Vaughan Rising Blog: How to Find Opportunities in Crisis Situations

In this final installment of the Vaughan Rising Blog, we’re rising higher, in a sense. We’ve been sharing case studies and practical resources that gave us a boots-on-ground look at adapting to the COVID pandemic. Now we’re wrapping up the series with a change management expert giving us a 40-thousand-foot view.

Chris Carder is the Executive Director of Innovation & Entrepreneurship at the Schulich School of Business at York University. He helps students and grads build their businesses, and he also advises the Office of the President and other departments on entrepreneurship and innovation.

He’s an advisor now, but his expertise was hard-earned in the trenches. Before joining the university, he was a serial entrepreneur with his share of successes—like building Canada’s largest email marketing platform, ThinData—and some failures too. He has survived and thrived through both the dotcom crash and the 2008 recession, and now teaches others about the opportunity in crisis. Here are 10 insights Chris shared with the City of Vaughan.

Ten Insights from Schulich School of Business at York University

1. Read, research and re-evaluate to find opportunities

Chris’s attitude on crisis started with a book recommendation during the early days of the dotcom collapse. He recalls, “A mentor came to me and gave me a book to read called Matsushita Leadership. It was the story of a Japanese electronics entrepreneur who went into the collapse of the Japanese economy and came out the other end of that experience as the largest electronics company in not only Japan but eventually one of the giants of the world in Panasonic.

“Deep within that book, there was a story that talked about one crucial decision that he made going into the crisis that turned around the whole company. So my mentor brought me this book and he said, ‘I’m coming back next Friday and you’re going to tell me what the book means.’

“When he came back, I said, ‘I think this book means that the dotcom collapse is the biggest opportunity I’m ever going to have in my life.’ From that point, I had an early sense that I should look for opportunity inside the crisis and look at what assets I did have, as opposed to strictly focusing on what was going wrong and the things that were no longer as viable as they were prior to the crisis.”

2. Take a deep breath

Focusing on assets is a great idea in theory, but during a crisis, entrepreneurs can feel overwhelmed. For those who wonder where to start, Chris reassures, “It’s ok to acknowledge that you’re feeling overwhelmed because it is overwhelming; it is a crisis.

“But if you panic and focus on all the negative elements that are unfolding in the middle of the crisis, it will go wrong. It will get worse. You have to take a deep breath, look around and think about the assets you have.

“You have to be doing a couple of key things. We need to acknowledge the areas of the business that are in crisis, yes, how do we change those things, how do we get costs under control – we need to make some tough decisions. But at the same time, we need to be focused on what we do have and look at them like Lego blocks in your mind. Think: these three red blocks over here are attached in my traditional model. What if I took this one piece off and just looked at it by itself? What do I have? What if I take the other piece and look at it? What do I have?”

3. Connect with key customers to find out their needs

A company’s building blocks encompass all of their assets, not just the obvious ones like equipment and property but intangible ones like customer goodwill. Key customers are a great place to start.

“Conversations with your customers, while essential when things are booming, are even more crucial when the world is going wrong,” Chris emphasizes. “Talking to them about what they need, what they’re interested in or problems they are having becomes incredibly important.

“I can think of one technology company, Tulip Retail, that was providing technology to retailers for their sales associates to be able to interact with customers in the store. What business in the technology world was any more under siege than one that was about physical retail?

“But he went out and he had conversations with the customers and very quickly he started to understand that they were looking to find a different way of helping their associates but doing it in an online environment as opposed to the physical store. Although his product had all of the key pieces and components, it had to be rethought. The interface had to be different, but the heart of it was still about helping people with knowledge help [other] people to figure something out.”

4. Source ideas on the ground from the in-place workforce

A company’s own workforce is another asset, one that is a rich source of creative ideas. Chris points to a bakery in his neighbourhood whose pivot was so brilliant he thought consultants came up with the plan – but it was really their young, social media-savvy team.

“This bakery looked at the fact that they have pizza and they also have baked goods. And before they had a ton of different products and their bakery was always filled with street traffic and people coming in. They changed their whole model to one where you can only order in advance – you have to order almost a couple weeks out now. There’s no delivery. You have to go pick it up, outside, and wait in a socially distanced line.

“And then what they created with their product were the biggest slices of pizza in humanity and they made beautifully designed giant triangular boxes with incredible art on them. They also did another line of pizzas that were dessert pizzas. If it was Thanksgiving, they would put whole slices of pumpkin pie on the pizza. If it was the non-dessert pizza, they would put entire grilled cheese sandwiches on the pizza.” The idea was social media gold.

5. Provide genuine value in a creative offering that generates excitement

In the crisis context, Chris explains, “people are looking for a way to engage their kids and families and celebrate with their children that life has still got fun in it, even though we’re in the middle of this pandemic and we can’t do anything. So people were lined up down the street to get access to this bakery. Nobody minds that you have to go pick it up and that you have to order ahead of time, because they created an experience.

“And what they created is also visually incredible. If you get that giant slice of pizza, the first thing you’re going to do is take your picture with it. And everyone in your house is going to want a picture with it. And then they’re all going to put it on their Instagram accounts. And you’re going to tag the local bakery.

“So they could have shut the doors, they could have created a model where they offered delivery via a platform, but they have everybody come to them. They’re lining up there, and they’re not lining up with other pizza options that would be much cheaper, because this bakery designed something that had real value to it and that everybody’s excited about.”

6. Look for valuable opportunities in the business network

Chris also suggests that a business consider its network, even distant connections, as an asset. He learned this lesson at his own company. He shares, “I had a situation where the company that had acquired us told me that if I wasn’t able to come up with another million dollars of business in the next 90 days I was going to have to fire 20 people.

“I definitely didn’t want to do that – I was very close to everybody and I didn’t want to give up. So, I was reading a lot and saw an opportunity where a number of key retailers were starting to close down certain parts of their operation. But when I thought about it, I thought you can’t really close that down; they’re just laying people off because they’re trying to drop body count in the middle of a crisis.” Chris recognized that the retailer could get the same work done for a third of the cost if they outsourced it to his company.

Then he went after his top prospect. “I didn’t know anyone at the company, but I went onto LinkedIn, the networking tool, and I found someone who knew the key person who was in charge of the team that had been let go and they wrote an introductory email for me.

“Within a week, I had a meeting with that key person at the retailer. Within about 45 days I had a million-dollar contract and I saved the 20 jobs. So you’ve got to keep your head up and keep looking around for where the possibilities are.”

7. Investigate opportunities outside the company comfort zone

Chris has also seen successful examples of a more divergent strategy, as demonstrated by a tech company he coaches at Schulich. He tells their story.

“As opposed to having to raise venture capital money for their core technology company, they decided that it was such a huge opportunity to be in the protective gear business that they would go and source from around the world the most creative, organically minded masks produced from [materials] that have antibacterial properties in them and import them into Canada.

“They are now fuelling the investment in their tech company through the sale of masks. So you can even leap sideways into a completely different business. Your entrepreneurial skills are your entrepreneurial skills and you apply them wherever you can.”

8. Maintain an entrepreneurial mindset to move forward

In this global pandemic, all businesses need to rely on their entrepreneurial skills to get through to the other side. But those skills need to be complemented by an entrepreneurial mindset.

Chris has been heavily involved in the Digital Main Street and ShopHERE programs that help main street businesses adopt digital tools, techniques and services. Schulich provided students to support the effort so he had an opportunity to see the results. He discovered that attitude has a big impact.

“Those businesses and entrepreneurs that went into it with an open heart – not just the basic things, but people who actually want to learn how Instagram works or how Facebook advertising happens – really dig into it. What we saw was people of all ages from all different types of categories of businesses that were extremely successful by jumping into it.

“Some of the examples were so profound that the people have said that their businesses are going to be hybrid businesses that are going to include bricks and mortar but are also going to include e-commerce.

“For some businesses, the e-commerce aspect became so impactful that they’ve already told the students they’re not going to reopen their bricks and mortar business, because it’s so much more profitable and they have so much more opportunity now that they understand what e-commerce can do in the global world that they’re selling to.”

The flip side of this opportunity is that those who opt out could face a tough reality. Chris illustrates, “So let’s think just for a moment of all the people who’ve shifted into the online world of ordering groceries or ordering dinner or Christmas shopping online that never did before.

“And we would agree that’s a massive number now under the pandemic. So let’s just say that 10 per cent, 15 per cent, 20 per cent actually like it this way. The businesses who continue on with it and get it right are going to continue to get more market share.”

On the other hand, the businesses who wait for their old customers to show up again might find themselves in trouble. “There will be all kinds of people who do come back. But what if 20 per cent of the customer base doesn’t come back? That’s kind of a big problem isn’t it. Most people cannot afford to lose 20 per cent of their customer base. And I’m picking that number out of the air. It could be 50 per cent.

“So we have to be focused on the shift to digital and not treat this as if it’s a blip in the radar that’s going away and we all just get to go back to normal. There is no normal. There’s a new normal.”

9. Re-evaluate operational norms and expenses

A new normal means that even after the crisis has passed, day-to-day operations and well-established norms for business may fundamentally change. For example, Chris questions, “When we get the vaccine, are we all jumping back on planes again and flying all over everywhere for every meeting we need?

“No, I can tell you 100 per cent that’s not going to happen, because I’ve had conversations with executive after executive in the last months that have told me that’s not happening. One, their corporation is not going to allow them to because they’re going to cut the budget now from a travel perspective.

“Two, they don’t want to. They’ve realized you can actually build a true human connection with someone over video now, because we’ve learned how to gesture with our hands and how to use our eyes and how to connect in a different way and how to laugh together and have it be fun. So that’s a change that’s not going back because of a vaccine.

“Will some people rush back into the office? Will some people want face to face meetings? Yes, but a whole bunch of people won’t. There’s a world of talent and emerging talent that now have an expectation that they don’t need to operate in that fashion.”

10. Embrace the global workplace and worldwide market

“People don’t even realize yet how small the world just got from a business and human resources perspective,” Chris notes.

“So many of our students graduating are getting amazing job opportunities and they’re working in Europe right now. But when I say they’re working in Europe, they’re working in Vaughan, they’re working in Mississauga, they’re working in Scarborough, they’re working in Pickering, they’re working in Toronto. They’re not working in Europe, they’re just working virtually in Europe. That is huge and I think nobody really gets that yet.

“There are whole sectors and industries that are very vibrant and hiring right now without issue.”

Unlocking future opportunities for businesses to rise amid crisis

The COVID pandemic is a crisis, and while there are more tough times ahead that we must navigate with empathy and support for our fellow world citizens, Chris still sees a silver lining and is calling on the business community to rise to the occasion.

“I get a mixed feeling whenever there’s a crisis,” he admits. “There’s the part of me that is thinking about how this is going to hurt people. There’s going to be jobs that are lost, there’s going to be businesses that are hurt and in this case there’s the extra complexity of a health crisis as well so people are losing their lives.

“If you talk to Chris the human being that’s where my mind is, but if you talk to Chris the entrepreneur, then Chris the entrepreneur just sees nothing but a world of possibilities. Change, upheaval, a destabilization of business models or service models is an incredible opportunity for people to create and build new things.

“When we look at five, 10, 20 years from now, we’ll say that there were opportunities that got unlocked and whole industries that shifted to be less insular and more globally minded because of that shift to the online world.

“The loss would be if we don’t collectively realize that that’s not only an opportunity for you as an entrepreneur, it’s an opportunity for at least a dozen other people somewhere else in the world. So we need to realize what doors have opened up and we need to make sure we’re in that new reality and in the new game.”

Thanks to Chris for sharing these important insights, which will inspire businesses in Vaughan and beyond to keep rising and find the tools they need to pivot, innovate and do what it takes to get to the other side.


The information presented in this article is provided solely for the purpose of bringing ideas to the attention of the business community, as a service to the businesses of the City of Vaughan.

The City of Vaughan does not, whether directly or indirectly, endorse, sponsor or sanction the opinions expressed in this article, nor any services or products that may be offered by the contributor/s in their normal course of business. The City of Vaughan does not intend by this article to recommend the contributor/s nor to promote them as subject matter experts over any other business persons employed or engaged in similar lines of business.