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Entrepreneurs have to walk a tightrope. Every day, we focus on keeping customers happy and making sure our businesses are running smoothly. (I share daily tips in my newsletter on my website.) But we have to balance that daily grind with looking ahead. Envisioning what customers may need in the future — most times before they even know what they’ll need — is the secret to sustainable growth.
The COVID-19 pandemic has left thousands of businesses across industries struggling. No one can be sure how and when the economy will rebound, and more than 100,000 small businesses have closed forever, according to The Washington Post. It is now more vital than ever for founders to be flexible, ready to pivot, more daring and a bit more visionary.
I recently heard about SimplePractice’s story of product vision. Howard Spector’s foresight is one reason the electronic health record (EHR) platform is experiencing a growth surge during the pandemic. Spector, the cofounder and CEO of SimplePractice, studied to become a therapist when he saw the existing EHR systems on the market were complicated, incomplete and poorly designed. He built SimplePractice to combine the solutions practitioners need, such as scheduling, documentation, billing and client communication, in a single, beautifully designed and affordable platform.
Telehealth was on Spector’s radar, but demand was low. He and his team revisited it periodically. A couple of years ago, they started to see more standalone telehealth apps coming out and decided to add it to the platform. “I realized we should get out in front of this, so we prioritized it on our roadmap,” says Spector. “If we didn’t, we’d be suffering right now.”
SimplePractice encouraged its customers to use the video-enabled feature to ensure continuity of care for patients in rural areas or for patients who couldn’t get to an appointment because of traffic, storms and the like. About a quarter of SimplePractice’s clients took advantage of the service SimplePractice — until the pandemic.
Since then, almost 90 percent of customers have adopted telehealth. SimplePractice customers went from using five million telehealth minutes per month in January to 144 million in April. “We’ve also seen a massive spike in new customers beginning in March, and we believe it was primarily driven because we had telehealth integrated into our platform,” explains Spector.
SimplePractice continues to amp up the offering and has recently added a waiting room and screen-sharing capabilities. “Our work is never done,” he continues. “We’re always looking ahead at what’s next, what features our customers are asking for, and what features our customers need. We’ve intentionally created a very entrepreneurial culture that honors the individual’s ability to be adaptable and creatively problem solve.”
The lesson here is to learn how to spot industry trends and invest time and energy into these trends, even if it’s just to test them.
Bringing disruptive models to new industries
Visionary founders sometimes get the idea for their businesses by applying the thinking of disruptive companies in other industries to their fields, which is especially true in economies of despair. Think 2008-’09, when Uber adopted the taxi model and paired it with tech. Or when Venmo took PayPal’s approach and made it more user-friendly and mobile-centric. That adoptive tack is paying off for the founders of Jurny, a smart tech solution in the hospitality industry, and Vooks, a streaming platform for animated children’s books.
Watching how companies like Airbnb, Uber and Postmates used technology to enable shifts to on-demand services inspired Jurny cofounder and CEO Luca Zambello to explore bringing that business model to hospitality, an industry that has been slow to adopt new technology. While interviewing the two on my Entrepreneur podcast recently, I learned how Zambello and his cofounder developed a technology that helps hotel and multi-family building owners increase efficiency and profitability on vacant units while streamlining operations to give guests a simple way to plan and enjoy their stay with limited interaction.
For property owners, Jurny acts as an end-to-end managed service that includes interior design, sourcing and installation, marketing, cleaning management, customer support and security. Guests use the Jurny app to find available units, choose dates, book their stay, check-in, check-out and access everything they need during their stay.
Both founders are frequent travelers who loved the idea of being able to go from booking to check-in in seconds without having to wait or interact with anyone. That contact-minimizing solution has been ideal for people traveling during the pandemic, and Jurny’s revenue has been four times higher than the industry average. The company’s tech-first experience enables them to address social distancing measures and reduce potential contact points. The lesson here is that you don’t need to create a revolutionary new business model to disrupt an industry. Disruption can be copied from other spaces. Find industries that are outdated and apply a proven model to that industry.
The timing has also been great for Vooks. CEO Marshall Bex, former creative director for Nike, got the idea for a Netflix-style platform for children’s books after noticing his daughter didn’t like reading but enjoyed watching videos. Bex and his three cofounders — including Shannon Bex, a multi-platinum recording artist (Danity Kane) and TV personality (Making the Band and So You Think You Can Dance) — launched Vooks about two years ago as the world’s first streaming platform bringing storybooks to life through animation.
Vooks quickly gained fans from educators to celebrities — a recent shout-out came from Michelle Obama. Since the pandemic started, it has really taken off. Vooks has seen record monthly growth in subscribers and daily users. It now has about one million registered users across 175 countries. Educators at 95 percent of elementary schools in the U.S. and Canada are using Vooks. The lesson here is to look for problems that people in your current sphere of influence are having. This takes the ability to be observant and skill to create solutions to existing problems.
While all of these companies have had their growth accelerate unexpectedly over the last several months, it’s a good bet to assume they will continue to succeed. Their founders have proven they can quickly respond to changing circumstances and spot opportunities, and the loyalty their products have gained with customers isn’t likely to end when the pandemic does. The new normal for entrepreneurs is there is no normal. You must stay agile and pivot as needed.