Lockdown Economy World in Business Transformation Agency with Sabrina Clarke-Okwubanego
The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Deepti Sharma
Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.
In this interview hosted by Rosie Allison, Sabrina Clarke-Okwubanego the founder of Build Global tells us how she stimulated her transformation advisory business Build Global during the pandemic. Sabrina discussed the importance of close communication as she faced the challenges of a frozen pipeline of clients as the pandemic left many businesses unable to move forward. To combat this, Sabrina found old-school methods of communication to be the most valuable resources available to her during the pandemic. By maintaining genuine relationships with clients she was able to recover her business once the initial shock of the pandemic passed. For Sabrina, the two main things she needs help with right now to move forward with her business are visibility and collaboration.
Could you explain a bit more about Build Global — what you do as a business & how long have you been doing it?
Sabrina: I formally started Build Global three years ago — although I had secretly formed my company when I was working at some of the organizations you listed — because I knew that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I have a vision for the next 20–30 years of my life; of how I want to help the world and entrepreneurship is a part of that. I simply knew that I wanted to solve business problems, but it’s not a selling proposition — one cannot go to a business owner and just say I want to solve your problems — I needed to think on what my skills were. When I use the term ‘Transformation’, it sounds more like a consultancy, but it’s so for the people who may not be familiar with it; basically, it’s to take something and make it into a different thing by the end- more efficient and profitable. And this is essentially what I do at Build Global with my corporate clients — whether they are merging or acquiring other businesses or changing their business structure — I help manage that process; though for my small and medium business clients it’s to make sure that they plan according to our strategic planning services.
Business founders are really great; entrepreneurs have a great vision; they have a dream and they want to go straight for it, but sometimes that passion turns into reactive behaviour and being reactive in business isn’t profitable. So what we do is, help clients think more strategically about their business — where they want to see it in three to five years, if they want to exit or continue and become a legacy business — 70 per cent of small businesses don’t last beyond 10 years. Then we start by looking at their business model: do the numbers actually make sense; if there is cash flow. Small businesses particularly don’t report a profit in the first two years of running; it’s typically within three to five year that they actually start making money- on an average if not everyone. Thereafter we help them figure out what is going to be profitable; does their business or product even make sense. And then finally we have negotiation services — 67 per cent of small and medium business owners don’t negotiate win-win deals particularly if they’re dealing with large organizations — sometimes they need somebody like us to sit alongside them and negotiate those deals. So that’s where we step in and this is what we do in a nutshell.
Are you on your own in this business or do you have employees?
Sabrina: We have an associate model. One thing about me is that I’m a consultant and a geek — I might not look like one, but I’m — so I did my research and wanted to manage my overheads for the first five years. It meant not getting a physical office or having a co-working space. When I then started to look at my team, I decided the best model for me would be an associate model and not full-time permanent staff because I didn’t even know what my cycles were or what is my peak; when do we have good business and when we don’t. The last thing I wanted to do was bring people on board and then having to make them redundant. Since we’re a start-up I didn’t know what the cash flow is going to be like. The associate model of bringing in people — who work with me on client engagements; who I know are getting compensated for their time and that it’s a consistent agreement between us — has turned out to be the right decision as we are in the middle of a pandemic. Fortunately, I didn’t have to go through the process of furloughing or making staff redundant.
I want to ask what was different for the associate model when you went into the period of lockdown as compared to a traditional business that has its own employees?
Sabrina: The difference was not necessarily with my associates because they work for the company in independent capacity anyway; rather it was my pipeline. With March hitting, the world turned upside-down and the pipeline just froze completely — the deals that we had literally just stopped. Since I started this business three years ago, typically I’m already in December 2021 by this time (not thinking about December 2020), thus having to be really clear about what the next six months look like from an income perspective. It was a challenge for the associates and clients that we have onboard because nobody knew what was happening; people were freaking out because of both- the situation we’re in globally and also what it meant for their business. It wasn’t like people weren’t acquiring companies or not going to continue, but it stopped abruptly. I think everyone felt that silence and pause, large as well as small and medium businesses- so it was one of the differences. But nothing was different for my team as we continued to have conversations and they know how we’re structured, however, our potential engagements were impacted and that was the difficult conversation to have.
What measures did you put in place to try and re-stimulate this business and attract new clients during that time?
Sabrina: The old-school way of one-to-one conversations; emailing people; linking both on LinkedIn and traditional email; and picking up the phone to call — that is what has fared well for us. It was challenging and to be very clear it was not easy at all. I didn’t start selling stuff immediately — the types of relationships I have with my clients are genuine — I check in with the clients in terms of my client relationship strategy. Whenever people are seeing emails from me, it’s not just because I’m wanting to sell something, I’m genuinely interested in knowing what they’re doing. So for the first few weeks I wasn’t having conversations around products or services, I was genuinely checking in as I was actually concerned: how are you; how is your family; is everyone safe. My mom is on the front lines, I knew other people who had people in health care. Starting from a place of humanity was first and foremost important and then moving to business, just asking open questions which I anyways do as a consultant: what are your challenges; what it is right now that you are focusing on the most. Finally, I’d say interestingly enough my focus has shifted to small and medium business clients because people were reaching out to me regarding what they were dealing with, so in a way, I didn’t pivot. I just amplified and brought things forward. Last year at this time I was already thinking I’m going to be engaging with small and medium businesses and really wanted to work with them, then Corona happened so I thought- let’s bring that forward to May or June. Those are some of the things that I did and one more thing which I think is very important is that I was collaborating with other business owners, forming relationships and partnerships on how we could collectively offer services to specific clients.
Really great advice- collaborating, speaking personally with people, remembering that we’re all humans and we’re all going through this. Was there anything that you tried to do during the pandemic to stimulate business, but it didn’t work so well?
Sabrina: I think everything was saturated at the time- particularly online. Whilst there is a digital offering for my corporate clients and it works well in terms of engagement- on zoom or other channels, but it didn’t work so well for small and medium business. I think there are a number of reasons for that; what I found was that they were tired of webinar training; they wanted it to be much tailored. The one-on-one approach was better for them than trying to come together for another training; another session; webinar or another something that people are offering. So basically one-on-one engagement worked better, what didn’t work was trying to engage them in a group at that point in time, interestingly that shifted now but certainly wasn’t successful during that period.
Do you think that had something to do with the overload of information that people were experiencing? Why do you think there was this resistance?
Sabrina: I do think there was a little bit of information overload-an oversaturated market. Certainly, within the small and medium business space it’s all hands on deck and trying to survive; who has time to go to a webinar even though it might be actually helpful in what you’re dealing with. But supposedly if you’re facing financial challenges within your organization, you are focused on that and not trying to allocate time for what would be developmental or a by-product. So, one-on-one engagement was more effective for that group.
How is your business going now in the present day?
Sabrina: Right now it is going good. I’m happy to be in business in 2020- in the year of COVID, because it’s been difficult and I see it all around me. So far it is good that we’re still here and in business thankfully. It’s been a challenging year, but the goal is to be here and to be alive — to be functioning — which we are. I’m very thankful for that.
Have you noticed any changes in your market from the initial period of lockdown in March to the time after the summer?
Sabrina: It’s picked up substantially. With my market, August is typically the quietest month of the year. There’s lots of activity up to June-July, then August comes it’s literally tumbleweed and then with the second half of September things start to pick up again in terms of the cycle. This year, August was when it started to pick up and now there are more phone calls; more conversations and more opportunities towards the year end- which is quite interesting because from a large corporate perspective people tend to be winding down or freezing budgets and things don’t pick up again until the New Year. But currently, I haven’t found that to be the case. There are opportunities; the pipeline is opening a little more- which is great and welcome.
What’s your outlook for the coming few months with your business?
Sabrina: There are three to four things to focus on from my perspective firstly stabilizing, building resiliency again and surviving i.e., making our numbers into the next few months. The second as I mentioned is looking at how I can support small and medium businesses collectively. I’ll be doing surveys to find out what people want to learn or focus on in terms of upskilling. I’ve been approached a lot for that and whilst I would love for me & everyone in my team to work with some people on a one-to-one basis, the budget has to be the priority to do that; the best way for me to maximize our time and their resources is to get them back into the group now, which I think people are open to. Therefore it’s rolling out sessions specifically for small and medium business owners. The third thing is what we were talking about- I’m a small business advocate and since the start of the pandemic I’ve been profiling businesses every Wednesday, just to say that they exist and for people to engage with them along with their products & services. I will be continuing that work in the next few months and hopefully will get more creative while speaking to some of those entrepreneurs. The fourth and the final one is just solving problems, we’ve been very focused on strategic planning, negotiations & business operating models. One of the other things that have worked over this period is: people getting either me or members of my team on a retainer, so we’re building out that particular service offering for individuals who want to retain a service who want to just have a conversation about some of the problems which don’t fit into a box but we are able to support and help them with that.
I think it’s another great initiative that you’ve started-showing the small businesses every week, because like you said these are the people that really need help at this time. But are there any three things that you personally need help within your business during this time?
Sabrina: Visibility — as I mentioned earlier that we are in a saturated marketplace — is very challenging. We need opportunities to be visible as a business, for people to know that we exist and we greatly appreciate any help we receive in order to maintain what we are doing.
The second thing from our perspective is collaboration. I believe in the sharing economy and I’ve been able to collaborate with fantastic business owners over this period so that we don’t have a skill gap because of how we operate. Collaboration is very important to us as well as looking for ways and people who want to collaborate, work, and partner with us to do some pretty amazing things.
Besides these two I won’t say there’s a third unless on the lighter side somebody wants to just give us money. Of course, we’re happy to take money at any point in time-you just want to give us money, great (laughs). We’re not opening an investment round, but we’re good to go if you just feel like you want to give money to Build Global. Interestingly enough when I first started the business, one of the key things that were quite important for me was allocating 5% of Build Global’s revenue to either non-profits or social enterprises who are supporting entrepreneurs, different groups, etc and I’ve been able to maintain that promise till now even through this period. I’m very fortunate about that.
Sabrina, would you like to give any final comments to the small business owners or entrepreneurs?
Sabrina: I know how isolating this period can be for those businesses that are experiencing challenges and have found it very tricky from a cash flow perspective or from a client-customer perspective to maintain their business. You are not alone, there are a number of us who are currently going through that situation and there are those who have come out of that situation. So, reach out if you find yourself in that place to be able to engage with somebody like me complimentary to just talk through some of your experiences. And we are all in it together; though we are in it together alone. We are not alone, reach out because you are experiencing things that we’ve all experienced and you will get through it. Stay connected.
About the Guest
Sabrina has the cross-industry experience that includes Management Consulting, Financial Services, Advertising and Professional Services and is sought after to advise senior leaders at a range of clients across industries. She decided to take her expertise and focus on her own company Build Global. Since starting Build Global, Sabrina has led transformation and change engagements across Pharma, FMCG and Financial Services. Sabrina is an advocate of small and medium business and designed Build Global, so SMEs can have access to “best in class” advisory and consulting services.