Surviving COVID-19: A startup story

We were on track to achieve 580%(+) YoY growth. This was the data from December 2019 (related to our Financial Year, July to June). This was based on some major and very influential programs of work around the world.

A few days after our end of calendar year review, I recall Mat and I chatting at 38,000ft on our way to LAX (from Brisbane). This was January 2. We were prepping for our work with Autodesk. Amongst other things, we speculated about this new virus and its potential implications. At the time, we were none the wiser, even though some well informed folks have been warning us about this stuff for a long time…

Fast forward to March. We’d just run our quarterly off-site (for the Australian team) at the beach. We were all feeling great. We had renewed and refined strategic and tactical focus.

Then it started…

Our family chose to go into self isolation well ahead of our Government mandates. This was based on a very imperfect perspective of what was happening. Looking back, we still feel it was the right move given the circumstances.

This is the email I sent out to family after having a few different conversations. This type of stuff is hard and inherently emotional. Looking back, everyone took this as well as could be expected.

We had signed contracts with very large, global organisations that were reneged. Some of the organisations — to this day — are yet to contact us back… Those unethical business practices perhaps deserve another post.

Our warm leads — the potential projects we assigned a greater than 80% confidence interval to closing (informed by historical data and a good chunk of relevant experience) — went completely cold. No one was responding.

In short, strategic decision-making came to a stop. Our services went from being something an increasing number of organisations globally were explicitly prioritising, to something that may or may not ever happen.

No one knew. There was too much uncertainty. Too much speculation. There was justifiable fear. So much of what we (thought we) knew was changing and transforming before our eyes.

This post isn’t about the pandemic per se. There’s a heck of a lot of useful content on that already. This post is about our experience working through the direct implications of the major global change.

Some have faired better than we have. Others have fared worse.

I’m sharing this story in the hope it is useful to other folks around the world grappling with related uncertainties and trying to carve out pathways for progress. I’m sharing in the hope it continues a supportive discussion around these topics.

Let’s start with some basic before moving onto lessons learned.

What did we do?

Cutting a long story short, we made a heap of changes.

Before touching on those, it’s noteworthy that we were in the process of investing in relative alignment to our growth expectations. This put us in a precarious spot when shit hit the fan. From conversations I’ve had, there’s a bunch of founders who have found themselves in a very similar situation… For some teams I’ve spoken to, the result of this was running out of cash and being forced to shut down.

Back to the stuff we did.

We quickly reduced a bunch of our fixed and variable overheads. The hardest (emotionally) and most impactful of these costs cutting exercises was reducing the size of our team. We had to tell people we like, respect and had know for many years that time was up. This directly contradicted the story we were telling a couple of weeks prior about the future we had together.

We were fortunate that we could give close to 2.5 months of notice, but that barely softens the blow. We still had to do it and this directly impacted the lives of people we care for.

We began preparing to build our platform. This was something we’d been planning since late 2018. But, the move and timing was forced. We had to half ass it for a while. Mostly because our services projects were taking longer to get over the line.

We’d already been paid, and we had to keep going until things got done.

And lastly, we tried to figure out how we could start designing a business that was less susceptible to volatility. We are still working on that 😜

With that light context out of the way, here’s stuff we’ve learned that might be useful for you.

Lessons learned

This is a non exhaustive list.

Lesson 1: When something changes, act fast

This seems super obvious. But for a variety of reasons, it’s easier said than done.

When stuff changes, stagnation is unlikely to be a valid option. So accept your best guess is as good as it gets and start putting it to the test.

In hindsight, we acted really quickly. We did a bunch of very granular stuff internally — and with the support of advisors and services providers (our accountants, risk management consultant etc.) — that enabled us to get out of the hole faster.

Lesson 2: Be kind, compassionate and empathetic

Everything we do in life impacts others. There’s no way around it. It’s why we have a formal ethics framework.

But, there are also some really important human values that are even more important than normal when shit hits the fan.

Looking back, we did a good job of this. It’s part of who we are. Its part of our company culture. So perhaps what we reinforced was just how important this stuff is.

I’m not here to tell you how to be kind. Most of you can figure that out. But I’d be selling our lessons learned short if I didn’t bring this up. Kindness, compassion and empathy go a long way.

Lesson 3: Diversify

I’ve learned a lot about this from investing. But I’m now pretty confident it matters a heck of a lot to founders too.

By diversify I don’t mean build a thousand products that serve a thousand different needs. I mean find a bunch of different ways to connect and deliver real value to people.

This might mean different channels. It might mean different price points. It might mean different ways to get people started. It might mean embedding what you do in something else that people have to do, regardless of the situation.

In simpler terms, try not to be a “nice to have”. Become essential (assumption here being this ‘status is deserved. Again, for another post).

There are still folks out there that will argue our work is a nice to have. I’m okay with that. We have stronger rebuttals and supporting evidence than ever before.

Lesson 4: Trust in the unknown

After all, this is what trust is. Confidence in the unknown. If you can verify, you don’t need trust.

This is an ongoing life lesson for me. It’s hard for people like Mat and I at times. We’re epistemic and always thinking existential. But there comes a point where you have to back yourself. You have to back your decisions. You have to push a given direction, even if it’s not yet absolutely clear that it’s working.

Perhaps this is why they refer to venture building as part art, part science.

Lesson 5: Accept that it might not work

This is an interesting one. I should specify. I don’t mean get so comfortable with failure that giving up seems logical. Quite the opposite. Keep pushing and pushing. But just know, failing (in this context) is okay. It happens for so many reasons. Many of these reasons our not just outside of our control, but outside our influence.

It’s very likely you’re the type of person that will land on their feet and find other great things to work on.

This is something I’m still not sure I’ve accepted. I can be stubborn. I hope — in the long run — I view this as a strength.

Where are we now?

What was the outcome of all this?

We finished last year at 300% YoY. Without any context, this seems great. Because of all the context, it was far from it.

Our team is still super small. Our services business now has a tight focus on high leverage and highly valued offerings. We’re uniquely positioned to deliver these services. We know how to make them work well consistently across different contexts.

We’re self funding Greater Than Learning. This is a big, long term thing. So far progress is good.

We’re doing our best to stay positive, check in with ourselves regularly, go easy on ourselves, have fun and take tiny steps of progress daily.

We remain optimistic that what we’re doing matters for a variety of reasons. We are more confident than ever that our work is contribute to something good.

I realise a lot of the above is high level. I’ve tried to keep it simple. I don’t want to bore you with my life story.

What I would ❤️ is some candid discussion about these sorts of situations. What’s your experience? What have you learned? How have you acted? How might you act differently next time? How are you doing in general?

Kindness, compassion, empathy… These qualities and the actions that come with them go a long way.

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