Finding opportunities in hard times

Whenever times are tough, you start to hear people talking about how adversity creates opportunity – if you know where to find it. If you buy into this way of thinking, the world should be oozing great opportunities right now because there has been so much adversity over the past year.

Some of the technology-related opportunities created by adversity are obvious. As businesspeople throughout North America re-assessed their travel plans in the wake of Sept. 11, they suddenly became a lot more interested in videoconferencing technology.

As concerns about threats to their own security – and the security of the companies – grew, they developed a more acute awareness of biometric and other security technologies. Likewise, they were much more aware of the need to have off-site backup, improved data recovery strategies and even began re-evaluating the notion of using an outsourced application service providers (ASPs) to host key applications.

In many ways, those were the easy and predictable technology-related opportunities that grew from the horror, devastation and loss of Sept. 11. There are a number of other opportunities that grow from the overall economic decline of the past year – and they are a little harder to identify with any degree of confidence. It’s probably fair to say, however, that they may represent much more solid and longer-term opportunities that the “fear-driven” demand created for security, backup and disaster recovery products in recent months.

To consider what these longer-term opportunities might look like, you have to think a little about what has actually happened over the past two years. We have gone through a huge boom and bust cycle – typified by the dizzying rise in the number of technology-related jobs between 1997 and early 2000 and the disastrous decline since then. Technology companies went from being aggressive hiring machines to regularly announcing layoffs by the thousands, although the pace of those layoffs has thankfully slowed somewhat in recent months and better times seem to be “around the corner”.

But what of the many tens of thousands of people who lost their jobs in those layoffs? Where are they now? While there is no doubt that those with skills that were still in high demand did find other work (although probably not at the rates of pay they were used to commanding at the height of the boom), many did not.

Once burned, twice shy

Those others may have been jaded by the experience – and found themselves unwilling to be subjected to the stress of working for yet another technology company with an uncertain future. For some of them, this more jaded view of life may lead to a desire to upgrade their technical skills – take the severance money and spend it on courses and support materials to improve their ability to work with certain application or code using certain development tools. The opportunity here is clear: to provide support and product to those that want to improve their technological skills and marketability. And it is an opportunity with lots of long-term upside.

If you help people to become more skilled and better able to gain employment in higher-demand areas, then it only makes sense that those same people will turn to you again when they find employment. You will not only get their business while they are retraining and acquiring new skills, but you’ll also be first in line to gain the business of their new employers when they do find better jobs.

But what about those who believe that they already have great skill and competence – that their only mistake was to work for an employer too blind and inexperienced to know how to rescue a business that was floundering? Those people are most likely to try and start up a small, technology-based business themselves. They will have seen, first hand, what it takes to screw up. And they may believe that they know how to avoid such pitfalls for themselves by becoming entrepreneurs – or, at the very least, self-employed sole proprietors.

Start small

It’s fair to say that a recently-established small business isn’t exactly the “dream client” for many people in this industry, but someone will make a great deal of money by appealing to the needs of this sector. And it might as well be you.

Ideally, you will be able to establish strong working relationships with these new small businesses while they are still small. And those that are smart and agile enough to survive the process of starting up in the current economic climate may very well be in a good position to grow significantly as times get better. Obviously, you want to be somewhat careful about this type of customer – particularly when it comes to extending credit – but there is again significant potential long-term benefit if you partner with the right start-ups at a time when they are really going to value your services.

The final area of opportunity that arises from the current challenging times lies with outsourcing. Whether you look at large, established companies that have recently conducted large-scale layoffs – or small start-ups that are looking for creative ways to survive until times get better – there is undoubted interest in outsourced services.

Large companies may find that they no longer have the staff to get some projects completed on time – and need to draft in outside consultants to meet their deadlines. Start-ups, meanwhile, will often need to pull a team together for a particular project without committing themselves to any long-term contracts. Both situations offer you the chance to create a larger, more diverse base of satisfied customers who will not only provide you with revenue in the short-term, but may keep coming back to you as times get better and they look to get help with “overflow” work that they can’t handle themselves.

So whether you are a consultant, a hardware manufacturer, an ISV, a VAR, a developer, a software vendor, a systems integrator or a technology retailer, there are lots of opportunities created by the current adverse conditions that you would do well to consider. The glass is half-full, so you might as well sit down and drink it, rather than stumble around and complain how thirsty you are!

Wheelwright is a freelance journalist, author, sometime broadcaster and interactive media industry executive. He most recently served as editorial director of StockHouse Media Corp.

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