The ultimate pivot: Changing business course(s) with COVID-19

Constructionlab website
The Constructionlab website

By Derek Smith

Special to Ontario Construction Report

Steve Jobs was once quoted “Innovation has nothing to do with how many R and D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R and D. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it”.

For many of us, COVID-19 taught business leaders that if they chose not to adjust and pivot their businesses, one of two things would happen, someone else will take their customers, or, the business will no longer survive at all.

There has been a lot written by people far more intelligent than me on what businesses have to do to survive post COVID-19. In fact my brain often hurts with the counterpointing perspectives of what success looks like in the coming months. Many were hit far harder than others, and as for construction, in many ways, the industry was largely spared. This is not to say, it has not been easy and it will remain challenging for a while as the cost of the business of construction, has gone up in ways that could not be factored in pricing of projects even four short months ago.

Between January 2014 and March 10th of 2020, my small business, Constructionlab logged exactly 340,000 km on the 400 series highways of Ontario  On average that is about 1,000 km per week for business, or 10 hours of time per week in normal circumstances, but adding in GTA as a large percentage of that, and you are driving on average about 16 hours per week.

For many that is almost 1/2 of a regular work week.Since Monday March 16, my weekly average driving for business related purposes has dropped to 10 km per week or exactly 8 minutes of driving. What happened? My costs, should I realize revenue another way – went completely in the other direction than many.

Constructionlab’s business model is simple. Construction associations and others offer education and professional development as a service, hiring our expertise to design the course material and facilitate the learning in a classroom style atmosphere. Everywhere from Ottawa, to Toronto, to Niagara to the Soo and more.

Like school, on March 13 in Ontario, it was shuttered. No more education offerings in class, no driving, no more anything. Revenue projections reduced 100 per cent in one day for the foreseeable future. Definitely Q2 of 2020 at a minimum, maybe more.

Construction associations, our clients, on the other hand quite some time ago had invested in E-learning to augment in class professional development. While it may not offer the same level of interaction and opportunity to learn from colleagues or share other perspectives, it is nonetheless, a viable base level learning to gain Gold Seal Points, or CPD points for self-directed professional development.

For Constructionlab, there we were – left hanging. Our model was outdated. It did not account for the “what if”. Like many other businesses, I have come to learn – we did not have a disaster plan.

I had always shied away from distance learning, feeling it just was not the type of atmosphere I had come to know teaching in class at St. Clair College in Windsor, or making decisions on methods for delivery of learning as part of the Fanshawe College Program Advisory Committee in London.

Engaged by the Toronto Construction Association a couple of years ago, John Mollenhauer sought out our subject matter expertise to develop e-learning modules for a few courses, but it was not the same, my heart was just not in it beyond building the content and finding a learning management system (LMS) that could work for TCA.

After years of being in the classroom, I could not rationalize the delivery style being the same or able to come close to emulating that learning experience. I was wrong in many ways.

Why did this now matter? In one day, I had to pivot, or my business would no longer be. But was e-learning via webinar the right move?

Enter on-line meeting platforms. Literally in the past 90 days, anyone reading this article has likely become an on-line meeting expert. We use terms like “zoom in” or “go to”, and they are likely to become Webster’s most used words for 2020, naturally following after – coronavirus, of course.

But for a small business, it was do, or die. Give in to the need to learn quickly something that in the past had just not seemed right. Fear of the unknown, that’s really what that is. It is what keeps many entrepreneurs from going forward.

I said to myself, I have to learn to transition the content that was designed for interaction, group exercises, critical thinking and more in a week…or else, in four weeks, turn off the lights.

But was e-learning via webinar the right move? I wondered. It was the question that needed answering.

Back to Steve Jobs…and his quote.

How does a micro business, that serves clients who are not asking you to make the change, because they too are busy trying to figure how to pivot in so many ways themselves…how do you pivot without a huge investment in time or money, when others in the space you occupy have the capital and thought of this already?

You find the best tool you can, work hard and overnight transition your business to a new format. A new model is the answer. You take a risk.

What I learned, now one hundred hours into on-line LIVE sessions facilitated for CCA’s Construction 101, Construction Industry Ethics, Construction 201,  Prompt Payment, Invoicing Properly and Adjudication Mechanics in Ontario, and more, is that when challenged, we will do remarkable things. When challenged and given no alternative, innovation (this is really not true innovation, but it is relative to Constructionlab’s business model) will happen, and it can happen even if you are not capitalized to any great degree.

Constructionlab did not need an expensive “fully automated” LMS, that was true, we did not need five hundred different features in a software solution. We needed three things. One, the ability to interact with learners through the very slick use of break-out rooms, two, the ability to share our screen, and three, the ability to transfer files.

Oh…and a fourth, be first to market with a solid real time “LIVE stream” learning solution. Not E-learning webinars that “push” information. Sure, annotations are excellent and allow us to mark up and highlight text or drawings on the go, or even sketch out financial or mathematical formulae, but beyond that, so long as the content was strong, the delivery interactive and in real time, and the facilitator had subject matter expertise that is relatable, real and comes from practical experience, you can have success and pivot!

Constructionlabs’ future has never looked so bright. Our incredible association clients, grabbed onto the idea, asked me to run with it – and by all accounts, successfully!  In fact, there are three new opportunities emerging quickly that will forever change my micro business, and they are all really exciting and all because we made the pivot!

Derek Smith
Derek Smith

I am hopeful that for those reading this story, you too are experiencing success in a new reality. It is what drives the entrepreneurial spirit and confirms that micro and small business truly are nimble and can drive changes needed at a time when the world seems to stand still. Stay tuned an amazing announcement soon…slowly but surely – I am “getting it”.

Derek Smith is lead facilitator with


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