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The Business of 2021

Survivors of the tumultuous 2020 business climate share tips on how one can endure the potential challenges of this year.

While people were closing down stores in the previous year, businessman Jorge Noel Wieneke was opening several.

Blame it on the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19.) Since early 2020, the national government has been trying to curb its spread through lockdowns and movement restrictions and these have resulted in costly work stoppages in various industries. In response, business owners took drastic measures to survive. Some scaled back, some moved their operations online and others reduced their manpower. But, for Weineke, owner of the Tokyo Tempura food franchise, there was an alternative route.

Last year, the man recognize the growing unemployment line caused by the COVID-19 measures. He decided to aggressively tap it by waiving Tokyo Tempura’s franchise fee to court aspiring business owners hampered by limited capital.  He called it “the recovery franchise” and this became attractive to those hard hit by the pandemic: from the people who got laid off to overseas foreign workers who returned to the Philippines due to the uncertainties the pandemic caused abroad.

“For people who wanted a business,” he said, “we gave this to them.”

It was an unorthodox move on his part but it nonetheless yielded notable results. Wieneke managed to provide livelihood for various people and 21 iterations of Tokyo Tempura rose in the form of kiosks and co-branded stores. He incurred opportunity costs due to the waiving of the franchise fee but, since his franchise holders needed to buy goods from him to continue their businesses, the brand as a whole continued to make money.

Ultimately, his decision allowed Tokyo Tempura to withstand the economic challenges of 2020. And now that we’re in 2021, there are eyes on people like him. COVID-19 is still here, after all. The challenges from the previous year remain and based on their performance last year, it is apparent that they may have thoughts on how to overcome them.

The year may be 2021 but, to some extent, it still feels like 2020. Looking out of the window of my apartment in Binondo, I see that.

There are still strangers going about their daily business obscured by masks and face shields. Online, people are still trading barbs over familiar topics; from the national government’s responses towards the pandemic to its habit of focusing on other, less pressing issues. On newsfeeds meanwhile, COVID-19 is still very much a central figure especially since its new variant has arrived in the country with the threat of a higher infection rate. News of change came recently after various companies began jockeying to be vaccine providers but an air of caution continues to hover over several groups including the local business community. As the current president of the Association of Filipino Franchisers Inc., Wieneke is among those who remain careful.

“You cannot really plan yet for the long term,” he said. “But there are indicators that we are opening up business. It’s somewhat bullish, somewhat active coming from the lockdown.” But in comes a piece of advice from the man: do not be too complacent; be optimistic but relatively cautious.

As someone who lives in Manila, I can understand why he feels the need to say this. Prior to the holiday break, I’ve seen mass gatherings in major commercial centers like Divisoria where people go to buy affordable items. On the roof of our apartment building, I have on several occasions heard music and crowds gathering in adjacent structures. I’ve closed my eyes in some of these instances and found myself easily imagining that we’re not in the midst of a pandemic. Days after the holidays, however, COVID-19 reminded us of its existence with a spike in the number of cases. Experts say that these don’t even include infections acquired during Christmas, New Year or the Feast of the Black Nazarene which also drew a sizeable crowd. This is what causes concern for businessmen like Wieneke. 

“We don’t want to return to the lockdowns again,” he said. That’s why he advises people to take precautions. But one must also avoid being too careful for that too has drawbacks.

In an article published by Forbes last year, Chuck Swoboda, an innovator-in-residence at Marquette University and a president of Cape Point Advisors said that “in business, as in life, the greatest risk is doing nothing.” This is true especially for entrepreneurs who thrive on opportunity.

Wieneke is an example of this. His idea, the recovery franchise, was a relatively novel response to the pandemic. And like a lot of novel ideas, pursuing it came with great risk. Had he allowed fear to dissuade him from it, his business would’ve incurred tremendous losses. Before the pandemic, after all, Tokyo Tempura got much of its earnings through mall stores. Those remained closed for a time. His plan allowed him to reposition to locations that had higher chances of earning.

He took a risk and it paid off. But it should also be noted, that there was a level of calculation done before he went with his idea. Wieneke didn’t just implement it. He studied the market first and discovered the potential merits of his concept. This, of course, leads to another point he’d like to raise: the fact that business owners should always be sensitive to the needs of the people.

This year, he believes that several industries may continue to see gains due to those needs. For example: essential foods and pharmaceuticals. Also, “franchising is still OK because people are still looking for money-making opportunities,” he opined.

That being said, he stressed that which is truly important: that people should learn to identify what he calls “pain points” and see what one can do to capitalize on them.

“I saw the pain point that people are looking for alternative businesses but they didn’t have capitalization so what I did was to offer free franchise,” he said. “It solved the problem of people looking for work and ways to save their families. The tool was franchising. For me, it allowed my business to remain active and visible in the market.”

Ingenuity—it is the hallmark of being a good entrepreneur and a necessary trait in an era when there are many challenges. But, in order for one to maximize it, one must have an open mind to consider possibilities beyond what is conventional. Grace Nicholas, a woman who endured the previous year while venturing into various income generating ideas believes this.

“[The previous year] actually gave us more time and a reason to believe on the beauty of our own idea,” she said. “A lot of employees became entrepreneurs and a lot of brick and mortar businessmen shifted to online. We need to be adaptable. Again, it’s not the most educated or the richest who will thrive but the ones who are adaptable to change.”

This was highlighted during the pandemic when people were forced to think outside the box. Take for example, the work from home (WFH) set up. Prior to COVID-19, this wasn’t a popular option for business owners. Lawmakers examined the possibility of using it to lessen traffic but the measure didn’t prosper until last year.

“The problem is others did not want to give it a chance because of selfishness,” Wieneke said. “People had this desire to always see who they’re talking to. The other is this desire of business owners to make sure that they are getting their money’s worth by monitoring their employees. But the impact of the WFH setup yields a lot savings on electricity. It also reduces traffic and pollution.”

He continued to champion the set up through a couple of anecdotes. For starters, there was this story about how he managed to organize a marketplace and a charity campaign with celebrity Gary Valenciano. He apparently did that without even leaving his house. Additionally, he was also able to close franchises left and right through Zoom.

We should just give a chance to these new learnings,” he said.

Supporting his statement is Joanna Agudo of MJD Agudo Accounting and Auditing Services that also did relatively well during the 2020 health crisis.

“This is the time to look back and see in what areas they encountered problems before and come up with ways on how to address those problems,” she said. She added that it’s also a time to “look forward and see in what areas we can better serve given the new norm and offer ways of a more practical approach.”

That said, it also helps to maintain ideals of the past. Consistency, for example, is a must–especially in an era when uncertainties dissuade people. Nouie Nativadad-Ang, the brains behind the now-popular Humble Crumble dessert business, believes this.

“This might sound cliché but consistency is key,” she said. “Consistency not just in your product but in every aspect of the business such as marketing, research and development, and creativity. Consistently push yourself to do better every day because once you stop, things might just go stagnant then eventually go downhill. So yes, consistency is key.”

And then there is the ultimate advice—one directly or indirectly given by the people I’ve spoken to. We have to find it in ourselves to be hopeful, to give this year a chance.

2020 is without a doubt one of the most difficult times encountered by our country. Take a stroll through the once busy streets of Metro Manila and you would see its impact; old haunts now closed, businesses struggling to get by, life altered drastically. And as 2021 comes in bearing alarming similarities to it, one may feel threatened. But if they are indeed identical, then we simply cannot ignore a striking consolation: the fact that we’ve dealt with this before. Additionally, some of us didn’t just survive; some of us thrived, evolved, grew stronger.

They are with us today, sharing their knowledge on how one can succeed in trying times.

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