The COVID pandemic has wrought enormous personal and social damage, upending countless lives. It is serving as a catalyst to embrace the need for greater compassion and solidarity across our society. It is inspiring heroic feats of public-spiritedness and charity, while also providing an opportunity for us to view the competence, morality and ethics of leaders in government and business.
Beyond that, it has unleashed a set of acute economic shocks, laying bare the viability of many businesses, creating the greatest sense of uncertainty ever experienced. Getting our minds around what is happening is difficult, as its effects are paradoxical: it has caused a supply shock and a demand shock.
The pandemic is primarily a public healthcare problem, but one with immense implications for business, and for economic, fiscal and monetary policy. The virus is accelerating powerful existing trends such as digital automation and simultaneously slamming the brakes on trends that had, until very recently, possessed clear momentum, such as globalisation.
Many startups spent the first several weeks of the crisis preparing continuity plans, and assessing the various government stimulus programs. These businesses are now learning to operate in the ‘new normal’ yet continuing to respond to immediate fires. Much of the focus is on implementing tactical steps to preserve business value, including liquidity analysis and operational scenario plans.
Startups need to address vastly weaker balance sheets, steep revenue declines, weakened supply chains and stressed or depleted employee bases. Each of these elements will require triage, and in many instances, attention and resources will be focused on triage for a long time. Of course, some firms will emerge from the pandemic in relatively good shape and thus be in a position to take advantage of opportunities arising.
The central question in every (virtual) startup leadership meeting is how to grapple with the short-term consequences. The challenges are philosophical and intellectual, as well as physical and practical. Simply, we are wondering how to go about restarting, repairing what was broken and readying ourselves to cope with a host of urgent demands as we build bridges to a post-pandemic future for our embryonic ventures.
Ian Burbridge of the RSA has developed an approach to thinking through the measures that we’ve taken in response to Covid-19 in four categories that can help us focus on what’s worked and what can last – stopping activity, pausing activity, temporary activity, and innovative activity – and I’ve adapted it for startups.
1. Obsolete activity
The crisis has afforded us the ability to stop doing some things, either because we already knew they were not fit for purpose or because the crisis has rendered them obsolete. Emerging post-crisis, the challenge is to let go of these obsolete aspects of pre-existing systems and functions that we know are no longer fit for the new ways of working.
As Peter Drucker said, the greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence, it is to act with yesterday’s logic. Letting go of what we no longer need releases trapped resources for work that is a better strategic fit.
Rethinking starts with the context in which the repair efforts needs to happen, so be ruthless on what you can eject from your business model. Every organisation needs to reimagine the future at both a practical and a conceptual level.
Startups need to be strategic at a time when grappling with an intense crisis and coping with day-to-day emergencies. Redesigning a boat while bailing water from the hull may sound ambitious as you’re sailing in a storm, but it is necessary.
Organisations need to rethink technology strategy, geographic footprints, and business models to make them more robust and to recognise the strong pressures for localisation emerging. They will need to evaluate their portfolios from the standpoint of the products or services needed in a very different economy.
Move your orientation from physical in-person processes into digital or virtual tactics;
You may have a new business sales focus, but this is a time to be our best selves, and customers need more from us. They don’t need to be sold to, they need to be heard and supported. We’re all now in customer support. They need us to put humanity above profitability.
2. Paused activity
We have had to bring a halt to doing other things in order to divert capacity to the crisis response, but we have to restart these again. Potentially, this is storing up significant challenges for the future, so we need to figure out how to reboot these activities in ways that are relevant to the new, emerging context and are not simply a blind copy and paste of the pre-virus approach.
It will be impossible for our structures and systems to cope with the next challenge if they remain in the same state in which they entered this one. The next step is to quickly begin reimagining and adapting strategy. All this must be done with a keen eye toward understanding trade-offs and building the capacity to navigate the disruptions that are bound to arise in the future.
This is an opportunity to refactor your business model, focused on competitive and collaborative strategies dramatically different from those we might have imagined a few months ago. Rethinking paused activities ensures that startups are repaired in a way that makes them more resilient and more successful by bringing considerations about the future into the present.
Redeploy physical event spend, leaning more heavily into digital and account-based strategies, focused to maximise pipeline generation potential in the short term, mapped out in 30, 60 and 90-day priorities;
Create online content that is informative and responsive to current landscapes, be valuable to both current customers and potential prospects by investing in general customer experience improvements.
3. Temporary activity
Some things that we have done in responding to the immediate demands of the crisis are inappropriate to become part of the way forward. Ending temporary measures should be a focused endeavour, remove them before they become systematised, and burn valuable resources.
Identifying your own revealed weaknesses unearthed by crisis will undoubtedly have exposed needs for greater preparedness, resilience, agility, or leanness in your business. Those weaknesses also signal opportunities to renew your products and business model and serve customers better. They may also help you understand broader customer needs, since others are likely to be experiencing similar stresses.
On the plus side, you may have adapted new activities that offer future value – for example, reducing customer friction in terms of unnecessary delays, costs, complexities and other inconveniences.
In terms of messaging, shift the focus to emphasise more of the WHY – not just your own WHY as a business, but the bigger WHY for your audience;
Revisit your temporary pricing strategy, you may need to continue to offer more options at lower price points to accommodate customer’s tighter budgets.
4. Innovative activity
Emergencies will have opened up the need for innovation and rapid experiment as a result of the crisis. These will have shown the imperative for an agile way of thinking and working, removing barriers and inertia, with the demand for instant change. The post-crisis task is to find ways to amplify and embed the most promising changes and innovations into your new business model.
The crisis has put into strong relief the uncomfortable truth that many startups are simply not as nimble or as adaptive as they anticipated. What does this mean in practical terms? To a degree, this means jumping on the trends that have suddenly gained currency in response to the pandemic, including remote working and the localisation of supply chains, but now is the time to become a maverick, a small outlier enterprise that thinks and act differently from incumbents.
Seek out maverick activity. Startups sit on the edges of an industry, and as such can make bets predicated on new customer needs or patterns. Look to EasyJet as an example.
EasyJet, now the fourth-largest airline in Europe, built its business as a no-frills, low-cost carrier by pioneering a novel business model and ignoring many of the industry’s unwritten rules. EasyJet shook up the business model of the airline industry by moving from a hub-and-spoke model with a diverse fleet to a point-to-point model with lean operations and high-capacity utilisation. By removing or charging extra for all noncore elements of the customer experience, EasyJet was able to cut costs while focusing on what customers care about most – flight availability and punctuality.
Organisations tend to become myopic and insular when under threat, but crises often mark strategic inflection points, and a necessary focus on the present should not crowd out considerations of the future. The key questions are what next, and with what consequences and opportunities? The keys to success are to harvest good ideas from every layer of an enterprise.
Don’t just seek to reducing costs to maintain viability, adapt and innovate around new opportunities. Invest in growth drivers in order to capture opportunity in adversity and shape your own future.
Certain back-burner projects will have become more relevant given current events, so shift resources to make these a priority;
Reposition your product from pure revenue growth or churn mitigation to a more defensive posture to focus on helping businesses curtail losses and retain customers longer.
COVID-19 has provided a rare moment of pause, albeit a hazardous one, an opportunity to make changes that previously seemed too daunting or even impossible to execute. We should not lose the potential benefit of the natural reflection we are going through, but be mindful not to simply recreate the business we had before – consumer-led disruption will have an even greater impact than previously expected.
Stepping out of the crisis will force startup leaders to activate transformation plans, shrink execution timelines and experiment at lightning speed. Some startups are more immune to short-term shocks, such as those with subscription models. This presents an opportunity to further strengthen engagement and loyalty with existing customers, supporting them with attractive discounts or expanded service offerings.
However, for sub-sectors that rely on transactional revenue, the concerns are more immediate. They need to extend their liquidity runway to remain solvent while covering costs, and managing the emotions of their people. In these cases, give emphasis to simplification of all aspects of your enterprise. For example, you’ll need more adaptive digital strategies that can change and respond quickly, and an empowered management team that has greater responsibility and is less siloed. Steadying the ship is only part of the story, you must also look to the horizon.
The open-mindedness, flexibility, and faster clock speed of startups make them showcases of future development when an industry is at a turning point. So adopt the four strategic themes identified earlier, but be a maverick, be an outlier, and look to the periphery, be different and challenge your industry’s core beliefs and assumptions. Create the shocks, avoid being taken by surprise, bet against your existing business model. Think big, act small. Hope is not a strategy. But strategy can provide hope.