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Just Like That, the Market Shifted and So Did We

by Jill Foster on June 4, 2009

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Guest contributor Marissa Levin is Founder and CEO of Information Experts. Launching a new Women Grow Business series on sales strategy, Marissa was named a 2008 BRAVO Award winner by SmartCEO Magazine (which honors the region’s 25 most influential women CEOs) and recently was listed in Washington’s 100 Technology Titans by Washingtonian Magazine. Describing her true passion as “helping other business owners be successful with their own business growth”, Marissa can be reached through her blog Marissa Levin.

Besides death and taxes, one thing is certain in life – change.
While there are countless books devoted to the general concepts of adapting to change and the need for resilience in difficult times, this column is going to zero in on what business owners have to do in order to anticipate change, embrace change, and make it work for them to build a business that ultimately is stronger than it ever would have been.

In the past 14 years, Information Experts has re-invented itself many times, primarily in response to market shifts that were difficult to predict.

When business owners start a company, they have a grand vision.
I believe entrepreneurs live by a six-word motto: “See a Need; Fill a Need.” They lie awake at night envisioning about how they will change the world. They build short-term business plans and long-term business plans. They hold strategic planning meetings, SWOT meetings, off-site meetings, on-site meetings, team-building sessions, partner meetings, board meetings, and plan, plan, plan. Ahhh… if only it were that simple.

Because just when they are mastering the art of visioning, planning, and building, something completely unexpected and incredibly disruptive happens. And all of the planning that has occurred for months on end is useless.

Our first market shift
Information Experts’ first major response to “market-shifting” [image Routes and Shifting Sands by Ferran, Creative Commons] –occurred for us in 1997, just two years after we launched. Initially, we were an instructor-led training firm. Back in 1995/1996, companies were fairly flush with cash, and training was a very hot commodity. Desirable companies promoted employee training as a company benefit, and many large companies had their own universities.

No shortage of work
Some progressive companies were hiring CLOs – Chief Learning Officers. When I started IE, we had no shortage of work. Companies needed sales training, customer service training, product training, IT training – you name it, and they were training it. Companies were implementing CRM, ERP and online applications at a rapid rate, and all needed training. Applications that were CD-ROM based were becoming web-based, and all of these programs needed online help systems, training programs, and documentation.

It was a very busy time.

The killer app: e-learning
Just as business applications were migrating to the internet, training also began migrating to the web. John Chambers (the CEO of Cisco Systems) announced one day that “e-learning would become the killer application of the Internet.”

And just like that the market shifted…and so did we.

Companies started throwing all sorts of information on the web, but many of them quickly realized that an online PowerPoint presentation does not equal e-learning.

Traditional tactics were still relevant.
To develop truly effective e-learning, you still required the traditional instructional design methodology to build instructionally sound materials. Our company was perfectly positioned to penetrate this marketplace because we had proven ourselves as a strong instructional design company. We were known as an organization that had senior instructional designers with advanced degrees and strong experience.

Square peg vs round hole: the technology component
We also recognized that the technology component – the need to actually program the web-based training programs and create the media elements – required a different skill set. We didn‘t want to try to force a square peg into a round hole [image Square Peg Round Hole by svale, Creative Commons].

Again, we went for top quality. We built a Creative Services team initially to support our e-learning requirements. We developed media rich, instructionally sound training programs that captivated the learners and motivated them to stay interested. Our reputation as a leading e-learning firm grew.

New decision makers and attracting their attention
Slowly, the quality of our e-learning programs attracted the attention of other decision makers in our customer’s organizations. Our graphic design work, animations, and overall design styles appealed to marketing and corporate communications executives. We began to get requests for marketing communications products, such as Web sites, intranets, product demos, brochures, posters, logos, etc. It was the first time since the company’s inception that we were generating revenue from a service that was not training-related.

While this shift was exciting (it certainly expanded our reach…) it was also a bit scary.

As CEO of the company, I had to recognize my own limitations.
My expertise resides in the training and learning areas. I do not have a marketing communications background. However, I recognized the natural evolution, and wanted to maximize it.

I created a strategic plan to penetrate the marketing departments of our current organizations first to build our portfolio. We began donating our services to non-profit organizations. As our portfolio expanded, we were able to go after new clients solely on the merits of our marketing communications capabilities. We appointed the appropriate management team, and we hired a sales team to go after this market.

From flourish to fallout
We became known as a high-end content development company that possessed extraordinary talent in the areas of graphic design and multimedia communications. As our marketing communications and creative services group flourished, our training division experienced a downturn.

Due to the severe fallout from the terrorist attacks that came on the heels of the telecom and Internet industry implosions, virtually all non-critical spending stopped.

Companies were laying off people at record numbers, so they obviously did not need any new-hire training programs. And the competitive landscape dramatically changed, as many companies that had been successful in the 90’s seemed to vanish overnight. As the stock market crashed, so did all of the discretionary funding accounts. Companies launched products and implemented enterprise applications with minimal training and communication efforts.

And just like that the market shifted…and so did we.

Now, our training services were not as critical.
It was time to take another close look at the services we were offering, and evaluate just how critical we were to businesses. Training was not critical. Website design was not critical. We learned that companies were in need of help to do more with less, and to maximize all resources, including intellectual capital.

Leveraging knowledge was critical.
The need for crystal clear communications to employees, customers, and the public was vital for survival. Companies could not afford to send confusing messages to their stakeholders. It was a perfect time to introduce the concept of integrated communications, which is the premise of a fully integrated communications effort to ensure consistency among all internal and external messaging.

Our experience with, and understanding of, the various silos in organizations helped to make us successful in our efforts to communicate the need for integrated communications. We saw the inconsistencies and confusion arising from the contradictory information coming from marketing, sales, training, and HR.

These groups barely tolerated each other, much less worked together. Our vision was to stop the madness.

…and open the lines of communication between channels and create a unified, organizational message that could be sent to internal and external audiences.

Our vision centered around the creation of communications strategy.
Hence, we launched our strategy practice.

And just like that the market shifted…and so did we.

This group is responsible for building messaging platforms – the actual messages that will be delivered – and the communications plans that identify how and when they will be delivered, and to whom. Then, our creative services and training groups can create the deliverables we have identified in the plan.

Building optimism and helping new target markets
In addition to shifting our solution sets, we had to re-evaluate our target markets. With the commercial sector in crisis, and the government in our back yard, it made sense to put a strategy in place to target the federal sector. Our nation’s safety and security had been tested like never before.

Before 9/11, there had not been a terrorist attack on American soil. We wanted to contribute to the rebuilding of our country’s sense of hope and optimism.

[image Optimism and Hope by Beat Nik Creative Commons]

Within crisis lies opportunity.
And we discovered tremendous opportunities for strong communications, outreach, and training.

And just like that the market shifted… and so did we.

We aggressively pursued government opportunities by obtaining the necessary certifications, schedules, and partnerships to open our doors. We incurred a lot of debt as we invested in our next evolution. We walked onto a playing field in which we didn’t know the game, rules, or the players.

But we knew we had tremendous value to bring, and we didn’t waiver in our confidence to deliver or in our commitment to evolve.

Since entering the federal market six years ago
-We have secured contracts more than a dozen different agencies, expended all of our existing service offerings, and launched a Human Capital Practice in 2008 as well – once again in response to market shifts.

Why did we shift again?

Our customers are experiencing and facing unprecedented change, and they require experts to help them navigate these changes:

  • Never before have there been 4 generations working together in government. This creates huge cultural challenges and implications, from communications to work processes to the physical environment.
  • The government is facing an enormous wave of retirement, approximately 600,000 people are expected to retire within the next five years, and when those people leave, so does tremendously valuable and essential intellectual capital. The government will need assistance in capturing and transferring their knowledge and experience to the next generations of leaders.
  • Recruitment needs: The flip side of the retirement tsunami is the need for progressive, innovative recruitment strategies that target a generation of incredible talent to fill these shoes, [but possibly has a] negative perception of government.
  • For the first time ever, the government is moving towards “teleworking.” Newly appointed OPM Director John Berry announced a comprehensive plan to jumpstart agency telework programs, giving tens-of-thousands more Federal employees nationwide the opportunity to work from home. Today, only 5 percent of the nation’s 1.9 million Federal employees telecommute. The components of Berry’s plan are drawn from two bills which have been introduced in Congress: H.R. 1722, the “Telework Improvements Act of 2009,” and the “Telework Enhancement Act of 2009. This fantastic shift will have tremendous cultural implications.

These are just a few market shifts occurring that left us no choice but to evolve and launch a HC practice, which naturally integrates into our other practice areas of education, outreach, strategy, and technology.

And as much as I would like to think there won’t be any additional surprises along the way, I know it is naive to think that.

Yoga and my company: a work in progress.
I have learned that a business owner needs to always view their company as a work in progress. A yoga instructor once said to me, “Everything you do is in preparation to go further.” In yoga, each stretch prepares you for a more difficult stretch; one that requires greater reach, strength, stamina, and flexibility.

The same principle applies to business.
Each phase is a stepping stone – a building block – to reach the next phase. Many external factors threaten the success and growth of your company every day. The rate of business failures is incredible. No one starts a business thinking they are going to fail. We all think that we will be the business that is different – the one that has it all figured out from Day One.

But so many factors are beyond our control.
What we can control is our own awareness, our own planning, and our own responsiveness. You must be aware. Think strategically. Be aware of market changes.

Set realistic goals, and put grounded measures in place to attain them.

Major market shifts are opportunities. While they may push you out of your comfort zone temporarily, ultimately they make you more valuable to your customers and help to ensure your longevity in an always-changing market. Successful, enduring businesses recognize that agility is possible without deviating from core values and core competencies. These are timeless principles that apply to businesses of all sizes regardless of market conditions or your product/service offering — which is why we’ve already set the wheels in motion for our next market shift. So stay tuned for details here at Women Grow Business.

And Happy Shifting!

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