7 Tips for Building a Business in a Recession From Someone Who Did Exactly That in 2008

Even amid chaos, there's a chance for opportunity

Achieving ‘Mainstream Green’ is key to a more sustainable economy. Read the new report on the CMO Sustainability Accelerator hub to learn more and take action.

Calm seas never made a great sailor, and in March 2009, I unintentionally broached into a tsunami.

It was the bottom of the recession, and two engineers from Purdue University decided it was an ideal time to start a company. Turns out, it was. Remember, this was the great financial recession when no one, not even the most experienced CEOs, could predict the future of business.

Sound familiar?

With the stock market tanking, there was one very small silver lining, my co-founder and I didn’t have much savings to lose. What we did have was a lot of faith in our vision. As tech enthusiasts, we envisioned a digitally connected world where consumers not only wanted but required information on the go and on-demand.

The world changed. We succeeded and learned some valuable, sharable lessons along the way.

Anticipate where the market is going

Look ahead and not behind. The world is not stagnant; business opportunities ebb and flow.

Flashback to 2009. Apple was known for two products: the MacBook and the iPod. There was no such thing as designing or engineering for mobile, and even the word “app” wasn’t part of the cultural lexicon. The iOS platform was not a popular—or populated—world.

We took a risk and committed 100% to designing, building and developing digital products for iOS while naysayers continued to chide Steve Jobs for entering the cellphone category as Blackberry owned the market.

Look ahead and not behind. The world is not stagnant; business opportunities ebb and flow. We’re based in Silicon Valley, so it’s really part of our ethos to push, test, guess, try and iterate. It makes you better, stronger and more confident. And it might just define your business by spotting the crack in the corner that evolves into a new, category shifting opportunity.

Take a risk on your beliefs

Back in 2009, none of the big digital agencies were investing in engineering technology or the digital design paradigm.

For us, our hobby of building apps converted into a real business when we created an app for a startup. I received an email at 2:58 a.m. from a familiar name. The email address was steve@apple.com and the sentiment was short: “I love what you are doing! Thank you. Let me know if we can help.” I thought I was being pranked.

Apple became a client, and other brands followed their lead. We took a risk on our beliefs (hopes), and it paid off.

Live by trial and error

Most of my friends still tell me our timing to launch the agency was great because we started just after the App Store debuted. Most of my friends don’t realize we tried a lot of other ideas. We failed ideas and experiments way ahead of their time. Being way ahead is as good as being wrong. We kept evolving, focusing, refining and looking at different opportunities from different angles before we settled on going all-in again.

People first

We’ve always been a people over process organization. Getting locked into a process is crippling, and without our people, we’re just empty offices. Today there are a lot of empty offices, but our people continue to work, drive forward and create. We’ve modified how and when they work, letting them lead and tell us what they need, whether it’s dedicated, daily, non-Zoom time zones to simply upgrading their home Wi-Fi. People over process fuels creativity while winning loyalty and commitment.

Cherish clients

Recognize and own your clients’ pain points. Own your place as their business partner, advisor and counselor first. This is the time to spot and solve their problems. Dive deep—deeper than ever—into their business and their unique needs. Look to experimentation over research and prototypes over presentation. Speed is your currency during a recession. Speed and smarts make lasting business relationships. Cherish your clients.

Great work means more work means more great work

Work always matters, and great work matters more than ever. Don’t be shy. Don’t hide from controversy. Now is the time to push the work even further. During a recession, risks are worth taking; business as usual won’t cut it. Your people will take a lot more pride in delivering customer happiness over counting the variety of snacks in the kitchen.

Don’t let fear rule

It’s easy to get swept away with fear of the unknown. It’s human nature. A recession really doesn’t feel like the time to be bold and brave. It feels safer to just hang on and hopefully ride it out.

Follow the change, not the plan. We did, and if we hadn’t, we’d just be an app shop. Change is challenging, but history has proven that great innovations and opportunities rise from chaos.