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Optimistic Business Lessons Gleaned From A Difficult Year Of Pandemic Life

Entrepreneurs see opportunities where others see roadblocks. They think challenges are exhilarating rather than scary. Knowing that the past year has been filled with more challenges and roadblocks than ever — and in light of World Entrepreneurs’ Day this month — I wanted to see how business leaders are navigating today’s environment.

How are they changing the world in a world that keeps changing? Why do they feel it’s important for entrepreneurs to stay encouraged through even the toughest years in business? What has inspired them throughout the past year? What advice do they have for other entrepreneurs based on what the year has taught them?

To answer these questions and more, I’ve connected with five bright and influential entrepreneurs.

1. Stay encouraged in hard times: Alyssa Ruderman, COO of Lantern

Lantern COO Alyssa Ruderman believes it’s critical for entrepreneurs to stay encouraged in hard times: “As an entrepreneur, it’s your job to see the forest for the trees. If you see and point out the big picture in the minutiae, your team will too. Changing a button becomes more than changing a button. A pitch becomes more than a pitch when all of it ladders up to your larger vision. We started Lantern because we truly believed it was something the world needed. We still do. Knowing its potential to help people through their toughest moments is what got us through all of the early rejections (there were a lot) and continues to be the thing that gets us through the tough days.”

Lantern employees use a Slack channel and a section of the company intranet to share user feedback, which provides constant reminders of the human impact of their work. Alyssa says this has served as one of the biggest sources of inspiration and motivation throughout the past year: “Nothing will get you through failure, frustration, and working from home for two years like believing in the thing you’re building each day.”

For Lu Zhang, founder and managing partner at Fusion Fund, measuring success in the past year came down to supporting founders as they navigated pandemic-related challenges and helping accelerate their growth. To help founders capitalize on opportunities, Zhang said investors needed to be qualified — so this became the main metric of success.

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That required improving the company’s approach to data analysis. “There are so many venture capitalists who talk about how they invest in technology companies, but it’s a traditional industry as well,” Zhang said. “The way of doing business, structuring the deal flow, and working with founders has been the same for the past 30 to 50 years. Now, we talk about data analysis. Data can provide value to VCs to help us make better decisions, especially around deal sourcing and evaluation, founder vetting, and industry trend and opportunity analysis. We’ve now integrated data into our operations even more heavily, and we have seen a lot of success because of it.”

3. Stay true to your roots: Ken So, Founder and CEO of Tillful

According to Ken So, founder and CEO of Tillful, the most important part of staying encouraged as an entrepreneur is an opportunity mindset and boldness amid challenges. “History has shown us that it’s the tough years when businesses and entrepreneurs thrive,” So said. “Many founders of today’s ‘unicorn companies’ started their businesses in 2009 during the financial crisis. When others see hard times, successful people see opportunities. Entrepreneurs have to think that way to achieve an unfair advantage.”

To turn that encouragement and mindset into energy and action, So’s company has stayed true to its roots: “To be energized as an entrepreneur, we stayed true to our mission: to help small businesses gain access to credit to fulfill their full potential. Because of our commitment to our core mission, we spent a lot of time speaking directly with customers and listening to their problems. When the pandemic took hold, we talked with dozens of existing and prospective customers about their needs, their challenges, and their hopes. They shared inspiring stories that, in turn, energized our team to take action and led to our new product direction.”

4. Turn to your support systems: Larry Clarke, CEO of NanoGuard Technologies

After the past year, teams at NanoGuard Technologies found motivation when they were reminded of their desire to accomplish something bigger than just money. CEO Larry Clarke said the company was “told by a CEO of a major multinational company that NanoGuard’s technology would be the most interesting technology since refrigeration. That is the type of encouragement we needed to keep pushing.”

Clarke also would like entrepreneurs to remember to give themselves grace and rely on their support systems. “While you might feel like you have to do everything perfectly, that won’t happen,” he said. “It’s important to move past the feeling and find someone you can trust who will listen to you and give you honest feedback. Yes, everyone likes it when someone tells them they are doing a great job — and hearing this is important — but you also have to listen to things that need fixing. A trusted advisor is worth their weight in gold.”

5. Measure success beyond your financials: Sean Miller, President of PointCentral

Sean Miller, president of PointCentral, found that measuring success by more than financials benefited his company immensely. “2020 was a financial seesaw for our business — both good and bad, at different times. Luckily, we define our goals with metrics outside of pure revenue and profit. By tracking how we were working to achieve those goals through one to two critical objectives and key results in each department, we were able to see how the organization was still making progress in achieving our goals overall.”

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PointCentral also incorporated new operational tools and approaches to thrive in the face of challenges. “We beefed up our customer success team and started using communication analysis tools, which help us more easily communicate with the team and gather data from their conversations with customers. Ultimately, it enables us to identify where we have an opportunity to better solve problems.”

These business leaders show that entrepreneurs navigating the uncertainty of COVID-19 have good reason to be bold and energized about the future. With the right tools, the right mindset, and the right support, challenges really can be opportunities to shine.

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