From small to big and back again: Five lessons from a tumultuous 2020

Ian Ugarte

Small Is The New Big co-founder Ian Ugarte.

For some time, I’ve been teaching homeowners that large houses with underutilised space can be reconfigured to include ‘micro-apartments’,  which not only create extra income, but also make a dent in Australia’s dearth of affordable housing options.

But when push came to shove during the unprecedented business conditions of 2020, my business, Small Is the New Big, had to take its own advice.

In the space of just weeks, we pivoted from ‘big’, a roster of in-person seminars delivered all around the country, to ‘small’, involving a new and efficient online delivery model.

The result? We downsized our cost base — accommodation, flights, venue hire, et cetera — in the order of 70%. And, just as crucially, we arrested an alarming slide in attendance by making it much easier for our customers to connect with us and get the resources and advice they needed. 

We also empowered the entire team to work from home and gave them the tools and support to overcome this momentous shift away from the on-the-road lifestyle we were all used to.

And while we were rethinking every assumption, we started to have a realisation that people do like the education we provide, but are not necessarily ready to commit to doing the work. 

They’ve got some money, but they want someone else to do it. So we orchestrated another quick pivot, embracing a ‘do-it-for-you model’.

It has been a momentous shift, but the result is that Small Is the New Big is more profitable and productive than ever, with better attendance and engagement metrics across the board.

Here are the top five lessons I learnt during the tumultuous, COVID-hit year that was 2020.

Be agile

I’ve always been the guy who is awake at 2am thinking of ways to do things better, then introducing those ideas at the 9am huddle.

My team has gotten used to my big ideas and they’ve learnt to pivot with me, so that when we made a huge change in 2020, everyone was ready to roll with it.

Don’t be afraid of change. Embrace it.

Allow people to work where they want to

We have really great people and they have been more productive since everyone started working from home.

It has suited some more than others, granted, but it has given them a level of freedom, away from the constraints of a small office space.

When we do see each other, it’s warm and fun, and we don’t take it for granted. Spending time together is a big bonus now.

We still have a small office for those who want to work there, but since COVID-19, we’ve stuck a pin in plans to move into a bigger office.

Trust, trust, trust

Employ people you trust, and trust them to do their job.

Everyone should be responsible for their own workload and be motivated to get the job done.

Trust is the cement that holds the bricks together. When your team is built on solid foundations of trust and mutual respect, it’s often surprising to me how people take ownership and responsibility for delivering really amazing work.  

Let go of the reins

There’s a balance between micro and macro management.

At one point, Christine (my former wife and business partner) and I had to be involved in every decision, which we didn’t want.

We wanted to make sure decisions can be made without asking and that people are empowered to do so.

Be different

You’ll only get so far following the same path as everyone else, that’s something we definitely learnt this year.

It takes courage to change course, to try something new, and be consciously different from what others in your space are doing.

As technologies evolve and global events change the way we do things, look for opportunities to disrupt the status quo.

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