Responding to the realities of a pandemic market

Even if widespread recovery from COVID-19 exceeds expectations, reference to ‘pre-’ and ‘post-’ pandemic ways-of-working is becoming part of the vernacular of our industries and the organisations that make them up.

empty metropolitan city streets with bright neon lights and billboards

Despite Australia's relatively stringent mitigation plans and varying support packages for different sectors, the onus has broadly been on businesses to envision and employ creative models and measures to navigate the current marketplace. The ability and willingness to pivot towards new opportunities has been paramount to business durability, as have the crucial skills of speed, flexibility and foresight to facilitate a level of necessary change and leadership on the fly to not only survive, but thrive.

Managing Director, Jeremy Fleming, of Australian event production company, Stagekings, was one of the many business leaders that needed to adapt to ensure the show went on. Faced with a pipeline of projects which all but emptied overnight, Fleming took direct action to join the dots in different ways and launched a new business arm – an online custom furniture store. Here Fleming shares his top four learnings from that process.

Uncertain times call for certainty about what you're capable of

"When the ban on mass public gatherings was announced, we were in Melbourne building stages for the F1 Grand Prix and Ninja Warrior TV show. Within a week we'd lost 100 per cent of our upcoming event work. We moved quickly to cut costs and protect cashflow, but even then had to make some very tough calls when it came to staffing levels.

A few days later, I was talking to a friend in Ireland whose company had started to look at furniture for the suddenly booming work-from-home market, and wondered whether it might be an avenue for us to explore too – we had the skills, hardware and facilities to allow us to make a switch relatively seamlessly and our head of production just happens to design and build it for fun.

Within a few days we had 3D printed a prototype, built an e-commerce site and carried out a photoshoot at our house! Just like that we were back in business and since then we've produced thousands of pieces across 30 different lines."

Insight, agility and innovation: the foundations of a successful pivot

"For us, waiting out the worst of the situation simply wasn't an option. The only way forward was to assess swiftly, identify an opportunity and act decisively. Fortunately, agility and innovation were already ingrained in our business as we constantly strive to improve and refine to stay competitive in our field, meaning we were able to move intuitively, reconstituting old skills and learning new ones as we went on the journey. Our desire to have a go, back ourselves and work hard turned out to be key too.

Initial awareness of what we were doing grew quickly via social media and a strong groundswell of support from our traditional clients and contacts. Timing also played its part in our rollout, as the vast majority of mainstream suppliers had sold out of, or were reporting extended turnaround for, similar products, which enabled us to capitalise on excess demand within the market. Offering next day manufacture and delivery set us up for success, underpinned by rapid reengagement of core staff and events industry professionals to ramp up production and offer interstate stock holding.

While desks started as our key product, we moved organically towards where other needs lay by maintaining a close dialogue with potential customers online. Laptop and monitor stands came next, followed by puzzle desks, scooter racks, Lego tables and lap-desks."

Learning to adapt betters your business and your people

"E-commerce and retail presented a relatively steep learning curve as we'd always been on the B2B side – the switch to B2C brought with it a whole new level of essential customer service and management of digital touchpoints and communications. Within the team, we had to work out what was required, delegate it and learn on the job, fast. Our production lead's wife happened to be a publicist and she helped us professionally generate exposure, which was another major asset in our new venture.

Everyone had to adapt, but because the team were happy to be back working and energised by a new challenge, they took new roles and responsibilities in their strides. For example, our carpenters ended up running quality assurance and dispatch, something novel to them but which broadened their personal skillset whilst bettering our process.

We also went from nothing to cutting 300 sheets of timber a week, so sourcing the right suppliers to onboard saw some trial and error, as did how best to stay sustainably minded."

When speed counts, don't let over-analysis crush considered action

"In the wake of COVID-19 I've seen so many stories on 'how to pivot' your offering, but in truth, I probably wouldn't have pursued it if I'd read them before we made our decision on how to address what was happening! There would have been a sense of information overload, negating my ability to trust my gut and make a (quickly) considered play unsmothered by analysis.

With a return to large scale events and festivals still some way off, the furniture production angle has provided us with a great revenue generator which we plan to continue as long as demand exists. We're currently talking to other designers about manufacturing for them so I think there is a real future for us in this part of the business. Even though its origins came out of left field, I've noticed a strong sentiment of renewed support for local companies and manufacturing during all this."

With special thanks to: