As the eminent sociologist Benjamin Barber once said: ‘I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes or failures…I divide it into the learners and non-learners’. And in the current crisis, those startup founders who learned new skills to overcome unprecedented challenges will emerge with stronger businesses.
Lockdown prompted a steep learning curve for Alex Theuma, founder and CEO of SaaStock. Founded in 2015, the company hosts annual global conferences around the world for founders, investors, and executives in the SaaS industry.
When the outbreak of COVID-19 forced them to cancel their in-person conferences for the rest of 2020, Theuma and his team of 23 had just two months to learn how to host a virtual conference online or face certain business collapse.
“We had to become ‘world-class’ at hosting an online conference very quickly, so each member of the team attended as many online conferences as possible, shared their learnings internally, and then we all took on board the best pieces of advice,” he says.
This result was SaaStock’s first-ever remote conference, SaaStock Remote, which was attended by 3,000 people. The company plans to run all events online until Summer 2021 and then adopt a hybrid model, running conferences both online and in-person.
“We can continue to host different events using the new skills we have learned and they will help us improve future events, and the team is excited about becoming masters at this new craft” says Theuma. “Because we were forced to pivot online and work faster and more intensely, we’re also now a lot more productive.”
Lifting remote team spirits
Entrepreneur Akin Onal had always been interested in fitness but had never taught a class. When lockdown began, the founder of baby and children’s wear business MORI decided to introduce his passion to 29 employees by learning how to teach weekly zoom fitness classes.
Like many businesses navigating the new virtual office environment, they had trialed open lunch meetings and Friday drinks and games on Zoom but found that bringing the team together socially in a virtual environment was still proving to be much harder than working together virtually.
Onal remembered that before lockdown some of the team had gone running together during lunch breaks, and came up with the idea of getting everyone together on Zoom for short, 15-minute abs workouts during lunchtimes.
“It took me almost an hour of preparation before the first class,” he says. “I had to figure out alternative exercises for different fitness levels, and learn about the perfect postures and common mistakes during abs workouts.”
Some take part religiously every week, others, including overseas team members, drop into the classes when it fits in with their schedules.
“Doing this together lifts team spirit, boosts mental health, and increases the team positivity,” says Onal. “It’s also a great way of making myself available to my team across all levels, something I’ve struggled with in the office due to a hectic schedule of meetings.”
Onboarding new hires can be a challenge at any time, but learning to do it remotely during the pandemic enabled Rutger Bruining, CEO and founder of memoir-writing service Story Terrace, to make significant improvements to his business.
Launched in 2015 the company has 25 employees, and matches clients with 600 professional writers across the U.S. and U.K. During lockdown the team transitioned to home working within a day and without any issues, but bringing new team members on board proved tricky.
“We followed the same program we normally do in person on video calls, but it was more difficult for the new joiners to become productive quickly,” says Bruining. “A lot of the questions you would ask over lunch, or you understand things by overhearing colleagues on the phone with clients.”
After evaluating the situation, he created a series of short videos, less than a minute long, covering all aspects of the business, for example, taking a credit card payment, or upgrading a package.
“What had the biggest impact was assigning the current batch of new hires with a buddy, a slightly more experienced peer, who they can ask anything all day long,” says Bruining. “When we return to in-person onboarding these improvements will increase the effectiveness of new hires as well as the rest of the team, who now have access to our library of 50 explainer videos about the business.”
Setting the right pace
The coronavirus pandemic taught Lukas Kinigadner, CEO and cofounder of mobile OCR startup Anyline, that there is a time to pivot and a time to persevere. In the early weeks of March, when many companies were making rapid decisions to restructure or reinvent the wheel, they took the opposite approach, and decided, in the words of Nobel Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman to ‘think slowly’ instead.
Founded in Vienna in 2013, Anyline uses AI to enable mobile devices to process written characters in real-time, for example, allowing utility companies to read meters instantly and accurately, and logistics firms the power to manage their shipments anywhere in the world.
“We figured that just because every CFO in the world was in crisis meetings for those weeks, it didn’t mean our tech was no longer valuable,” says Kinigadner. “So, we consciously slowed down, and put the team to work on long-term projects that we think will pay dividends a year from now, rather than next week.”
Kinigadner admits it was a nerve-wracking experience and something that no founder would ever willingly want to endure, but insists that as they come out the other side, they will emerge a stronger and much more resilient company.
Learning to let go
As well as learning how to make hand sanitizer to support frontline workers, Kathy Caton, founder and managing director of Brighton Gin used lockdown to learn to step back and let her team get on with the day to day operations.
Launched in 2013, the company employs five staff and works with a wider network of regular freelancers. The move into manufacturing hand sanitizer had never been in any business plan.
“There was a lot of media coverage about worldwide shortages of alcohol-based hand sanitizers during the pandemic, and one thing we had a lot of was the best quality alcohol – organic neutral grain spirit at 96.6% – and a desire to be part of the solution,” says Caton.
A not-for-profit venture, the hand sanitizers were released under the tagline of ‘spray it forward’. For every one sold through the company’s website, two are donated to frontline services.
What Caton found humbling was the team response to the crisis, with everyone playing a part, from delivering gin and hand sanitizers directly to local customers to packaging up many hundreds of hand sanitizers to send around the country. Like many entrepreneurs, Caton’s natural inclination is to roll up her sleeves and get stuck in.
“We like to think we’re part of the solution and indispensable, but in our efforts to help we sometimes hinder our teams,” she says. “Looking ahead, I’ll try my hardest to step back and trust this incredible team, and realize that the best value I can bring to the business doesn’t come from me interfering with people’s work and flow under the misguided belief that I’m helping!”