was a number of start-ups approached us. In fact over that next few months we pivoted quite a bit to be more relevant to this market, even bringing in new ‘goto market’ marketing services and websites. Another thing I’m super proud of, being able to pivot ourselves and adapt to a changing market rapidly.
It would be remiss of me to reflect on the last 9 months without mentioning the complete shift away from offices into the virtual environment. We haven’t had more than about 5 people in the office at any one time since March. We were lucky that many of our team already worked remotely and we are predominantly Cloud based anyway. It was still a shift though for everyone to find home routines and we had to provide more equipment in the way of laptops for everyone. The rise of Zoom and Teams was insane! Overnight the world was communicating by video call. Imagine if this had happened in a world of dialup or even before the Internet! Like many others I soon found myself experiencing “zoom fatigue”. Much of the world seem to be hosting quiz after quiz but the last thing I wanted to do after 6 hours of calls in the day was to jump back on at night. Hopefully my friends and family don’t hold that against me too much! If we’re finding positives from the last year, Video calls has to be one of them. Not to the extent we’re doing now but when we do finally come out the other side, a blend of face to face and video is going to be very welcome. I jested on LinkedIn about a 2 day trip to Germany to see a client just a year ago has now become a totally acceptable 45 minute Teams call. That’s some serious time, money and Co2 saved!
Over the first few months we were badly down in terms of revenue but just about outperforming the predications we’d made the bank. This continued on the upward trend and roughly 7 months after the first calls to stay at home we were approaching a monthly revenue figure that actually took us close to breakeven. We’re now in month 9 and signs for the new year are looking good. We have a new MD in place in Rob which has allowed me to focus more on what I’m good at, which we know in turn will help the business.
As a board we’re still meeting every few weeks and the management team talk daily. We’re keeping a close eye on what is happening with the Vaccine and the new strain of the virus, knowing that if we’ve learnt anything from this year, it’s to expect the unexpected.
We decided about a month or two ago to focus back on growth and roll with the punches, as much as possible. We’ve taken on 2 interns, 2 apprentices and 1 new member of staff during the pandemic with the goal of growth strongly in focus.
This pandemic will be written up in history and taught to generations to come. I wanted to pen this today to help me remember back in 30 years when I’m telling my grandchildren what we went through. If you can find the time yourself, I’d encourage you to do the same. Before long it will be hard to remember the details, so if you can, over this Christmas break, take an hour or two and give yourself time to write up one of the most important events in your lifetime and history at large.
p.s. I found this wikipedia entry showing the timeline of the pandemic fascinating.