What’s your most important takeaway from 2020? Ten entrepreneurs weigh in

Dean Salakas

The Party People chief party dude Dean Salakas.

The COVID-19 pandemic has no doubt forced business owners and startup founders to operate in an environment of uncertainty.

With each day comes a new set of questions about case numbers, economic recovery, government stimulus, and what’s happening overseas.

But alongside these broader questions are a whole heap of other questions especially relevant to the small business and startup communities.

Will venture capital dry up? What about early-stage funding specifically?

What will working look like in 2021 and beyond?

How can I learn what my customers want? Do they even know?

Are Zoom meetings here to stay? And if yes, is this a good or a bad thing?

So, in an attempt to get you some answers, or, at the very least, some food for thought, we asked 10 entrepreneurs for their most important takeaways from 2020.

Dean Salakas

CEO at The Party People

Talk to your customers more. In the early days of the pandemic, our sales were down 92% as parties and events became unfeasible.

Immediately, we identified the importance of talking to our customer base to understand their needs and how we could be there for them as a business.

In early-March, based on their feedback, we implemented a ‘coronavirus survival’ section on our website, which was built around everything they’d need, from PPE and health and safety, to games, baking, gifts and arts and crafts.

By talking to, and eliciting feedback from, our customers, and acting on what they said, meant that we were able to pivot in a meaningful way, and our sales rebounded as a result.

Asking our customers what they needed, not telling them what they want, will be a key consideration long-term.

Andrea Kowalski

Tidal Ventures general partner Andrea Kowalski.

Andrea Kowalski

General partner at Tidal Ventures

The pandemic did not cause US venture capital funds to pull back from international markets. Instead, the opposite occurred.

Public tech markets have rebounded phenomenally, with even the latest IPOs (Airbnb and DoorDash) delivering outstanding results.

The private sector felt an initial squeeze, with reduced volumes and a bit of a wait-and-see mentality through mid-year, but the last two quarters have reinforced the amount of venture capital ready and willing to be deployed, and the continued search for the rock that’s not yet been overturned.

US funds have reduced their revenue thresholds and are coming down market, as the larger funds (likely buoyed by public markets) are looking to deploy more capital.

All this to say, we’re seeing a record-breaking level of interest from US VCs in Australian startups, and at much earlier stages than we’d observed in previous years.

Simon Holloway

Vegepod co-owner Simon Holloway.

Simon Holloway

Co-owner of Vegepod

Face-to-face human connection is still our number one format for everything, be that with work, family or friends, or in any interaction. 

This somewhat flies in the face of all the popular opinion being espoused, whereby many say the lockdowns and restrictions have enhanced and pushed digital connection even further, and it’s a brave new world.

This is true to a point, but in my view, only out of necessity during these times and because it’s better than nothing. 

But ultimately, video conference calls, online ‘live’ gigs and experiences and Zoom meetings can’t and shouldn’t ever replace face-to-face humanity. The very experience of 2020 should highlight this to all.

If one doesn’t understand how a Zoom meeting is so much less valuable than a face-to-face meeting, then one definitely should not be in a sales, marketing or people-focused role.

Sergio Alderuccio

Alderuccio Advisory director Sergio Alderuccio.

Sergio Alderuccio

Director at Alderuccio Advisory

This year highlighted more than ever the importance of maintaining regular communication and healthy relationships with our clients, suppliers and networks. Collaborative relationships helped foster understanding, support and loyalty, which in turn helped us work through the choppy waters together. It’s not good enough to reach out only when you are in need.

A collaborative relationship is built by displaying a genuine interest in the welfare of the other party, thereby building trust. This enables you to have more open discussions and difficult conversations are made easier.

For example, we had a long-standing client who put our services on hold soon after the first Victorian lockdown due to the economic uncertainty. That team conveyed their decision with empathy and l responded with understanding. We maintained communication, and to my surprise, we were reinstated two months later, finishing the year strongly.

Also, during the pandemic, many old relationships were resumed. This was made possible by having had a collaborative relationship in the past.

Petalyn Walker and Rachelle Porter

Sustainable Wraps co-founders Petalyn Walker and Rachelle Porter.

Petalyn Walker and Rachelle Porter

Co-founders of Sustainable Wraps

We were fortunate enough to exhibit at Mason and Objet in Paris in January. This came about after we approached a European retailer who suggested we should exhibit there, and we went on to be named as a ‘product of future generations’ by the show’s trendsetter Vincent Gregoire. 

This experience enabled us to launch our product globally, and made us realise the value of being ‘Australian Made’.

Australia has the unique position of being the only country to not have the varroa mite in our beehives. The varroa mite has devastated bee colonies globally and by not having them in Australian beekeeping, it means pesticides aren’t used to manage it like in other countries, making the beeswax we use pesticide-free and giving us a premium product.

When on the global stage, we realised the lack of pesticides in our hives and beeswax was a really big distinguisher of our wraps, and we now try to raise awareness of this here and overseas.

Lucy Cole

Lucy Cole Prestige Properties founder Lucy Cole.

Lucy Cole

Founder of Lucy Cole Prestige Properties

There have been so many takeaways from this year.

COVID-19 caught us by surprise. Just when we were heading for records sales months in March and April, the pandemic hit. So we tuned into the radio, TV, internet and many other sources for the latest news on the pandemic taking over.

We were all in disbelief as to what was happening to our world. We listened intently to health authorities and put into place strict guidelines to protect our families, staff, clients and their properties.

It was all so sudden. It was like nothing we’ve ever experienced in our lifetimes. We went into full lockdown and completely new territory.

Staff were relocated to their home-office environments, the office ran on a skeleton staff, and many team members had their work hours reduced. The government support through Job Keeper was a welcome relief, providing us and many others across the country reprieve. As a company, many hours went into sorting the endless paperwork and documents, while our accountants were required to manage the Job Keeper conditions before we were eligible.

The creation and facilitation of Zoom meetings have been a huge takeaway. How extraordinary was that transition? Suddenly, we could conduct meetings with people all around the world and have numerous staff or clients attend at the same time.

As a company, we realised that 2020 was not going to be an easy year, so via Zoom, our creative team pulled together a strategy to allow us to navigate the situation when it arose. Months went by and coming out of lockdown we understood the importance of social connection, interaction and mental health, particularly in the office.

The most important takeaway would be the resilience we were able to demonstrate as a team through the pandemic, as well as now, while on the road to recovery. Agility and a strong team make a huge difference in times of trouble.

Ben Thompson

Employment Hero co-founder and CEO Ben Thompson.

Ben Thompson

Co-founder and CEO at Employment Hero

COVID-19 incited the world’s largest shake-up of work as we know it.

This led to a game-changing paradigm shift for me, in that I realised we have an opportunity to reshape the future of work and create more inclusive, productive and satisfied teams.

Remote-first or hybrid working models are here to stay. They are more than just a reactive symptom of the pandemic. It’s a new way of work and life. 

Justin Moran

The Hidden Sea founder Justin Moran.

Justin Moran

Founder of The Hidden Sea

Every year, month, week and day is an adventure, an opportunity even though we might not realise the specifics of it until years later.

I feel 2020 is that year more than any other in my lifetime. It’s the year we got to reflect, engage and show empathy to our fellow human, as we all experienced the same happenings. 

Kate Vandermeer

TheSuperCool co-owners Kate Vandermeer and David Nunez.

Kate Vandermeer

Co-owner at TheSuperCool

Be grateful for those special customers that believe in supporting local. Reward them by saying thank you, and also give them reasons to continue to shop with you.

On the flip side, continue to source more conscious brands, whether they are ethically made, have organic components, have sustainable materials, are handmade, or are Australian made.

Steve Maarbani

VentureCrowd chief executive officer Steve Maarbani.

Steve Maarbani 

Chief executive officer at VentureCrowd

It’s been a tough year. Tougher than most. But there will be challenges again next year, and the year after that.

Difficulty is an inherent part of life. Finding ways to manage obstacles is critical for survival and, dare I say it, happiness.

My key takeaway from 2020 was the heightened reminder of the importance of investing in my health and wellbeing every day. Physical and mental training sessions — gym, running, yoga, meditation — need to be in the diary, and they do not get cancelled!

This has become my number one priority. Without dedication to my personal wellbeing, I’m not much good to my team, our customers, my partner or myself.

Skipping the gym for an early morning Zoom call or ditching lunchtime yoga to finish some document that simply must go out right this second is almost always completely counterproductive.

To get the most out of myself, I know I need the positive impact of daily mindfulness and physical activity. Yoga, in particular, is scientifically proven to change the structure of your brain, increasing productivity, reducing stress and help you calmly take on the next challenge, and the one after that.

So before you cancel your next physical activity for work, take a deep breath and let’s all meet in downward dog.

Trust me, you’ll feel much better.

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