Young entrepreneur Buram promptly changed the focus of her sewing business to produce face masks for her local community in Mongolia.
Young entrepreneur Buram promptly changed the focus of her sewing business to produce face masks for her local community in Mongolia. Youth Business International

Innovating in times of crisis: lessons from entrepreneurs

The last few months have seen the largest economic shock in living memory for a significant part of the world’s population.

A crisis like Covid-19 presents huge challenges to both economies and people’s daily lives and routines, resulting in uncertainty and rapidly changing consumer needs and behaviours. A crisis can also be a powerful driver of innovation and creativity.

While the pain is being felt by all businesses, small entrepreneurs are disproportionately impacted as they typically lack cash flow and capital. However, they are also well equipped to bounce back from a crisis using the skills that made them successful in the first place: agility, resilience, and openness to try and give things a go.

At Youth Business International, we’ve been providing young entrepreneurs with the right skills and tools to set up and grow their businesses, and we’ve seen just how resourceful and innovative they can be.

What can civil society learn from the world of business?

From experience, we think that there are some lessons that civil society organisations can take from the world of business. We’ve already seen how this pandemic has accelerated some of the changes organisations like ours have been wrestling with for years, from rapid implementation of our digital strategy to significantly streamlining complex processes.

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In times of uncertainty, both entrepreneurs and organisations have the ability and impetus to experiment and innovate with new ideas and approaches. Below are examples we have seen and the valuable lessons to take away:

Stay close to your users

Customer discovery is the process of getting to know your customer and how your proposed solution can help solve a problem. Engaging them is a great way to quickly identify changing and newly emerging unmet needs. Bolivian restaurant owner Joaquin was determined to continue generating income despite lockdown, so he brought equipment from his business into his home and began a pizza delivery service. Not only was he able to cater to existing customers but managed to reach new ones.

Talk to the people you aim to serve and donors to see what their needs and challenges are, so you can quickly look for new opportunities and assess how relevant your existing programmes and services are.

Be agile and move at pace

Agility is the ability of an organisation to quickly adapt, renew itself, and succeed in a rapidly changing, ambiguous, turbulent environment. Entrepreneurs have more room to act fast and make decisions quickly to shift focus and resources on high priority activities. Buram promptly changed the focus of her sewing business to produce face masks for her local community in Mongolia.

Organisations that adopt agile processes say that not only does their productivity, prioritisation and project visibility improve, but also employee motivation and engagement. Combining design thinking with sprints is an excellent way of boosting creativity and idea generation as well as exploration and experimentation.

Create a minimum viable product (MVP)

Assess your current business model, then think about what the market needs right now and how you can adjust your services to meet those needs. Creating an MVP version of a service with just enough features to satisfy early customers and provide feedback for future product development is a less expensive route to figuring out if your offer is viable and scalable. In Nigeria, Ahmed developed a contactless hand washing station that is completely foot operated and can easily be deployed in homes, schools, hospitals and other public places.

Think about what you can deliver quickly based on your strengths and offer something beneficiaries will need and want. Don’t spin your wheels trying to perfect your new service – think lean and don’t be afraid to use a test and learn approach.

Innovative skills

Across the world, through the eyes of young entrepreneurs we support, we’re seeing how necessity can inspire innovation. Organisations can learn a lot from entrepreneurs – staying close to customers and understanding their real problems, being agile and not afraid of failure, and collecting the maximum amount of validated learning with the least effort are innovation skills that are worth developing. Not only will these key skills help you weather future storms, but also provide pathways to growth in uncertain times.

Find out more about what NGOs can learn from startups in our report with Save the Children and Nesta, Better together: How startups and the third sector can collaborate.