As the world stopped, these companies thrived under lockdown
You don’t get prepped for a worldwide pandemic at business school. The coronavirus has hit companies hard: stock prices have plummeted, many customers are still confined to their homes, and no one really knows what’s going to happen next.
Businesses are being forced to innovate in order to survive. Across all sectors, from retail to fitness, organisations have had to adopt technologies that they may never have experimented with otherwise. Where this accelerated adoption is perhaps most stark is education, which has typically been slow to innovate. “It’s the second largest sector in the world, but education has pretty much gone from a blackboard to a whiteboard in terms of using technology in the classroom,” says Priya Lakhani, founder and CEO of Century Tech.Century is an AI education tool that helps teachers tend to each individual student’s needs; very clever, but often too forward-thinking for traditional schools. “Ed tech was never the hottest ticket in town,” says Lakhani, but coronavirus has forced schools to reconsider. When her team learned that schools in China were struggling, they decided to offer out their technology for free. After China, they released it in Hong Kong, then Italy, then the rest of Europe. “Our business model has been completely ripped up,” says Lakhani. Contracts worth tens of thousands are being offered out for free. Revenue is down, but usage is up (Century doubled their servers to deal with demand), so the virus has identified potential future customers.Lakhani flinches a little at the suggestion that the pandemic could be a business opportunity; Century is a social impact company, not for profit. But she can see the positive effect it has had for the technology’s exposure. “Had we not opened the technology up to China and every country since, we’d probably still be on the same adoption curve as we were last year,” she says. “We’d still be at that early adopter phase.” Instead, now thousands of schools across the world are using this technology to keep children learning at home. Schools aren’t the only ones missing their regulars – retailers have closed their doors too. The lack of physical space is pushing them online, and many aren’t equipped to deal with it. Online shopping isn’t a new frontier, but the way the majority of businesses functioned until now doesn’t scratch the surface of its potential. Compared to China, where e-commerce is an experience, not just a transaction, the UK and the rest of Europe are lagging behind. Adam Levene, founder of retail startup HERO, thinks that’s about to change. “I think that just like we saw in China after the SARS outbreak, it’s going to be the same here,” he says, referring to the months-long lockdown that is often credited as a catalyst for the region’s e-commerce explosion. “There are going to be more consumers becoming comfortable shopping online, looking to connect and get that same human touch they get at the store, but through their phone or laptop.”To keep up with this change in demand, retailers are upgrading their online shopping services beyond "add to cart" with technology similar to HERO’s. As a conversational commerce app, the British startup gives businesses a way to provide customer service digitally – not with bots, but by connecting real-life sales associates with customers via text and, more recently, video calls. That means products that shoppers might normally be wary of buying online, such as smartphones and designer clothes, are now e-commerce friendly. Harvey Nichols and Three both use HERO to connect their working-from-home staff with online customers, so they can chat through their purchases just like they would in store. This technology would inevitably have been widely adopted eventually, but that process has been fast-tracked by the pandemic.Another existing technology that has been propelled forwards by the crisis is livestreaming, which is helping businesses in almost every sector stay connected. “Livestreaming has totally exploded,” says Gregor Pryor, co-chair of law firm Reed Smith’s entertainment and media industry group. Facebook Live reported a 50 per cent increase since January, and Twitch viewership increased by 66 per cent in Italy when quarantine began there. “These stats are nuts,” he says. “You’re just seeing user behaviour that you’ve never seen before.”Many assumed VR would be the perfect lockdown technology, but the barrier to entry remains too high. Headset manufacturers have seen a surge in demand, but ironically, they’re having difficulty manufacturing because of fallout from the virus. Only eight per cent of Britons own a VR headset, yet more than 95 per cent have a phone – and that’s all you need to access a livestream, whether you’re a business or a customer. “Companies that normally wouldn’t think about streaming are having to,” says Pryor. “They want to reach their audience now, and it’s the most obvious way to do it.” And the technology is evolving to accommodate more business needs. Facebook has launched production tools so companies can add logos, for example, to upgrade footage so it doesn’t look like it was filmed on a phone. Fitness companies are scheduling live workout sessions, with the same trainers, at regularly scheduled times. Some only allow paying members to join to keep money coming in; others offer them out for free, gaining a fanbase in the process. Either way, livestreaming technology gains legitimacy.“It’s going to change behaviour,” says Pryor. “You can see this shift towards livestream becoming mainstream.” But will any of these technologies stick around? Pryor says it depends on the length of the lockdown: “The longer it continues the more widespread the adoption will be.”It will also depend on how the technology is used. “Many businesses are using technology that is very powerful and helpful, but in a way that simply digitises the manual way they did things before,” says Lakhani. When the crisis is over, these businesses will likely revert back to their old way of doing things because the technology was just a substitute. For some, that might be the goal: keeping customers virtually engaged until things go back to normal. But they might be missing a trick. Companies that find tools that actually transform the way they do business will have a lasting advantage. As Lakhani says: “That’s where you’ll see efficiency created for some, and potential efficiency lost for others.”More great stories from WIRED🤑 Inside the 'bullshit' get-rich-quick world of dropshipping🎵 The secret behind the success of Apple's AirPods📖 How coronavirus kills, one organ at a time🎲 The best board games for adults and families🔒 The UK's lockdown rules, explained👉 Follow WIRED on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn