Change of plan: How businesses are learning to reassess and reinvent

To survive during the coronavirus crisis, companies are having to get creative

It was literally “on yer bike” last week for skincare entrepreneur Tara Leader when the Coronavirus put paid to her trips to the post office to send orders. With her website effectively shut down, Leader needed to sustain cash flow at her fledgling company so she posted an offer of doorstep delivery to customers living locally. She got over €200 worth of orders on the first day, delivered them by bike and kept this going until she found a courier willing to do contactless doorstep pick-ups and deliveries. Her website is now back up and running and business is brisk she says.

Leader’s response is just one example of how business owners everywhere are becoming inventive about reaching their market. In many cases these “inventions” are constrained by factors such as social distancing, but in unprecedented times even small tweaks may make a big difference. Other examples include milkmen adding products to their deliveries, garden and interior designers doing virtual tours of clients’ properties to keep projects going and teambuilding companies offering online games and advice on working remotely. It’s also now also possible to live stream just about everything from yoga and fitness classes to business advice, counselling, meditation, baking and cookery classes.

Our gateway can work remotely to feed internal systems and support the teams to keep stock going to the website

There’s a meme currently circulating on social media asking people who has led the digitalisation at their organisation, the CEO, the CTO or COVID-19, and the pandemic has been a wake-up call for those who have been slow to embrace new technologies. But while the most obvious response is to move online and most service providers can do so by tapping into resources such as Skype, Microsoft Team or Zoom to keep the wheels turning, it’s a much greater challenge for those with physical products or large inventories.

Product information

"One of the biggest headaches for retailers when starting a website or updating an existing one is getting stock onto their platform. This is even more of an issue now as retailers are down staff," says Karina Kelly, chief executive of Content Llama, whose digital content gateway speeds up the process of transferring product information (images and descriptions) from brands to retailers.

“We can automate this task and give completion timelines of days rather than weeks. For retailers who are trading online but may be missing team members, our gateway can work remotely to feed internal systems and support the teams to keep stock going to the website.”

With everyone stuck at home, the opportunities for e-learning are huge, so if there’s a teaching or training nugget hidden in what you do, now is the time to find it.

Platforms such as Teachable and Udemy are structured for easy set-ups and once a course is online, geography is no barrier. Udemy has more than 50 million students and 57,000 instructors teaching courses in 65 languages, while Teachable has more than 18 million students across the globe. The value of the e-learning sector is expected to jump to about €275 billion by 2025, up from about €174 billion in 2018, according to research firm Global Market Insights.

Other positives from hosting online are no premises rental costs and no constraints on numbers because of physical space. So, in theory, it’s possible to increase the number of participants in any session to make it more economically viable.


Although many businesses are still reeling from the speed of the shutdown, the advice from seasoned practitioners is to act fast to repurpose products and services.

Looking to the future, we're already working with brands and retailers to help them get sales moving ASAP

"Would it be possible to keep going with a different distribution model?" says business consultant John Lamont. "Could marketing efforts be ramped up with targeted offerings such as family packages on items like screens – dad's screen, kids screen etc? Would it be possible to sell online 'babysitting' services like storytelling or singalongs to parents struggling to work from home while keeping children occupied?"

Looking ahead, some sectors will benefit from the pandemic and should plan accordingly. For example, it’s likely that the number of tech-savvy seniors will have risen so there may be an opportunity to offer specific tech packages to silver surfers with the added value of a set-up and maintenance service that could be outsourced to a contractor already in this space.

“Looking to the future, we’re already working with brands and retailers to help them get sales moving ASAP, and online content is the number one way to do this,” Karina Kelly says. “We can put the systems in place now to help them hit the ground running in a few weeks’ time when they start trading again.”

Optimum: Training company on a new learning curve

Mary and Ronnie Harrison have been running Optimum training for almost 30 years. During this time, they've experienced the highs and lows of sustaining a business and survived the 2008 recession when training budgets were slashed. But the disruption caused to their business by coronavirus is unparalleled as almost overnight they had to transform both their delivery model and product offering in response to mass cancellations.

"We moved online in one go while simultaneously preparing new courses on topics such as such Cash Management in a Crisis to help companies weather the current situation," Mary Harrison says.

We're trying to provide practical advice around what incentives and supports are available

“We’ve been running blended learning, which involves an element of online teaching, for the last three years, so it’s not completely new to us. However, moving everything online at speed has been a huge logistical and technical challenge. We’re lucky in having good technical knowledge within the company because it’s not just about the delivery method. You lose interaction when people are not together, which is why they generally prefer a classroom setting where they hear each other’s experiences. Trying to replicate this online is a challenge in itself. Virtual training is also more intense as it’s done in shorter bursts, which has implications for material and content structure.”

Optimum works with local enterprise offices countrywide, and Harrison says they were quick to encourage their clients to sign up for timely online courses.

“Everyone is worried and we’re trying to provide practical advice around what incentives and supports are available and what to do to stay afloat,” she says. “We’re encouraging people to share experiences and to brainstorm around what they need to do to get back in the game when this crisis is over. In terms of our own business we reacted immediately because in hindsight we didn’t move fast enough in 2008. This time we were in overdrive from the start.”

Celtic Candles: Working to avoid being a candle in the wind

Celtic Candles was founded by Gerry Stewart in 1993 and is now run by his son James. The company produces products for home, hospitality, private label and religious uses, and roughly 95 per cent of its business is wholesale.

Step into the company's warehouse now, however, and the production line is filling bottles not pouring candles. "We're knee-deep in sanitiser and pushing hard to keep up with demand from our pharmacy customers," says James Stewart. "They see us as a solution to a need; we see it as a way of keeping our staff. We employ 13 people between full-time and part-time, and we've been able to produce the product while observing social distancing, with people packing it from home."

Never in your wildest dreams would you imagine that your businesses would literally fall off a cliff overnight

Stewart was alerted to the possibility of producing sanitiser by the company that supplies him with ingredients for room diffusers. “It was a bit of challenge sourcing bottles, and the cost of alcohol has spiralled since we started,” he says. “We’ve tried to keep the price down, but alcohol has gone from €1.60 a litre initially to €8 a litre now.

“We began to see a slowdown in our business in January and then it just got worse and worse. We started selling the sanitiser three weeks ago and if it keeps going at this pace we’ll soon have shipped 10 tonnes. Because we already supply pharmacies there have been no issues with deliveries.”

Normally at this time of year pallets of packaging for Christmas stock would be arriving at the company’s warehouse, and it would start manufacturing for the festive season. Roughly 60 per cent of its business is done in the final three months of the year.

“We have to make a big upfront investment in Christmas gift packaging of €30,000 to €40,000, and never in your wildest dreams would you imagine that your businesses would literally fall off a cliff overnight,” Stewart says. “We still have cash flow with the sanitiser, but what worries me is that our customers are going to struggle to afford stock when all of this is over.”