Everyone responds to crisis differently. There's no right way of doing this, only your way.
In this short three-part series, we talk with three people at the heart of our industry to find out how COVID-19 has changed their professional and personal lives and envision what a post-Corona world might look like.
For the last piece of this series, we talked with Eric - WAS. light- and sound wizard - on his experience of the global health crisis as an entrepreneur and business owner in the event sector of The Netherlands.
In between trying to save my plant from being annihilated by my cat in the background and an occasional phone call, we find time to discuss the double roles that come with being a business owner and what ‘The New Entrepreneurship’ looks like.
So tell me, the most important question of all to be asked first: How do you feel?
I’m okay. Luckily I’m still healthy but like many in our field of work, I feel like these are odd times.
Can you tell us something about how you dealt with the news?
It was a lot of switching gears. At first, you are simply paralyzed. Wondering what’s happening now, no idea of what to do, of what is wise. Actually, it’s like you can feel the ground disappearing from underneath you. The day they announced the sector was closing, I got into entrepreneur-modus thinking about how much it’s going to cost with the hope that maybe it’s still manageable. The longer it took, however, the more pessimistic I became. You start unpacking your stuff and unloading the bus for your next assignment and you see your calendar becoming emptier and emptier...
That must have been hard on the moral. How did you manage to keep your business running?
When I realised this might not be over anytime soon, I switched into another mode. You start exploring the versatility of your business. However, everything you think of is a saturated market and that’s a difficult place to find yourself in. It hasn’t been easy, but we kept looking and noticed as we kept looking, we also became more creative. You realize that this is a big part of why you became an entrepreneur: this drive to creative problem-solving. And I think that unlocking this mindset opens your eyes to opportunities. I know guys from my sector who are going through a really hard time but I’ve been lucky enough to still have gigs. Your clients become more creative too.
In that sense, maybe it’s a blessing that at least we, as an industry, are all in this together. It might mean clients are more lenient, right?
That’s what my girlfriend says to comfort me: It’s not your fault. A business can also suffer due to your own mismanagement. But in this case, many businesses suffer due to policies that are out of our control. It’s frustrating in its own way of course. I think that the thing that is most debilitating to the sector is the unclarity. That dot on the horizon everyone is always talking about has taken the shape of a blurry blob.
Is there anything you discovered in this problem-solving-period?
Well, because of the current crisis I took assignments that fall outside of what I normally do. It did make me realize that the work I chose to do, sound and light in the event industry, is truly what I love doing most. It’s a confirmation that I’ve been doing what I love and not just doing whatever. The first time I did a small gig... you know that video of those cows who leave the barn jumping for the first time in spring... well that’s how I felt.
I think a lot of people will feel this way as soon as big events are allowed again. So, how did you go about diversifying your business to adapt to the current situation?
I’ve always said that the event industry, and more specifically that of dance events, is a stable one. It’s less dependant on the economy in the sense that even if times are bad, people still want to party. There will always be a demand. The corporate field, on the other hand, gets easily affected by economic crises. Corporate events are the first to get cancelled and cut back on. During this crisis, we are seeing the opposite. So this is where I went to look first: the corporate market. I looked into setting up live streams but since this is not what we normally do, I didn’t want to get into it just like that. It’s what you can see happening a lot now, companies offering services they have little to no experience with at the cost of quality.
Since we’re basically a big moving company specifically for sound and light, I started researching the possibilities of expanding our transportation services. Which turned out to be the right move! We found a company that distributes outdoor plants and could use the extra help. The Corona-crisis created a huge boom in this industry.
Yes, a lot of people in quarantine found time to redo their gardens and balconies.
You also start thinking about solutions together with the clients. This brought me to a concept I’m now developing called: The New Entrepreneurship (Het Nieuwe Ondernemen). The idea was born because I noticed that with some clients we quickly ended up talking about budgets. Even in this crisis. Because I felt like in these weird times we’re all standing still, I kept wondering why do we keep talking about the budget? Why don’t we just look at an assignment from a completely different angle, starting by not sending an invoice in the traditional way? Rather, we approach it as thinking of a concept and distributing the revenue proportionally. This way we step away from delivering materials and sending crystallized invoices. It would allow everyone to mobilize again, to at least start moving.
This actually sounds like a very logical approach. Do you think The New Entrepreneurship is something that could be a solution for the long term
Initially, yes, because I think that as an industry we’re going to feel the consequences of this crisis for a very long time. But sometimes I feel like I’m one of the few people who actually think this way. Somehow, I’m in a field where a lot of people are convinced that a year from now we’re back to partying. I pushed my entire 2020 agenda up to 2021 and even now I’m still like: let’s see if that is feasible.
Yeah, I’m not that big of an optimist myself in this specific situation.
I just don’t see it, you know? For example, one of the biggest festivals I work, Extrema Outdoor Belgium, is moved up to next year. But I just don’t think that a year from now, we’ll be standing on a grass field with 30,000 people. I just don’t see that happening. Same goes for all those weekender festivals. With all the rules around hygiene? Never, unless this virus miraculously disappears. I prefer to stay pessimistic and be pleasantly surprised than the other way around.
What if governments do allow this to happen though?
This is what I’m most afraid of. That the government will appeal to the people’s individual responsibility. It’s one of the main reasons why I’m having a hard time doing groceries now. I know I’m being responsible, and my colleagues and the few friends I’m seeing are too. I stay at home. If I’m feeling slightly off, I stay home too. I don’t have this reassurance in public spaces like a supermarket or even worse, a festival. This mindset of 'Not feeling well? Slightly feverish? Ah, can’t be that bad. Just take a few paracetamols and sweat it out on the dancefloor.' This is what scares me the most.
Yes, so apart from whether we can policy-wise, should we then maybe also wonder if we should want to get back to partying in large crowds - at least for the time being?
Yes. I mean, business-wise I would definitely want to get back to ‘normal’. If I’m playing my entrepreneurial role I’d say: yes please and as fast as possible. You hear all these things about age and risk factors that make me think, from a business perspective, yes. Only yesses. But as a person and a human being, I must say: not yet. I still think it’s scary to open everything up.
Is this hard? Dealing with the discrepancy between your entrepreneurial and personal role?
I can’t lie, it’s starting to creep up on me. In a bit, I’m leaving for Amsterdam for some recordings. There I’ll find a whole crew of whom I know no one personally. I know them now because I’ve worked with them a few times and yes this can give a sense of trust that maybe it’ll all work out. And somehow it does. This makes me feel like my entrepreneurial spirit might, at some point, take over the fear I’m feeling now. If you ask me this question in a few months, I might just tell you: what are you worrying about? I’m over it by now. When everything just started I was superstrict about the idea of staying at home. Now, I can understand people sitting in parks as long as they adhere to the rules of course.
I hope the situation becomes safer soon. Not just the policies but that it actually becomes safer.
Yes, there’s a lot of people putting so much pressure right now. It has to be more lenient, to the point that people are banging their fists on the table. Everything is a must and now, now, now. I’m not too comfortable with this mindset. Just take it easy and look around at what’s happening in other countries. Let them try doing events for a month or so and after that, you’ll know exactly whether you should take the risk or not. To me this is key. I prefer to have everything on lock for another extra month over opening up and having to close for good because we collectively took a risk that turned out for the worse. Since you’re starting up your business with a model in which you assume revenue, that hit will be so much harder to take - and that’s scary.
This is clearly a time of creativity, reservation, and taking care of oneself in preparation of this new chapter we’re entering.
Definitely. This should be our focus. We need to prepare so that once we get the green light, we are ready to go at it full force. This is something we need to ensure collectively and let me tell you, I cannot wait!
Thank you for your time and insights!
29.07.2020 | Words by Manal Aziz