The Challenges of Being a Startup During a Pandemic: A Report from the Front Lines
Running a startup is a demanding undertaking in any time period, let alone during a pandemic. Recently, Ron Fritz, CEO of Tech Soft 3D, hosted a roundtable discussion with four technology executives at the helm of innovative startups to learn more about the challenges startups have faced during this uniquely challenging time.
How do you instill and maintain culture when most of your workforce is remote? For that matter, how do you get in front of customers and build business momentum when the world has gone into lockdown? And are there actually any silver linings to come from this strange time?
Offering their thoughts on these and other matters are:
- Susanne Haspinger, COO of Holo-Light, a developer of AR/VR technologies
- Santiago Droll, CEO of Eleven Dynamics, a provider of automated quality assurance solutions
- Henry Uyeme, CEO of Intrida, a developer of engineering data integration solutions
- Hilmar Gunnarsson, CEO of Arkio, a provider of collaborative design tools for architecture
A lightly edited and condensed version of the conversation follows.
Q: Culture is critical for companies during the early startup phase. It helps define who you are as a company and what kind of workplace you want to have. I’m interested to hear what people have done during the pandemic to help establish or maintain their company culture?
Santiago Droll: Pre-COVID-19, I tended to have in-person meetings with my teams every two or three months. Obviously, COVID-19 made meeting in person much harder. But what we started doing is having weekly virtual meetings with the whole company, where everybody comes together and gets updates about what the others are doing. Aside from business matters, it’s a chance to get together and talk, and also joke around a bit. Everybody has their camera on so that we can see each other’s faces.
Susanne Haspinger: During the first lockdown, when everybody was in their home offices, we had our weekly health check updates where we just would ask everybody in the group, “Hey, are you okay? Is your family fine? Any problems?” Just to lighten the mood, the fun question early on was, “How is your toilet paper status?” And people would say “I’m fine — I have five rolls of toilet paper, all’s good.” Overall, we just encouraged people to stay in contact with each other, whether that’s meeting up online for computer games or even sharing their lunch recipe, just to maintain some of that group feeling.
Hilmar Gunnarsson: At Arkio, we have been a remote-first company from the very start, so going into COVID wasn’t a big change for us in that regard. But obviously, when you’re a remote-first company, communication is very important. There are regular standups sharing all the details of what’s going on in the business, from engineering to marketing. From a culture perspective, I think it’s important to show the team that we’re hitting milestones and continuing to deliver. That helps people feel good about the work they’re doing while they’re remote — they can see that it contributes to the bigger picture.
Henry Uyeme: Prior to COVID, we were a remote-first company as well, and I was a digital nomad, actually. My team is spread out around the world. In the “before times”, we would try to get people together every now and then at potential customer sites, or at exhibitions and conferences (back when those were still occurring). But we haven’t really suffered much from having to work remotely, from a culture perspective. We just enhanced the tools we use to communicate and collaborate with one another.
Q: How about on the hiring front? A lot of companies paused hiring for a little bit while they gauged what the impact of COVID-19 was going to be. Once they felt a little more comfortable, they opened hiring back up — and in many cases, they were much more open to the idea of people in remote locations than they were before. What has your experience around hiring been over the last year or so?
Susanne Haspinger: We closed our series A round two months before COVID. We were directly in the middle of our hiring phase when everything started to go into lockdown. So, at that time, we paused completely to take a step back and assess the situation. We didn’t get back into that intense hiring phase until recently, but we’ve been able to find very good people. I think maybe that’s a function of COVID shaking up “business as usual,” and people who maybe normally wouldn’t look for a job at a startup suddenly being open to new possibilities and wanting a new environment to work in and to develop their careers.
Santiago Droll: We basically stopped hiring once COVID happened, because we’re mostly self-funded. We actually added one person, but for the most part, we really haven’t had to deal with much hiring.
Henry Uyeme: Hiring for us has been quite tricky because we’re looking for people who really understand the space, and who are passionate about what we’re trying to do. For us, it doesn’t matter what part of the world you are in: If you think you have the knowledge, the interest, and the passion, we’re happy to talk to you and potentially bring you on board if there’s a fit. So, COVID hasn’t really impacted our hiring in terms of implementing a hiring freeze or anything like that. We’ve lost a few people from our team because of COVID related factors, but during the same timeframe, we’ve also added a few people.
Hilmar Gunnarsson: Our experience has been similar to Henry’s in that we don’t really look at location when we look for people, and we never have done. We’re looking for some very specialized talent that understands the ins and outs of the AEC space and how to work with some very advanced tools. Because our company was founded in Iceland, it’s second nature to look far and wide for talent, because we’re a small island. We don’t have a big talent pool here. My philosophy is that it’s better to find the right talent, even if it’s not physically located in the same place, than to find somebody that’s not as good, that is physically located in the same place.
Q: What about getting in front of customers, or signing new deals? What aspects of that have been challenging during COVID-19?
Santiago Droll: I’ve found that the automotive industry is very, very careful with investments right now. If you want to launch a new project, you have to convince them over a long period of time. It takes a lot of meetings — you have to actually go to their factory, demo the software, showcase it working together with their hardware. COVID doesn’t make that process easier, because in order to do all of this benchmarking in front of them, you actually have to physically be there. On the plus side, however, these big companies are actually a lot more open to having online demonstrations now, perhaps because the traditional way has been so difficult to pull off the past year.
Susanne Haspinger: From the sales side, we’ve found that a lot of the important decisionmakers are harder to reach, so our sales cycles are much longer currently than we’re used to. In many cases, customers have said “yes,” but the paperwork is lying on a desk somewhere, and it’s just sitting there awaiting someone else’s review or signature.
Henry Uyeme: I think we went through a pretty similar thing. Our customers are in oil and gas and chemicals, and when COVID first hit, the energy industry was hit really hard. Everyone went into this shock, where they pretty much froze all projects and froze all contracts. We’d handed out 11 different contracts and had a number of pilot projects ready to go, and suddenly, COVID threw a wrench in all that.
Hilmar Gunnarsson: Everything ground to a halt during the first part of COVID. The people we were working with that were testing Arkio went to their home offices and spent the first four, five, or even six months just trying to make sure their businesses could operate. But after things stabilized, there was a focus on, “OK, how do we work together more effectively now?” There’s a renewed interest and emphasis on collaboration tools. Everybody’s figuring out how to be more productive when people are working remotely and clients are remote.
Q: Let’s say that 10 years from now, there are rumors of another COVID-like pandemic that may be coming. If there were some startups that said, “You’ve been through this before — what advice would you give us?”, what would you say? Or, if you could go back in time and advise yourself about dealing with COVID-19, what would you say?
Henry Uyeme: When the first COVID shock came, everyone locked down. But China right now is pretty much business as usual compared to a lot of other parts of the world. I had some customer research meetings in China just prior to COVID that have since led to further conversations, some of which we’ve converted to actual contracts. So the advice I’m going to give to myself is to maintain and harness the relationships you create, because you just never know where they might lead. Don’t be afraid to explore all avenues!
Hilmar Gunnarsson: My advice is to be mindful about creating a resilient organization — from a funding point of view, from a client or prospective client point of view, and just from a company point of view. Not being locked into people having to work physically together is one part of being resilient and offers more flexibility when something like COVID appears on the scene.
On the one hand, “Only the paranoid survive” is a valuable saying for any startup to keep in mind. You need to know that bad stuff can happen. The flip side of that is to have faith in how resilient people in general are. We will get through this COVID situation. Vaccines will be developed, markets will continue to operate, businesses will continue to function. So, “Don’t panic,” would be the other piece of advice.
Santiago Droll: I probably would say to myself that you should see this as a potential positive instead of a negative. There’s a lot of opportunity in the whole crisis, particularly if you’re able to adjust to the circumstances better or more quickly than your competitors. It all depends what perspective you want to take.
Susanne Haspinger: I think I would give myself two different pieces of advice. One is to not be afraid to think different. When COVID started, we had one product. We figured out how to separate a piece of technology out of that product and use it to target a whole new market, which is now giving us even more opportunity than we had before, which is great.
The flip side of that is that there have been times where things are very overwhelming, which is just part of being a startup. So, my second piece of advice is when things get crazy, have faith — something good will come out of it all in the end.