7 business triggers that could make or break your business

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If there’s one lesson I’ve learned from owning more than a dozen companies, it’s this: leaders anticipate change while the losers are left reacting to it.

And if we’ve learned anything from the past couple of years, change is the ONLY constant in life and business. Technology is like a personal trainer pressing the UP arrow on our treadmill, speeding up the business process and causing change to happen faster than ever. We’ve got to keep up, or we’ll fall off, and that’s where business triggers come in.The importance of business triggers

Due to the shrinking lifecycle of ideas and products, businesses today feel the pressure of the narrowing window between seismic changes in any industry and across cultures. The period between the moment you come up with a breakthrough concept to when somebody else comes up with a better one is no longer decades or years — it’s now just months, or sometimes sooner.

Your competition watches you through open windows. Digital marketing, like blog posts, your Twitter feed, your Facebook profile, etc., lays all your cards on the table. Everybody can see what you’ve got, and they’re using it to come up with what’s next. Mass communication at the click of a mouse creates a culture that hinges on sky-high expectations and very low patience. So how do business leaders stay on the bleeding edge and find a way to do more for clients and customers than anyone else in their industry?

As a leader, you must adapt to the top business triggers that drive these changes and recognize that every move we make sets the stage for what’s next. To succeed, you must be in control, anticipate what is to come, and understand business triggers.

How business triggers can help you succeed

Leaders in every industry find a way to become the chess player, not the chess piece. Finding business success is about creating value, monitoring trends, and anticipating the challenges coming down the pike.

The hard fact is that 96% of all businesses fail within any ten-year period, with a little less than 4% surviving. And that doesn’t mean they’re profitable; it just means they’re still standing. The 10-year benchmark is just the beginning of a successful business. We anticipate change on the horizon by understanding that there are triggers of business crises.

Accept this truth, map the terrain ahead, and scan the periphery constantly for outsiders. (Remember when Apple entered the music industry? There’s no such thing as a closed course in business). Anyone can be a player, so choose to be a chess player, not a chess piece.

The 7 business triggers

Let’s look at the factors most people fail to anticipate: the Seven Business Triggers. Think of these like big red reset buttons with the uncanny ability to wipe out established businesses – and sometimes entire industries – almost overnight. They can be the start of a crisis, or they can be the start of limitless opportunities.

Business trigger #1: a change in your competition

The first business trigger that guarantees painful loss is a change in competition. The examples of this happening are endless.

You can be the Blockbuster Video of your industry, thinking you’ve got the market cornered. Then, in the blink of an eye, you’re a non-factor because you failed to acknowledge an emerging competitor’s appeal and added value and didn’t provide more value than them.

Consider this: In 2022, Netflix brought in over $31.6 billion in global revenue. It’s easily one of the biggest streaming platforms in the world and paved the way for dozens of others. But in 2000, the young Netflix tried to sell itself to Blockbuster for a mere $50 million when the video rental company’s revenues were $4 billion annually. Netflix practically begged to become Blockbuster’s streaming service, but the company effectively scoffed and said, “What do we need this for?” They failed to recognize their competition as a business trigger and paid the price.

Blockbuster launched its streaming subscription service four years later, but it was too late, as Netflix already had 4.2 million subscribers. Sure, the stubborn storefront boasted 50 million members in their 2007 heyday, but Netflix announced its billionth DVD delivery that year. In 2010 when Blockbuster finally filed for bankruptcy, Netflix achieved a worth of around $13 billion.

So note this lesson, whether you’re a small business or a part of a billion-dollar behemoth: competition will create crisis, irrespective of the industry.

It seems impossible for 50 million customers to slip away, but Blockbuster boarded up its stores while you, me, and everyone we know now has a Netflix account. As of 2023, Netflix has over 230.75 million subscribers. They created an industry crisis, anticipated technological trends, and changed our culture. Netflix played the game and moved the existing pieces on the board out of their way.

Blockbuster had the chance to innovate, evolve and create, but it ignored this business trigger. Netflix execs admit that if Blockbuster deployed their streaming subscription sooner, the company would’ve struggled to shake Blockbuster’s grip on the movie rental market. Instead, we watched competition come in and knock off a 20-year-old industry king. Checkmate.

Business trigger #2: a change in technology

One key to recognizing business triggers is to ask yourself better questions rather than assuming you have all the answers. Take a moment now and think: How is your business like Blockbuster? How are you stuck in your head and making yourself a potential target to the emerging competition?

In business, the psychology of a leader who resists a coming trend in technology can destroy a $4 billion company. Conversely, if you become a leader who can figure out how to use technology to fulfill needs and add value, you become the disrupter, not the disrupted.

Consider a few of the most recent technology business triggers. Let’s start with Instagram, which Facebook purchased in April 2012 for $1 billion. Imagine that. If you came up with the idea of a mobile app to share your photos through filters with friends, you’d have $1 billion. Not too shabby.

Need more proof? Consider WhatsApp, the mobile messaging service Facebook purchased for over $16 billion. WhatsApp launched in 2009, and three years later, it processed 10 billion messages daily. Unsure about how significantly WhatsApp triggered a crisis in the communication industry? Just ask the parent of a teenager. Consider the billions of messages sent via WhatsApp technology FOR FREE, evading the per-text charges of cellular carriers and making it worth its weight in SMS-text-defying gold. It’s even evolved to include free video chat and calling internationally, further shaking up established communications norms.

Participating in tech shifts – not just protecting yourself from them – can make way for your impact in the world and your fortune in business. Ask yourself: What technology will change my business? What technology can we be the first in our industry to employ? How can I be the creator of change? Even if you use cutting-edge technology today, those tools will age. Will your business be ready to evolve?

Business trigger #3: a change in culture

Remember the days of Napster, Limewire, Kazaa, Morpheus, and the like? Don’t be confused; technology did not change the game this time. That fell to business trigger #3: a cultural change that led people to believe that stealing music does not qualify as unlawful. We didn’t even call it stealing; we called it “downloading, ” with people downloading entire albums, sometimes before an artist released them.

Most of us would never walk into a music store (if you’re old enough to remember those), stick a CD up our shirt, and walk out without paying. But there were a few years when the culture essentially made it OK to do that online. This cultural shift led to millions of people stealing music, but they decided it wasn’t stealing due to the belief that information is free.

We forgot that artists created this original music after spending lifetimes coming up with one, two, or five hits to make a living performing. The culture changed and decimated an entire industry.

In 1999, the music business made $38.6 billion in sales. That same year Napster arrived. From the peak of about $40 billion in 1999, the music industry plummeted 58% to $16 billion the following year. Think about that. That’s nearly a 60% drop in revenue practically overnight. All it took was a shift in consumer culture.

However, as with any business trigger, you can make this one work for you instead of against you: Consider how Apple harnessed the culture of shrinking attention spans and downloading hysteria to create something wildly popular and profitable.

In his infinite wisdom, Steve Jobs reasoned that while our culture balks at paying $15 bucks for a new CD, people also don’t want to poke around the internet for hours and steal entire libraries. He had a crazy idea: short attention spans might appreciate the simplicity of 99 cents per song. By 2007, the sale of those cheap little digital singles overtook CDs in a landslide, generating $819 million in sales.

When the culture demanded a cheap, easy, fast way to get music, Apple had the ingenuity to address this business trigger and become the number one music retailer in the world. All because they monitored critical shifts in cultural behavior and added more value faster than anyone else.

Less than ten years after Apple deployed its iTunes Music Store, it surpassed 25 billion songs sold. Apple triggered an industry crisis and changed how the world consumes music, books, and in-pocket entertainment. And the changes kept coming — look at how streaming services like Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, Tidal, and even YouTube Music changed the music listening culture.

To stay ahead of this business trigger, leaders must ask themselves: What behaviors are trending? What cultural shifts are afoot? What belief systems apply to those trends, and how can they affect our business? What cultural shifts can you use to your advantage today?

Business trigger #4: a change in the economy

Next time you bump into a real estate agent, ask them if the economy can change an industry. Most of them can captivate you with real-life campfire thrillers that illustrate first-hand how business triggers like economic recessions and interest rate swings have affected them personally and painfully. Can’t relate to real estate? How about government policy? Can that affect your business? You bet.

Consider the modern-day cup of coffee. Think about those four dollars people donate every single day to Starbucks. Ask former Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz how an economy that justifies paying $4 for a consistent cup of coffee has changed his life and how he does business. And while we usually think of Starbucks as flush with sales and profits, they stand as the sterling example of surviving this business trigger.

At the end of the second quarter of 2008, Starbucks’ quarterly earnings tanked. Global operating income sunk 26%, and the company’s in-store sales figures were negative for the first time in the brand’s history. Meanwhile, consumers were tightening up and cutting their spending as the global recession took hold. In July 2008, Starbucks lost money for the first time, reporting a net loss of $6.7 million for the third quarter. In the fourth quarter, profits dove 97%, and earnings for the year were down 53%. As the financial crisis sprawled across Europe and Asia, Starbucks’ sales figures were negative 8%, rendering the company’s existing economic model completely inept.

If you’ve never read Howard Shultz’s book Onward: How Starbucks Fought for its Life without Losing Its Soul, here’s the crux: After eight years away from the biz, Schultz returned as CEO while the financial walls were burning down at his beloved brainchild. What would you do in that situation?

When Schultz returned in the middle of the crisis, he ceased the company’s go-go expansion. He cut nearly $600 million in costs, and for three hours on February 26, 2008, he orchestrated the closure of more than 7,000 American Starbucks stores for an employee retraining session. “This is not about training,” Schultz told his employees, “This is about the love and compassion and commitment that we all need to have for the customer.”

Schultz used the recession as the impetus to refocus on his core business. He asked himself what business Starbucks was in and then looked at what business it needed to become. He rekindled love for his customers and effectively checked the ego that will control ANY company that loves its product more than its customers.

That is why Starbucks is a textbook example of how to come out on top – stronger even – not despite but because of tough economic times. As Schultz said in 2011: “I returned to Starbucks as CEO in January 2008 because we had to navigate through our issues and deal with the cataclysmic financial crisis. For the past two years, we’ve done our best work. We’re a much stronger brand because of the recession.” And stronger they were. Starbucks ended 2022 with an annual revenue of $32.25 Billion, a 10% increase from 2021.

One thing I know from my experiences helping with the turn-around of thousands of businesses of every size: the economic crisis business trigger creates breakthroughs. And winter? Winter is coming.

A crisis takes us from thinking about the things we can do and forces us to take massive action. For those who use it to create and don’t let it destroy them, crisis brews innovation and revolution. Those that fail to adapt to a new economic environment end up in the graveyard of business, where 96% of all companies end up even after ten years of growth.

Were you in business in 2008? If you still are today, congratulations! How did the global financial crisis change the way you do business today? What did you learn, and how did those lessons shape you into who you are now? Most importantly, how are you applying it to future economic winters? How do you plan to do business in 2023, 2025, and 2028? Now is the time to anticipate and implement what you must do to be more efficient and effective to get yourself out in front of the ever-ebbing and flowing economic tide.

Business trigger #5: a change in your customers’ lives

Some of you reading this have a specific customer base. A very particular niche demographic for a product or service that’s perhaps not quite as ubiquitous as a cup of coffee. If you’re part of a company that acutely targets the ideal customer, can changing your customers’ lives be a business trigger? To answer that question, consider the example of Harley Davidson.

For years, baby boomers bought Harleys because they grew up watching Hollywood bad boys riding these beautiful bikes. For that customer base, most sales happened between 35 and 55, with 40 to 45 being the biggest sales sweet spot. Somebody has a midlife crisis and runs out to buy a Harley, right?

If you’re Harley Davidson, there’s only one problem: the generation behind me and my fellow baby boomers is much smaller. So much smaller that sales would still dwindle even if every Gen Xer turned 40 and bought a Harley.

Soon, the last baby boomers will age out of the market. They’re not buying Harleys anymore. Now they’re taking pictures of them in their garage, posting them on Craigslist, and selling them. It was cool and fun for a few thousand miles, but now they’re 65 and want some cash in their khakis for this thing in near-mint condition.

And that’s how a change in your customers’ lives can become a crippling business trigger if you don’t anticipate it. Now, ask yourself: who is the next generation and how will we market to them?

Just as businesses have stages of growth, people go through stages of the human experience. As people change, have children, and age, they’ll make decisions differently, which applies to you, your customers, and your employees.

Business trigger #6: a change in employees’ lives

Many business owners experience the situation where a top employee or salesperson goes through a life stage like the birth of a child, a divorce, or a birthday and tell you, “I want some time away,” or, “I want to go to spiritual sojourn,” or, “I just want to play more golf.” Suddenly they aren’t around as much, and if they are, they’re less productive, which can be a real hit on your business.

If you face this business trigger, use it as a catalyst to look at your employee retention strategies. Today’s employees want flexible schedules, remote work, plenty of vacation time, work-life balance, and professional development opportunities.

Encourage your employees to take a break. Stepping away from work can improve creativity and innovation. Ask them what they want, and then really listen. Discover what inspires them to do their best work and provide it. Work on your leadership skills and become the leader you need to be to overcome this business trigger.

Businesses worldwide learned the importance of responding to this business trigger when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. Suddenly, everyone had to stay home, and companies had to find a way to operate normally. Remote work was already popular in some industries, but now anyone that could work from home had to work remotely.

As the pandemic dissipated and a sense of normalcy returned, remote workers faced a difficult decision: whether or not to return to the office. After establishing new routines and enjoying the time saved from long commutes, many workers found that they were more productive working from home. However, this clashed with the desires of many companies, who wanted their employees back in the office. As a result, employees pushed back, arguing that remote work better suited their lifestyle and allowed for a healthier balance between their professional and personal lives.

This pushback launched something known as “quiet quitting.” Across the globe, with people starting to “act their wage.” After seeing that companies cared more about turning a profit than health and wellbeing, employees no longer went above and beyond for their companies — they did exactly what their job description demanded and nothing more.

To get ahead of this business trigger, reward your employees who work hard with raises, promotions, or other signs of appreciation. Employees will work harder for a company that treats them well, so encouraging a balance between work and home will benefit everyone involved.

Business trigger #7: a change in your life stage

Your employees might not be the business trigger. Perhaps you find yourself saying, “It’s not you; it’s me,” and feel the need to be more present for your family. Perhaps you realize you’re a business operator, not a true owner. Or you hit a threshold and just had to do something that made you happy. Maybe there was a period when you burned out, fell in love, beat cancer, got married, had a baby, or went through some other event that upended your business. Many people also experienced a big life stage shift during the pandemic when the global event caused them to re-evaluate their priorities.

Change is inevitable, and there’s no doubt that your life today looks drastically different than it did 10 or 15 years ago. However, I’ve realized that many of these life changes are more predictable than you think.

Remember to give yourself a break along with your employees. Clear your head. When you return, work on becoming a true business owner, or develop your exit strategy. If you lack the enthusiasm or willpower to stay invested in your business, it won’t do anyone any good.

Stay ahead of business triggers to stay on top of your industry

Review this list of the Seven Business Triggers once a month. Look at your company and think ahead to what’s coming. What do you need to anticipate? Do you need to protect yourself from what’s approaching? Even better, what is available for you to disrupt the competition and do more for your clients than anyone else in the game?

Expect change. Analyze the landscape. Take the opportunities. Stop being the chess piece; become the player. It’s your move, my friends.

a purple paper boat is leading a row of white paper boats .

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