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How to Pivot your Business After Industry Obsolescence

Change is inevitable and often unpredictable. Here are three questions leaders should ask to make sure they’re prepared for anything.

By Ross Youngs, CEO of Univenture

Any business’s life cycle will certainly be filled with its share of wanted and unwanted changes that will challenge leaders. Sometimes change comes from technological advancements or opportunistic dynamics. Other times recessions, inflation, or even a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime pandemic may rear their heads and create unanticipated change. 

In my 30 years as a founder and CEO, I’ve had the opportunity to face everything from unprecedented hypergrowth to the complete extinction of a major market. Navigating each one of these changes has made us a stronger company, and the reason we were able to survive is because of the culture of innovation created by a team that was prepared for anything. 

In 1988, we patented the most successful alternative packaging for compact discs. The initial demand was enormous – so much so that we became one of the fastest-growing private companies in the US during the 1990s. The product line expanded to 600 SKUs in consumer and industrial products, and you could hardly open a book, the mailbox, or an office drawer without seeing our packaging. However, some unexpected changes hit us nearly as fast as demand rose. By 2009, the collapse of disc sales shattered our long-term growth and profit run and initiated a ten-year, 95% decline in sales that bottomed out by 2019. We were facing every leader’s worst nightmare – what do you do when your entire market evaporates? 

We needed to make a pivot and it couldn’t happen fast enough. The disc packaging product line sales dropped by more than 20% yearly, while new product sales only grew at about 10%. Manufacturing operators shifted from operating legacy equipment to using new technologies, which resulted in team member attrition and skill mismatching. Regardless, the effort was to evolve for the team’s sake and not have mass terminations driven by revolution.

Despite the long odds, our team did not waver in the face of such a challenge. Together, the management team devised and executed a plan to right the ship, and develop a new path forward despite the uncertain waters ahead. As the CD industry declined, our team pushed the creative envelope to the limit, developing new patents and expanding into new industries. Today, Univenture has a healthy, diversified business that was able to navigate the unexpected challenges of the early 2020s. 

To help future entrepreneurs, I’ve pulled together three essential questions that every leader needs to ask as they create an organization that can weather any change:

Are all products and all markets destined to die or evolve? 

The simple answer is, yes. In time, change is inevitable, and the leadership team of any organization must embrace and regularly engage in the opportunities ahead. To future-proof an organization, leaders need to empower their teams to think creatively and allow for a culture that pulls all sides of the business into the research and development process.

How do you know your team is ready for the challenge of change? 

Preparation is not chance; it is practice. Initially, start small, find opportunities to create positive change, and teach the organization to embrace the chance for improvement. Those that embrace and lead the change are the team members you want upfront. Those that cower or repulse at change will be destructive forces going forward. Questioning any approach to change should always be embraced. It is vital to ascertain if the questioning or appearance of concern is part of the process leading to a mission supported by the team member.

So how do you know it is time to pivot? 

Black swans that force industry-wide scrambles to pivot, such as the covid pandemic, are rare. However, other business interruptions due to markets typically allow for preparation. Preparation and foreseeing the future requires research for deep understanding and flexibility of the team to adapt to the future rapidly. Innovation is again an excellent opportunity to lay out your future.

As entrepreneurs and leaders, we constantly analyze and worry about the future of our businesses. Noted 20th-century pugilator and philosopher Mike Tyson has said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” There is so much truth to this. We can pour all of our anxieties into creating backup plan after backup plan, but at the end of the day, no contingency plan is perfect. 

However, training and preparation equip a leader to not only anticipate oncoming storms but also be equipped to respond without panic when faced with an unforeseen crisis. By creating a culture that stays atop of technological innovations and empowers teams to proactively search and develop advancements, a leader is already better prepared to weather the storm than any contingency plan could have prepared them for.

 

Ross’s Young Bio:
Ross Youngs is an environmental scientist and CEO of Univenture, a full-service designer, manufacturer, and distributor of packaging products used in dozens of industries globally. With more than 75 issued patents to date, the Univenture team is one of the leading providers of sustainable, biodegradable, and reusable plastics that are wholly manufactured in the United States.

Youngs and Univenture Inc. can credit a lot of their successes to ingenuity. The revolutionary Safety-sleeve® material, which allows slim and secure disc protection, made such waves in media industries that it led to Univenture Inc.’s first of five inclusions in the Inc. 500 Fastest Growing Companies. The invention of the patented U-1000 system in 1997 similarly transformed the limits of high-volume, highly customizable, completely automated media packaging.

In 2012, Young’s founded Biosortia, a biotech company that works on new drugs from deep access to the chemistry of the microbiome for immuno-oncology and immunological therapeutics. Young’s recent major innovations include an R&D 100 Award for collaboration on biopolymer technologies. In 2009, Biosortia was awarded a $6 million ARPA-E (U.S. Dept. of Energy R&D) grant for its algal harvesting technology, which helped lead to the development of Biosortia’s drug discovery platform.

Email
Ross Youngs: ryoungs@biosortia.com