This past week, I attended Ernst & Young’s Strategic Growth Forum U.S. event. With some of the smartest founders in the country, I chatted about best practices and trends that will shape 2020.
Although my prior co-founder and I received the “Best Emerging Company” award at the 2016 event, I joined this year not as a competitor but as a listener. I came away with new ideas for growing my company while playing it safe, which will be key in what I and others expect to be a volatile election year. With uncertainty ahead, I paid special attention to the trends on attendees’ minds. These five came up again and again:
1. Optimization is becoming the new risk management.
With political tensions running high and a potential recession on everyone’s radar, it’s no wonder this year’s event was focused on playing it safe while doubling down. Lee Henderson, EY Americas Growth Markets Leader, hit on the importance of Playing it Safe, but still doubling down.
Lee said “Companies need to look at things like contracts, vendors, costs, and business operations so that there’s comfort in efficiency, but they should still be looking for areas to grow and innovate. There will certainly be opportunities, and you want to be ready to capitalize on them when the time comes.”
According to EY data, entrepreneurs are more optimistic about those opportunities than other business leaders. Among entrepreneurs, 67% said they were focused on “pursuing new market opportunities,” compared to just 19% of leaders at large companies.
2. Industry-specific startups are seeing the greatest growth.
One of my favorite people I met at this year’s event was Brad Keywell, CEO of Uptake and 2019’s World Entrepreneur of the Year. Brad echoed my belief that the best opportunities for entrepreneurs are not always found in broad business services. “Big companies like Amazon are great at delivering value through technology to mass market audiences,” Brad explained. “It’s the niches they do not deal in that offer real opportunity to entrepreneurs, who can be flexible and move quickly.”
3. Non-technical entrepreneurs are winning with partnerships.
Plenty of people with big ideas cannot code. Todd Buelow, founder of Dualboot Partners, pointed out to me that more non-technical entrepreneurs are trusting others to build out the technologies needed to turn their dreams into reality.
The reason for this, according to Todd, is that a lot of tech experts are also turning to entrepreneurship. They may have the skills to build the product, but they often need help on the sales and marketing side of things — where many non-technical founders shine.
4. Teams are using technology to maximize their operations.
One way companies are playing it safe, as Lee Henderson suggested they should, is through technology. Time-saving tools make it possible for entrepreneurs to accomplish more with fewer resources.
One company at ground zero of this trend is Teamwork, a project management platform based in Ireland. CEO Peter Coppinger, who received the EY Ireland Entrepreneur of the Year award, and I talked at length about how efficiency improvements across operating systems are a great way to stay safe while pursuing growth.
5. Companies are becoming more culture-conscious.
A theme I heard over and over — and I wholeheartedly agree with — is that it’s people who make a business thrive. Many of the people who attended EY’s event this year wanted to learn about building diverse teams, bringing out the best in their employees, and creating the sort of work culture where the best employees want to stay.
Especially with unemployment at record lows, a lot of entrepreneurs are struggling to find talent. The solution, I and others have found, is to invest in team members’ personal growth. That means providing a flexible work environment, plenty of autonomy, and performance-based compensation like profit sharing to maintain motivation.
Trend predictions do not always pan out, but I’m convinced EY attendees know what they’re talking about. With the new year just weeks away, I’ll be investing in areas like culture and technology that provide protection without putting a damper on growth. Bring it on, 2020.
John Hall is a Contributing writer to Forbes Business
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