How Startups Learned to Turn Challenges into Opportunities During the Pandemic
Running an early-stage company is challenging in any time period, and the past 15 months delivered an unusually formidable slate of challenges for startups to navigate, from creating and maintaining a corporate culture, to finding new hires and maintaining business momentum — all during a pandemic and intermittent lockdowns.
Startups had to think on their feet, and they rose to the occasion. In many cases, they realized that various aspects of these strange new times, which at first glance appeared to be liabilities, could actually be turned into assets. Consider the following some of the key lessons startups learned.
There’s More Than One Way to Instill Culture
The early years of a startup are when the corporate culture gets indelibly stamped onto it, helping to provide a North Star about values as the company grows and evolves. But how do you define or sustain a corporate culture when nearly everyone is working remotely rather than together in a single physical office?
This challenge was actually an opportunity to embrace new technologies and media for instilling corporate culture.
For many startups who were “remote first” organizations to begin with, they were already adept at establishing an “esprit de corps” virtually, perhaps by having a dedicated channel on Slack or Teams for posting funny GIFS or memes, or for checking in with one another to make sure everyone was doing okay.
Meanwhile, organizations that had a physical office and then switched to remote work-from-home arrangements once the pandemic picked up steam were easily able to transition in-person rituals such as Friday afternoon games to an online version, where people could log in and play a few rousing rounds with their peers.
Online coffee talks, virtual happy hours and other digital events were another way to keep people connected to the larger company and not feeling isolated. Some startups even went so far as to appoint a CFO — a chief fun officer — who would be given a budget for these sorts of activities. Taken together, these approaches helped ensure that company culture could take root, even without a physical office.
Look at Hiring Through a Different Lens
Sooner or later, every startup needs more employees. Bringing people onboard during a pandemic — when Zoom is the go-to, rather than in-person interviewing — requires some adjustments.
Many startups turned this potential liability into an asset, using the restriction on in-person meetings as an opportunity to broaden the scope of talent they were able to draw upon. After all, why limit yourself to candidates within commuting distance of your office if you can consider candidates from across the country — or even from around the globe?
Several startups also found that Zoom-based hiring had the added benefit of being more objective than in-person interviews, since it forced people to remain very impartial about the person being interviewed rather than being swayed by subjective factors or by an inflated sense of being able to “read” the interviewee.
The ability to draw candidates from all over, incidentally, is a bit of a double-edged sword for startups located in less expensive regions — think here of young companies based in the Midwest or the South, far away from the “superstar” coastal cities.
On the one hand, they are able to draw upon the same talent pool as startups based somewhere like Silicon Valley or New York City. On the other hand, salaries in those areas are routinely double what they are in less expensive parts of the country.
The good news is, outside of people with very specific, niche coding skillsets — which still generally tend to be clustered in the traditional tech hubs — talented people across a range of roles can be found absolutely everywhere, without regard to a specific geography. Overall, that’s a big win for startups that need to staff up, and a valuable lesson learned.
Find the Hidden Opportunity in the Crisis
For startups trying to close deals, sign new customers, or secure their next funding round, the events of the past year were a lesson in the importance of flexibility and adaptability — and a reminder to look for the opportunity in any crisis.
For example, when all vendors are pitching remotely, everyone is on the same level playing field. The “big guys” don’t have the advantage of flying in huge teams for an elaborate dog-and-pony show. This creates opportunity for the truly best solution to win, even if it is created by the smallest or newest startup in the market.
Or, take the fact that many large OEMs and other potential customers went into deep freeze in response to the pandemic and put any potential new business deals on hold. At first glance, that seems like a code red-level emergency for startups.
However, some startups used that downtime to their advantage to focus on product development and to effectively erase the gap with any competitors who were slightly ahead of them before the lockdowns went into effect. This put them on equal footing with the competition once the economy started to thaw and customers started taking sales calls again.
Yet another opportunity stemmed from not making any sudden moves around headcount when the pandemic first hit. Understandably enough, there were fears that the economy was going to go into freefall — and some startups let a lot of their workforce go, to be as lean as possible for what was anticipated to be a painful economic recession, if not a full blown depression.
But a funny thing happened. The economy rebounded pretty quickly, and those companies that let people go found themselves at a disadvantage due to the heightened demand for that talent. Once again, what initially seemed like a liability — having a lot of people on the payroll — soon revealed itself to be an asset.
A Future Playbook
Nobody’s saying that the last 15 months have been easy. But by and large, startups have made it through the challenging landscape, and they have emerged on the other side wiser for it.
By taking heed of the lessons they learned — particularly around eyeballing any challenge to see if there’s an opportunity hiding somewhere within it — startups will have a valuable playbook to turn to in the future that can help ensure their innovative businesses continue their forward march, even in the face of extraordinary circumstances.