How to start a new business when all hell is breaking loose

Steve Forbes

Who starts a new business during a pandemic?


Actually, a lot of people. It’s interesting that some of the world’s most successful brands emerged during times of crisis, including IBM, Disney, GE and more recently, Groupon.

At a recent Brainmates Product Talk, Founder and Principal Facilitator at Bright Pilots, Ben Crothers, presented his ideas on how to tap into the next big opportunities and stay focused in these crazy times. Speaking from his own personal experience, Ben explained how he started a new venture and kept it on track while “all hell was breaking loose”.

He spoke in-depth about the importance of finding meaning as well as measuring day-to-day metrics. The audience also heard about generating alternative products which have the dual purpose of helping you get to know your target market so you can continue to add value.

Finding your ‘Ikigai’

You may have heard of the formula for finding and defining our personal reason(s) for being, known as ‘Ikigai’.


Ikigai - from Big Think

This includes finding a balance of what you love, what you’re good at, and what the world needs —then making sure you can get paid by providing it.

“These elements intercept to give you a notion of your passion, your vision, your vocation and your profession,” explains Ben. “It would be great to have total balance across all four at all times but that’s rare. Most of us find the different parts dial up and down during different stages of our career.”

Right now, if you want to make a decent income, your ‘Ikigai’, has to deliver something the world needs.

Read the room

People’s desires and needs change and become more acute during a crisis. For example, for GE, IBM and Hewlett Packard, technology was going through a major transition when each of them launched.

In the case of Disney, people were looking for escape and entertainment as the Great Depression set in.

Groupon, of course, came about when people wanted to save money.

During a crisis, it helps to, “Look at forces going on that may not necessarily be generating headlines,” Ben explains.

When you’re aware of the problems and unmet needs that customers have, you can start to work towards a solution.

Don’t panic

After creating a business model and working with a mentor to launch his own business helping brands with strategy and facilitation, Ben’s progress was interrupted by the outbreak of COVID-19. His sales processes fell apart and clients he had locked in began cancelling workshops and training sessions.

“I had to work out what to do,” Ben explains. “There was no income generation because the opportunity to teach classes in person was gone. Word of mouth fell apart because people were talking about other things… and I had no money.”

After a short period of saying yes to anything that came along, Ben realised he was selling himself as a Product and had fallen into a trap which didn’t reflect his business model. Instead of a business owner, he had become a freelancer.

His advice for anyone else in this situation is: “Stop panicking. Breathe. Focus. And scale back your aspirations.”

“It’s okay to scale back your aspirations. It’s okay that you’re not achieving what you want to achieve. These are abnormal times and I think we need abnormal solutions. But we still need to go easy on ourselves,” says Ben.

Amazing things can emerge from a crisis but they don’t have to happen all at once. Similarly, you can get to work on something small, do it well, then move on to the next thing. 

Focus on your product’s impact

At this stage, Ben returned to Ikigai himself. “I knew that there was an intersection of passion and mission where I still really wanted to help <people> have great impact. I still wanted values-aligned clients and I still wanted clients who would pay. The problem was I was manifesting things in the wrong way.”

Ben realised he could flip his aspirations into a ‘Product Ikigai’. 

  • Doing what you’re good at is ‘feasibility’
  • Doing what you can get paid for translated to ‘viability’
  • Providing something the world needs is ‘desirability’

Then there is the actual impact your Product will have on the world.

His clients weren’t so focused on training during COVID. To find another way to help them, Ben created a Product they needed. It still aligned with his values and expertise, just in a ‘think outside the box’ way. It also had the power to make a positive difference. 

Start small 

To help his target audience during COVID and keep his business operating without a ‘time in exchange for money’ model, Ben quickly researched and pulled together a creative and helpful ebook called 50 Remote-Friendly Ice Breakers.

Instead of thinking in a big picture way, Ben kept things small and looked to solve a single problem. His book has now sold thousands of copies.

During this crisis, even though there are many services that he could have offered, Ben’s book addressed market need and also upheld his goal of creating value. It served the additional purpose of helping him learn about his target audience.

If you’re launching a business during a pandemic or any other type of crisis, “Don’t let trying to solve all the global problems get in the way of solving one local problem.”

Get a clean signal

Ben believes it’s important to define impact metrics as well as Product Metrics.

“We want to track acquisitions, awareness, activation and things like retention and usage,” he says, “And it’s good to have targets around these metrics. However, we need to remember that people don’t use our Products for the sake of it. They are always after some other outcome.” This outcome explains the real impact of your Product.

Consider apps like Trello, Tinder or products like Amazon. People want a seamless workflow, a fun partner or a good Product, delivered quickly. They’re not intensely focused on the way the Product itself works and its features.

“The more we know about the goals of our customers, the more we can crystallise what their goals are, both rationally and emotionally. This lets us trace the impact we want to make with our Products,” says Ben.

“Particularly when all hell is breaking loose, you need to have a clean signal so you can park what’s just noise. This helps everyone in the organisation to know where they are going, despite what is going on in the outside world.”

Make sure your team knows what’s important and what you are collectively working towards so everyone can focus and feel reassured during times of crisis. 

What’s next?

Steve Forbes

Steve Forbes | Author

Steve leads our Product Talks Melbourne Meetup. He's passionate about Product management and all things digital. He helps organisations navigate through times of change like: adopting new technology, changing customer needs and disruptive business models. He loves working on challenging projects and building products that customers love.

Product Management Training