How to prepare your business for unexpected disruptions and remain profitable through uncertainty

man getting into car ride share uber lyft
Business owners should be prepared for industry shifts, like how Uber affected taxicab drivers.

  • Per Bylund, PhD, is an assistant professor of entrepreneurship and at Oklahoma State University. 
  • He says businesses of all sizes should be prepared for unexpected disruptions outside of their control.
  • Make sure your business is consumer-oriented, and focus on keeping your company profitable.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Starting a business and making it break even is an extremely difficult accomplishment. Kudos to entrepreneurs managing this feat. But running a business is also no cakewalk. No profitable niche lasts forever, and the more profitable it is, the slimmer the chances are that it will last. Many entrepreneurs, including those with seemingly safe businesses, lost everything when their industries were unexpectedly disrupted. 

The taxicab industry is a telling example. It was benefiting from protective regulations that effectively had kept competition low for decades, yet all it took was a couple of tech-savvy guys – Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp of Uber – to upend the whole industry. Even though their business was not to provide regular taxi service, their innovation undermined that business. Uber and other similar services caused many taxicab companies to go bankrupt and the market value of taxi medallions to plummet. 

In other words, your business is not safe even if you are already making nice profits and the future looks bright. After all, even protected monopolies eventually get disrupted. What you need is to make sure you can stay profitable in the years and decades to come.

Profitability is to meet the future 

The key to profitability is to recognize what businesses are and do from the perspective of the whole economy. Businesses formulate strategies to position themselves with respect to each other and thereby earn profits. So the economic context matters, because it is within the economy that you run your business. It’s an obvious point, but what it means is rarely considered.

In the startup phase, the entrepreneur tries to find and populate a “gap” that allows the business to become profitable. But the same is true for the existing business, which must continue to consider its positioning to stay profitable. That’s what the old-style “Five Forces” framework helps you do – to position your business so that competitors, suppliers, customers and others have as little sway over it as possible. But there is more to it than positioning.

Profits are rewards for a job well-done. But to maintain profitability, your sight must be set to facilitate future value. After all, the line of production that you’re considering today will not be instantaneously available to your customers. The value they get from the goods and services you set out to produce will without exception happen in the future. In other words, profits indicate you did something right. But profitability is a matter of meeting the future. 

Customer isn’t king, but consumer is

The key to profitability is to imagine how you are contributing to making consumers better off. Note: “consumers” not “customers.” In our advanced economy, with two-thirds of all spending being business-to-business (B2B), your customer may not be the consumer. But the consumer is the user of the final product and therefore the one that determines its value. The consumer, therefore, determines also the value of all contributions in the supply chain, albeit indirectly. 

This subtle point has important implications. Businesses that produce the final product must focus on what consumers want and, more importantly, what they will want in the near future. But the same applies for B2B to maintain profitability. If you produce for other businesses, the viability of your own business goes only as far as your customer’s. When they are no longer profitable, you are no longer profitable. 

To stay profitable over time, look beyond your customer and consider your contribution to the value of the final product. Even if your customer does not recognize it, you should meet the opportunity and innovate to offer your customer an upper hand. If you make your customers thrive, your business thrives. The key is to think about the consumer whether or not you serve them directly.

Microsoft is an example of how to apply this thinking. While the software giant caters primarily to corporations and large institutions, they look ahead and continuously innovate to make it easier for their customers to serve consumers. From software to hardware, Microsoft focuses on providing the tools for productivity. This empowers their customers to serve their customers and, eventually, the consumer. In other words, Microsoft indirectly facilitates value for consumers, which makes Microsoft’s customers competitive and profitable.

Whether or not your business caters directly to consumers, it should still be consumer-oriented. To gain and maintain relevance in the economy, which is necessary to be (and continue being) profitable, requires that you contribute to the value of the final good. The great mistake of the taxicab companies was to focus on their strategic positioning in the market over innovating to facilitate value for consumers. This left the market wide open for a new type of competitor playing by a different rulebook.

All businesses benefit from adopting a consumer-value focus.

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Legendary investor Jeremy Grantham made an accidental $265 million profit on a SPAC deal after previously criticizing blank-check companies

Jeremy Grantham
  • Jeremy Grantham’s early stake in battery producer QuantumScape has surged following the firm’s merger with a special-purpose acquisition company, but Grantham still isn’t sold on the blank-check IPO trend.
  • Grantham invested $12.5 million into the company seven years ago. That stake now stands at roughly $278 million thanks to a SPAC merger and QuantumScape’s subsequent stock rally.
  • The position is “by accident the single biggest investment I have ever made,” Grantham told the Financial Times.
  • Still, the investor sees SPACs as a “reprehensible instrument, and very very speculative by definition,” largely due to their lack of listing requirements and overall regulation.
  • Visit the Business Insider homepage for more stories.

The very kind of dealmaking that Jeremy Grantham previously deemed “reprehensible” netted the famous investor a $265 million profit.

Grantham, who founded investment management firm GMO and serves as its long-term investment strategist, invested $12.5 million in battery producer QuantumScape seven years ago as one of several stakes in early green-tech companies, according to the Financial Times. The position swelled after Kensington Capital Partners announced plans to merge QuantumScape with a special-purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, in September.

The deal valued QuantumScape at $3.3 billion, and shares traded at more than four times their listing price when the acquisition was completed on November 30. The company’s stock rallied another 31% on Tuesday alone, valuing Grantham’s stake at roughly $278 million.

Yet the legendary investor isn’t convinced Wall Street’s SPAC frenzy will last. The QuantumScape position is “by accident the single biggest investment I have ever made,” Grantham told the FT, partially fueled by the so-called blank-check companies’ lack of regulation.

“It gets around the idea of listing requirements, so it is not a useful tool for a lot of successful companies. But I think it is a reprehensible instrument, and very very speculative by definition,” he added.

Read more: We spoke with Wall Street’s 9 best-performing fund managers of 2020 to learn how they crushed the chaotic market – and compile the biggest bets they’re making for 2021

Grantham’s profit stands to climb even higher. QuantumScape soared as much as 37% in early Wednesday trading. Should the rally hold into the market close, it would add another $100 million to his total gains. 

SPAC firms raise capital through an initial public offering with the intention of using the cash to acquire a firm and take the merged entity public. The last two years have seen market favorites including Virgin Galactic, DraftKings, and Nikola go public through such deals.

Blank-check IPOs exploded in 2020 as firms looked to take advantage of a surge in participation from retail investors and hopes for an economic recovery. More than $74 billion has been raised across 218 SPAC debuts in 2020, according to data from SPACInsider.com. That compares to just $13.6 billion raised across 59 deals in 2019.

Wall Street’s obsession with the vehicles could be a sign of unsustainable market optimism, Grantham told the FT, rivaling the overwhelming bullishness seen during the 1920s and the late-1990s tech bubble.

Tesla’s meteoric rise through the year has made electric-vehicle SPACs – and any SPAC related to the EV market – particularly popular. QuantumScape lands in that basket. The firm produces solid-state batteries used in electric cars and has backing from industry giant Volkswagen.

Now read more markets coverage from Markets Insider and Business Insider:

DoorDash prices IPO at $102 per share, will raise $3.4 billion

Stocks could stumble in early 2021 as investor sentiment surges past market fundamentals, Goldman Sachs says

Emmet Peppers grew his accounts from $30,000 in 2010 to over $70 million this year. The newly minted hedge fund manager breaks down how he spotted early opportunities in Tesla, Facebook, and the COVID-19 market crash, – and shared one IPO on his radar.

Read the original article on Business Insider