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According to these tech leaders, how companies did business yesterday might not work today. And what consumers wanted last year isn't the same. How do tech leaders adapt — and survive — when "normal" keeps changing?

In the May edition of TechTO Together, individuals, owners and leaders in the tech industry continue to move forward, plan for the future, stay flexible, and stick to their missions.

Since the first TechTO Together on March 19th (when TechTO went virtual), the team has hosted over 50 events for more than 10,000 people. Creating and maintaining connections during COVID-19 has been vital for Toronto’s great tech ecosystem.

This month, TechTO focused on retail businesses and the role technology can play in helping Canadian owners and consumers.

Making New Plans Every Week

Ray Reddy, co-founder and CEO at Ritual was the first to join the virtual session. Ritual, which provides companies and employees in dense urban office areas with simplified lunch solutions, is in seven countries and over 50 cities. Their presence around the world allowed them to see the crisis early, starting with the Hong Kong market.

“We saw a version of it play out a few weeks ahead,” said Reddy. “Still, we could not have imagined or prepared for the way it unfolded in North America.” Reddy shared that the reaction to the health crisis developed differently in different countries, and therefore the extent to which businesses shut down varied widely.

Ritual felt the impact of office and restaurant closures deeply. Reddy revealed that to try to stay ahead of developments, they had to stay flexible and nimble. “It was surreal in that we kept making a plan every week, then throwing it out and starting over. We did that week after week for four weeks. We realized we couldn’t be too rigid or too emotionally attached to any plan.”

Ritual recognized that convincing restaurants to go digital was no longer going to be their primary challenge. “We will no longer have a conversation about why contactless pick up is important — the challenge is that everyone else will be there. The opportunity has never been stronger,” said Reddy. But neither has the competition.

To manage through today, when offices are largely closed, Ritual has pivoted to focus on the residential side of their business. And, they are preparing for businesses reopening by actively building new products to help people feel safe when they come back.

“What restaurants did yesterday is just not an option,” said Reddy of restaurants. “We need to help by making sure that when the world opens up again, they are able to offer contactless pick up and get their business back. We don’t want to be too short term. We want to make sure these businesses succeed.”

Thinking 2 to 3 Years Ahead

Ethan Song, co-founder of Frank and Oak joined next. While all Frank and Oak retail stores are currently closed, they have seen an increase in online business. “Our company was fortunate because online was always a majority of the business,” Song explained.

While the store started online, Frank and Oak is known for its community events and consumer interactions. Their Queen Street West store is integrated with a Jimmy’s coffee shop, which has been a big hit with their customers, particularly millennials. “Now you have to ask, is that what consumers will want in the future?”

Song shared two thoughts about the future of retail:

“One, what consumers are buying before will not be what they are buying this year.” This is not necessarily a tech issue, but there will be a real change in behaviour that will need to be addressed.

“Second, the infrastructure of our lives — how our cities are built — will change. The Toronto Eaton Centre, for instance, used to be invincible in terms of the traffic it would draw.” Going forward there is no guarantee that what worked previously will work again. “We need to be thinking about what’s going to happen in the next two to three years,” said Song. “We need to be thinking about tech solutions that will solve future problems.”

Changing the way People Think about Local

Satish Kanwar, General Manager and Vice President of channels product at Shopify spoke next. To help more businesses survive, Shopify has doubled down on retail and prioritized economic empowerment.

“We are lowering barriers to entry to help get more people on the path to independence and creativity,” said Kanwar. One of their simplest tactics was to make Shopify free for 90 days for every new business, enabling local businesses to create an online store quickly. With this tactic, Shopify has seen a 60 per cent growth in new business.

Kanwar also spoke passionately about the role of the local businesses in communities, and believes there has been a real shift in consumers’ attitudes towards small, local retailers in every part of the world.

“People are realizing that local businesses are fairly adaptable,” said Kanwar. “A lot of the things people used to rely on getting from Amazon, they realized they can get right from down the street. There has been an increase in the understanding that local business doesn’t need to be one form of one thing.”

As for the businesses themselves, Kanwar revealed that the ones that are surviving are the one that are adapting and growing. “For those using Shopify, 90 per cent of lost sales have been recovered online.”

As Shopify looks forward, Kanwar shared that they are sticking to a single mission: To help as many businesses as possible survive this.

Making Tough Decisions

Andrew Graham and Eva Wong, co-founders of Borrowell, rounded out the evening’s presentations. Borrowell, whose mission is to help people improve their financial lives, recently surveyed more than one million Canadians. They saw that three quarters of Canadians are experiencing high levels of stress over their finances right now, and more than 30 per cent are losing sleep over their finances.

“We care about our mission,” said Graham. “We want to be there for the one million users who have signed up, who are dealing with stress that comes with financial instability.” Unfortunately Graham said, part of fulfilling that mission meant reducing headcount.

To help ensure they had the runway to be there as a company, “We had to set the business up to weather what could be a long storm,” said Wong. “Cutting marketing and head count was a really gut wrenching and an awful set of decisions, but we had to do it in order to ensure the company would be here well into the future.”

In the midst of this change, Graham and Wong have focused more attention on adapting the company’s culture. As a tech company, moving to a work-from-home environment wasn’t as challenging as it might be for other companies.

“We have traditionally been a very in-office culture. For us to move from that to 100 per cent remote certainly has a big change,” revealed Graham. In order to reinforce values and maintain culture, the pair talked about the need to be intentional about creating informal interactions. They are doing more team stand-ups and personal catch ups to make up for the informal moments when coworkers might bump into each other in the hall. They have also started playing games — such as twenty questions — to help remote colleagues get to know each other better.

“People have lost out in many ways,” said Wong. “People are feeling grief or sorrow as they worry about family, as they miss out on an event or concert they were supposed to go to, or a date they were going to go on.” Reminding everyone — particularly managers — of the human side of the struggle is important she says.

For Ritual, Frank and Oak, Shopify and Borrowell, tactics and environments look different than they used to, but all of these leaders are finding ways to stay true to their missions. Finding solutions to new challenges may ultimately set them up to serve customers this year, next year, and in the years to come.

The next TechTO Together online event will take place June 8, 2020 at 7:00pm. Join now to hear insights and perspectives from prominent tech leaders.

What's your superpower? Leaders from Uber, Sampler, TopHat and Product Hunt share how to repurpose your job, your mission, your product to be a force for good at April's TechTo Together.