Dealing with the pandemic as an early stage startup
Living in San Francisco right now, it’s amazing how quickly the situation shifted from relative calm to high alert. In the course of a little more than a week, we’ve gone from business as usual to a total shutdown. Anxiety and uncertainty are both high. It’s hard to know what to do in general, and if you’re an early stage startup that uncertainty is magnified several times over. Google can afford a few months where not a whole lot gets done, but for a startup that would likely be lethal.
There are no perfect answers right now and the situation is evolving very rapidly, but a few early observations based on what I’m seeing so far:
This will not be a short crisis - plan for the long haul
Many others have written about the financial and macroeconomic implications of the current situation so I won’t get into that (and to be honest, I don’t think anyone really knows). But regardless of what happens at a macro level, even if you’re lucky enough to have a healthy runway, there are still very real operational implications for what’s happening right now.
Based on what I’ve read so far, the current social isolation and quarantine are not short-term measures. They are also likely to get more extreme. Social distancing could easily last months and potentially into next year. As a team you need to be ready for that.
Figure out how you’ll operate remotely ASAP
The most important thing is figuring out how you’ll function if you have to go fully remote. Even if you’re not in an impacted area yet, you should already be taking steps to get prepared (and at a very minimum giving your employees the option to WFH if they want). As we’ve now seen in the Bay Area and New York, your hand can get forced quickly if it hasn’t been already.
Going fully remote should be survivable if you're a software startup, but you’ll need to adapt quickly (if you’re lucky, you might even realize you like it more than being colocated). If you’re a hardware / biotech startup or need access to equipment in person, then you need to make whatever contingency plans you can. Is there someone that can stay in the office? Are there people who live nearby who can keep the in-person machinery running if the rest of the team can’t make it in? Are there people with cars who can commute more safely if necessary? A few weeks ago, these might have seemed like crazy questions. They’re not anymore.
Two of your most urgent challenges will be communication and focus
Two of the biggest advantages of a startup are the low communication overhead and resulting ability to quickly identify and focus on what’s most important. Low barriers to communication mean your team has better context on what’s going on. You also have fewer bureaucratic hoops to jump through, so you can quickly understand what needs to get done and get alignment across the team to do it.
This advantage is about to get flipped on its head. Because communication and focus start to break down as companies scale, large companies have built all kinds of processes and mechanisms to counteract that -- things like quarterly planning, business reviews, monthly check-ins, etc. That same machinery will keep them moving forward, even if things slow down with teams out of the office.
As a startup, you haven’t built any of those muscles. When you’re 5 people in a room, you have to spend a lot less time thinking about how you work together because it just happens organically. You need to fix that ASAP. Processes that felt like bureaucratic overhead in February are now going to save you. You’re going to need to quickly develop systems that will:
Foster conversations that would have previously happened organically (e.g. about which direction the product should go)
Surface dependencies, issues, blockers, and disagreements quickly
Build rapport when you have fewer opportunities for informal connection
Keep the team focused and accountable to each other (doubly so because it’s particularly hard to stay focused and motivated these days given the anxiety-inducing nature of this news cycle)
Some basic practices that I’m seeing help at the companies I work with right now:
1) Adopting formal scrum ceremonies, especially for non-technical teams who haven't yet adopted Agile practices:
Daily standups - surface everyone’s daily plan, progress, and any blockers
Sprint planning - to surface what everyone is working on to both drive alignment and accountability
Sprint retros - regular reviews on how things are going in order to quickly surface when people are running into challenges and get ahead of upcoming problems
2) Increasing 1:1 cadences, especially between people that work on adjacent areas (e.g. sales and engineering)
3) Investing in project planning or related tools to more readily surface what everyone is working on and how things are progressing
Solve for the business, but don’t forget about your people
If you’re a founder, this is an incredibly stressful time, and that’s also true for your employees. While you’re figuring out the best path forward for your startup, make sure you’re taking care of your people as well. At least for the next few weeks, some team members will have a harder time getting things done. Create space for people to support each other when they need it (and they definitely need it right now). Most importantly, be open and honest about what’s going on and the specific challenges you’re facing -- your team will probably be aware of them even if you don’t explicitly talk about them, and you’ll lose their trust if you’re not transparent.
There are a lot of variables out of your control. You might have to lay people off. You might even need to close your door. But, if you’re clear with your team about the challenges you’re facing then they’ll waste fewer mental cycles trying to guess what might happen and instead spend that time trying to help you avoid the worst of what’s to come.
Get ahead of downstream impacts
It’s hard to predict all of the second and third order effects the current crisis will have. The social impacts are clear and we’re starting to see some of the macroeconomic ones. But, the current crisis has the potential to impact every aspect of your business -- fundraising, recruiting, sales, marketing, user behavior -- you name it. It’s critical to anticipate those as quickly as possible. Will this cause a slowdown in your sales pipeline (almost definitely yes, unless you’re delivering food or toilet paper). If that happens, what’s your contingency plan? If you can’t hire the people you were hoping to bring on board, how will you adjust your roadmap? Does your marketing plan still make sense or does it need be scrapped? If the team has to shrink, do you know what cuts you need to make - and how to do that without destroying morale for the rest of the team?
These might result in surface level adjustments all the way down to critical questions like is your company even viable in this new environment.
Speed and decisiveness are critical in an environment like this one. The world just got turned on its head and this is where one of your core advantages as a startup -- the ability to move quickly -- can shine. Don’t waste it.
Don’t forget about yourself
In the middle of a crisis, this last one can be the easiest to forget but it’s probably the most important. Half the battle of being a founder is managing your own emotional state. Don’t forget the stress and pressure this is putting on you, too. Take some time for self-care. Reach out to the support networks you have (and if you’re not sure where to turn, I’m happy to listen - krishna @ sympath.co). Find opportunities for gratitude and the small things that still give you joy. This is a moment to remember that you’re human, too. It’s ok if you don’t have all the answers - no one does. It’s ok if you’re worried about what comes next - everyone is. It’s ok if you aren’t able to figure it all out. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, after all.