When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough…Pivot
Exiting a business is a process, not an event, and the right opportunity can come up on you unexpectedly. With a proper plan, you’re ready to take advantage.
The vaccine rollout in Canada and around the globe offers hope that sometime in the not too distant future, we will start to see things get back to “normal,” however that is defined after the pandemic rocked every aspect of our lives.
For some businesses, the transition to remote work environments and the pandemic lockdown brought opportunities and growth. For the majority though, it was a challenging time that has stretched resilience and resources to the max.
Here’s a look at how our company, Cube Business Media, dug deep and pivoted our business in one of the pandemic’s hardest hit industries: in-person events and conferences. We are entrepreneurs, just like the thousands of Canadians who are part of our BTF community. We hope you find our story helpful as you consider “now what?” for your business. Much has changed since Canada went into its first lockdown, but (spoiler alert) we feel optimistic that the future is bright.
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Q & A WITH MARK STEPHENSON, PRESIDENT, CUBE BUSINESS MEDIA
Q: Can you provide a bit of background on CUBE?
A: One of my business partners, Dave Tyldesley, and I started CUBE in 2015. I sold a company 10+ years earlier but stayed on with them for five years. That company was then sold again. I was asked to stay on for another five-year term but my entrepreneurial juices had started flowing again and I wanted to start another business. I really did enjoy going through the deal process with the original sale and I learned a lot. We had multiple partners, the buyer was a US-based public company and it was an eight-month negotiation.
When we started CUBE, Business Transitions Forum (BTF) was our first event out of the gate. We knew the conference and event space really well and were pleasantly surprised that no one was offering a conference on business transitions. With the growing number of baby boomers looking to transition their businesses, the timing was perfect.
Dave and I went all-in and produced the first BTF in Vancouver within four months of starting CUBE. In that short time, we met with key players, established an advisory board, built a conference program and event, and had a lot of fun along the way. Prior to the pandemic, we were hosting BTF events in five Canadian cities: Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and Halifax.
Q: Being in an industry that relies on people travelling to live events, what went through your mind when the pandemic hit and lockdowns started?
It was a very interesting time. On March 13, 2020, we asked our staff to work from home for a week or two. Fourteen months later, everyone is still working remotely.
We quickly learned we were a one-dimensional business and, as time went on, we had to get really clear on what was important. For us, it was our relationships with our clients. We connected with them to see if there was any way we could help, and where there was, we jumped in.
Internally, there were very difficult discussions about layoffs and pay cuts and we had make hard decisions to get to the other side of the pandemic. In a few months, we went from producing exclusively in-person events to all virtual events. We researched and learned a lot about the best platforms to help us deliver quality events. We needed to ensure we could still deliver value and engagement opportunities to attendees and our corporate sponsors.
We also started new digital assets with a number of e-newsletters (like this one) and webinars, and even made an acquisition of a new conference, Tech Talent North.
We haven’t batted 1000 but we’ve done well with our virtual events and e-learning opportunities. Within the BTF community of entrepreneurs, some have done very well during the pandemic and some have not. From the beginning, we were clear that our priority was to help other entrepreneurs get through these challenging times.
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Q: Why did CUBE move forward with an acquisition during such a difficult time?
A: There probably is never a perfect time and during COVID we tried some new things. One of our team members introduced us to a BC based tech association and as the discussions went on, it felt right. We were fortunate to bolt on an acquisition, especially considering we are in an industry that has declined over 90% in activity and revenues during the pandemic.
Q: What are some of your key takeaways from the pandemic?
A: I’ve learned a lot about myself and our business. Listen to your team and your clients to collect as much information as you can to inform your decisions. You have to trust your gut and your team. Be willing to be flexible and creative. We have three partners at CUBE (Michelle Wong is the third partner) and all of us, along with our team, bring something different to the table. It’s important to let everyone have their say and to consider their perspectives. While the past year has been difficult, we will be better for it in the future.
Q: What will happen next?
A: Prior to the pandemic, we were on a fast-growth trajectory and we will get there again. I am very excited about the next five years. We are in acquisition mode and actively seeking new opportunities.
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Q: When it comes to business transitions, what do you anticipate for trends and opportunities going forward?
A: It will take some time to come out of this and get back to normal. The transition horizon is becoming shorter. For entrepreneurs who originally thought they would sell their business in three to five years, the timeframe is now more like one to three years. Business owners are tired and may have experienced ill effects on their business from COVID. They may not want to go through another cycle like this.
There are great opportunities for deals in many different industries and there is plenty of money on the sidelines. It is cheap to borrow or finance right now.
For those who are not yet ready to sell, I suggest getting your business exit ready. It’s like selling your house. There is a lot of work to get it sale ready but if you perform ongoing maintenance, clean your garage and purge possessions regularly, it’s a lot easier to get it on the market quickly when you are ready to sell. The same applies to your business. Make sure your finances and operations are in order so if an opportunity arises, you can respond quickly.
BTF is working towards the goal of hosting in-person events in November. There will be a lot to cover in our programs as we help entrepreneurs post-pandemic. We look forward to see everyone in person soon.