Rethink, reinvent, and rebuild: How SMEs can bounce back from the pandemic

With an open mind, businesses of any nature can be well-poised to take advantage of opportunities arising from today’s changing environment

As the best SME Bank in Singapore and Asia, OCBC is helping SMEs bounce back stronger. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Sometimes, a catastrophe can inspire companies to kickstart their creative engines all over again. That was the case for design agency Paper Carpenter - not once, but twice.

The first incident was a 2015 earthquake in Kathmandu, which inspired founder Adrian Chua to create PaperConnect - a eco-friendly cardboard system connecting cardboard to form structures such as furniture and exhibition booths.

The second is the ongoing 2020 pandemic, which inspired new products such as social distancing partitions and the self-assembly, cardboard-based Poppi desk, part of a new work-from-home series.

While working in his apartment during the circuit breaker period, Mr Chua realised how precious individual space was. Thus, he designed Poppi Desk and a matching Hexa Stool "so that everyone could have their own work-at-home space," he told Post Magazine.

Paper Carpenter is not the only innovative small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) in town. Technology firm Taidii further developed online teaching and learning tools, beyond the pre-school management products it is known for.

SMEs like them have adapted to the changing business environment caused by the pandemic - by rethinking, reinventing, and rebuilding processes and strategies to take them into the future.

Rethinking business strategies

Before Covid-19 brought the world to a standstill, 70 per cent of Paper Carpenter's business came from designing exhibition booths for events such as International Furniture Fair and HDB Community Week, with exhibition booth design and furniture using lightweight recycled cardboard materials.

Now that large-scale events are put on hold and there is a new emphasis on safe-distancing measures, Paper Carpenter focuses on providing new products to cater for such needs.

For instance, its social distancing solutions include eco-friendly safety partitions and room dividers which can be branded for offices, schools, and restaurants, among others. Mr Chua notes: "These are cheaper, more environmentally friendly, can be recycled, and easy to install."

Taidii, which worked closely with more than a third of pre-school centres in Singapore, more than 130 centres in Malaysia and the Philippines and more than 300 in China, also had to rethink its offerings when centres were closed during the circuit breaker period.

Pre-schools had been using its systems to reduce administrative work for teachers in areas such as attendance taking and curriculum planning.

Without physical classes, Taidii switched its focus to e-learning solutions, including live class streaming and parent-school communication. Co-founder Wang Bin also notes that Taidii has new ideas for art, video lessons and plans to roll out their first B2C (business-to-consumer) product, an online AI class this September.

Reinventing digitally

For both companies, going digital is unavoidable.

Paper Carpenter has leveraged economic headwinds to sell its work-from-home products online. It now has more than 10 products for home-based learning and those working from home, including the Poppi desk, desktop organiser, a mobile boombox and even a laptop stand - which were launched in April. Customers can collect their purchases from the studio or pay a small fee for contactless delivery.

Mr Chua says its new products were well-received during the circuit breaker period, "as everyone needs a WFH (work from home) desk".

Going digital was necessary for the company to maintain business competitiveness and a way to promote more sustainable products to consumers. Most importantly, going online allows Paper Carpenter to educate consumers that with cardboard carpentry capabilities and design innovation, cardboard material can be used to design eco-friendly furniture.

Even firms like Taidii - which are already in the digital and tech space - continue to think up new ways of advancing the use of technology. For instance, Mr Wang said in 2019 that the firm has been working on a new version of its AI engine for curriculum planning, which can automatically tailor lesson plans for each student based on assessments and teacher feedback.

The firm's annual revenue has been "a few million dollars", and it has raised more than $3 million for expansion.

Rebuilding relationships in the ecosystem

Both companies have had to reconnect with their customers, suppliers and more, and reconsider their roles in the ecosystems they were in, pre-pandemic.

Taidii, for instance, is expanding beyond the education sector to cater to clients in insurance and laboratories and has adapted its systems to directly integrate safe-entry QR codes, while Paper Carpenter increased its focus on social responsibility to create products such as Poppi, which retails at just $35.

Mr Chua says at that price, profit margins are low but Poppi Desk gives families and adults at home a more conducive workspace. Through it, the firm can attract new consumers and business-to-business customers looking for eco-friendly solutions, as well as environmentally-conscious stakeholders to work with.

Overcoming obstacles in the new normal

By taking Paper Carpenter and Taidii's cue, being flexible and relooking their products and business strategies in times of crisis, SMEs here can build stronger businesses for the future.

With OCBC's help to "sell better" and "operate better", SMEs can find guidance and support through their journey on building resilient businesses.

For businesses seeking more information and inspiration, click here.

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