In 2021, business success belongs to camels, not unicorns

camel model
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In times of economic uncertainty, businesses adopting the ‘camel model’ are poised to succeed over the showier ‘unicorn’ competitors.

Unlike unicorns, camels are not imaginary creatures living in fictitious lands. They are real, resilient and can survive in the harshest places on Earth. While the metaphor may not be as flashy, these camels prioritise sustainability, and thus survival, from the get-go by balancing strong growth and cash flow.

In business and finance, the term “unicorn” was coined in 2013 to describes a privately-owned startup with a valuation of over $1 billion. At the time there were just 39 companies that met the criteria. Since then, the number of unicorns has grown to more than 480.

As the world attempts to navigate an economic desert, the days of unicorns, which prioritise growth over profitability, are over. Say hello to the era of the camel, which survive lean periods, grow in controlled spurts and balance growth against costs and risks.

Why is the unicorn’s popularity waning?

With economic uncertainty looming, there’s been a shift in the unicorn ‘growth at all costs’ mindset. And, as businesses look at how they can survive an increasingly likely economic drought, the focus is turning from unicorns to camels.

What’s a camel?

The term, first used in 2017, describes companies that can survive harsh conditions, such as business downturns and changing economic conditions, and remain resilient. They may not sound as glamorous as a unicorn, but businesses that are able to conserve losses, preserve revenue and outlast financial drought are more appealing in times of economic uncertainty.

How do I become a camel?

Shift your focus away from growth only and instead look to build a profitable, reliable core. Only once you have this solid base can you start thinking about new ideas and growing your business.

“A key strategy that successful companies in developing markets employ is diversification and agility of their business. These enterprises are flexible and adaptable, enabling them to weather storms like the one we’re going through now”, says Joanne Bushell, Managing Director of flexible workspace provider IWG Plc., South Africa.

There are some clear benefits to adopting this approach in the longer term that can actually make a company both more competitive and more resilient.

For example, having a distributed workforce alerts companies rapidly to emerging challenges – like a breakdown in communication or a lack of collaboration, and forces them to react and adapt quickly. It gives companies the ability to tap the best talent regardless of location. Building teams in a distributed manner allows organisations to leverage maximum productivity. A ‘hybrid’ working model, for example, accommodates all employees – letting those who enjoy the office keep coming in, while those who thrive while working from home, stay at home and those who enjoy both choose freely. Flexible teams are also associated with increased diversity and decreased bias because work is judged by outputs. Distributed teams can also lower costs, because companies are not required to pay high rentals and crippling leases.

By embracing a slow-but-steady trajectory, being strategic instead of purely opportunistic, and honing in on your mission, your business can achieve the kind of growth that remains steady in every climate.

“Businesses that embrace the new way of working and adopt the ‘camel model’ are far more likely to not only weather the current crisis, but to establish a solid foundation that will make future adversity easier to manage. We may look back on this time as a turning point of sorts, in which the age of the unicorns gave way to the age of the camels, as the fixation on short-term growth was supplanted by a focus on long-term sustainability and impact. If so, both businesses and the communities they serve will be stronger and more adaptable, in good times and bad”, Bushell concludes.


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