From the DotCom Crash to COVID-19: The focus is always on pivoting

Icreon has been in business for 20 years. From a small web design shop to a multinational digital innovation agency, that growth wasn’t without its’ challenges. Separate from a hypercompetitive marketplace and constantly changing technology, in those 20 years we lived through two of perhaps the worst economic downturns at the time -- the dotcom crash and the 2008 financial crisis.

Navigating the New Millennium

Like any organization in the web development / technology business, the beginning of the dotcom era was a euphoric time, till it wasn’t. The crash was swift and brutal and by early 2001 almost 50% of our “funded startup” clients defaulted on their contracts as they shut shop. But we quickly pivoted from focusing our energy and experience on easy to win startup clients to growing corporations that were beginning to realize the potential of the web.

Then there was the 2008 financial crisis. Though brutal for many, specifically consumers, it did not hurt as much and we again managed to log some growth in that fiscal. We had already begun to diversify our client portfolio, and from the dotcom crash, carried with us the art of the pivot. We have always prided us as being the tortoise in the race, always taking reasonable risks and moving slowly but surely.

Navigating Unchartered Territories

Everything completely changed with COVID-19. Like every other business, we were completely caught off guard. I don’t think we or any business could have prepared for it. The pandemic engulfed the world swiftly and within a couple of weeks we were all on lockdown.

As a technology company, setting up all 300 of our staff across the US, UK and India to be fully remote, wasn’t a huge undertaking. That part, we’d figure out.

What we didn’t account for, was all our retail, hospitality and event-based clients being badly hit. All physical events quickly went from post-pointed to cancelled and retail sales plummeted overnight.

Many of our clients had to slow down spending and some had to suspend spending altogether. We still had projects in our pipeline, but decisions were suspended as the world went into wait and watch mode. As a services company, we were of course hit hard, with revenue set to take a significant drop for the first time in 20 years.

As an organization, we knew we were not going to come out of this unscathed. We had no time to plan and had no choice in the matter and had to pivot quickly. After 3 months in, here’s what we’ve been doing on our path to re-inventing ourselves.

Giving HR an Even Bigger Role to Play 

HR still had a role to play with no in-person contact and with all employee events cancelled. The leadership teamed up with HR and setup one on one conversations with well over 50% of the workforce – everyone was invited to share ideas and help strengthen our organization – from the people, processes and practices. We wanted to use this time for some deep introspection with the intent of possibly re-inventing our business for a post COVID-19 world, a world which most likely was going to be very different from a pre COVID-19 world.

Prioritizing and Focusing on the Areas We Can Control 

Our leadership team set up our first virtual townhall, where we came clean to our teams and came up with a plan. There was nothing we could do in the current situation; it was completely out of our control. The only thing we could control was the quality of our work and we urged our teams to put forth their best work, however they could. We had always delivered excellent work to our clients, but we needed to be exceptional. We needed to fiercely protect our current client relationships.

Focusing on Upskilling 

We had to think about how to manage our resourcing – we had always maintained a bench; the bench allows us to manage growth, like allowing us to staff up new projects quickly. New projects, even those which were at SOW stages were delayed. Within the first few days of the lockdown, we identified both functional and technical skills that we were likely to need. This kept our teams engaged and helped our teams up-skill, creating more opportunity.

Enforcing Forums for Collaboration and Over-communicating 

Daily video standups across teams and over-communicating with the teams at all levels, became the norm. We created several forums for our managers to share their learnings and best practices from working with their respective teams. With no “conversations over coffee,” we had to force create forums for collaboration and collaborate we did, probably more than ever before.

Redefining the True Meaning of ‘Partnership’

As a technology company, we could still figure out working remote but this wasn’t just about us. Many of our client teams were just not setup or accustomed to work remote and we had to quickly train our teams to be patient and supportive towards our clients. We needed to work as a partner with our clients and redefine the true meaning of partnership.

Empowering Our Clients to Experiment and Innovate 

With our active clients that looked at this as an opportunity to invest in digital, we had to setup lean, agile teams – we needed to empower our clients to be able to experiment quickly and cheaply. We had to weed out ideas that were unlikely to work and home in on ideas that could work. Virtual collaboration and online performance for our client digital infrastructure took a whole new meaning specially at a time when the entire cloud infrastructure was dealing with unpresented loads and “zooming” becoming a verb.

Coming to Terms with Our Organizational Shortcomings 

Finally, we decided to use this slowdown to invest heavily in marketing. This was long overdue. We had done a poor job of sharing our stories, our best practices and realized that many of our mid-market clients could benefit from our software development practices specially while working with remote, distributed teams. The intent was not all altruistic, we wanted our marketing teams to uncover new leads and opportunities and make it easier for potential clients to find us.

Almost three months in to the lockdown, I have seen some amazing productivity gains. The team has put forth exceptional work and geographies and time zones seem to have morphed in this virtual world. Collaboration between cross border teams has never been stronger. It is still too early to say whether some of bets would pay and if some of these productivity gains are sustainable but I and my leadership team is certainly humbled by the spirit of our team. We are forever grateful for their hard work and the ability to continue to pivot, 20 years in.


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