What makes a startup resilient in crisis (Like COVID-19)

Eric Kish
Eric Kish
Apr 14, 2020 · 12 min read

This is the story of a startup that found itself prepared to navigate the COVID-19 crisis without even knowing it.

Nanoramic Labs is a mid-stage startup based in Boston, MA. Among other things, it claims a breakthrough in energy storage technology that could reduce by 20% the cost of a KWh in a Li-ion battery. Nanoramic’s main operations consist of lab work to experiment with nanomaterials and small scale manufacturing to prove that its technologies are scalable.

A wake up call

Conventional wisdom usually describes startups as nimble and ready to pivot to reach product market fit as soon as possible. One would have expected FastCAP to pivot quickly, appealing to different market segments as their core technology was not specific to oil drilling. But this did not happen. In the following two years, their CEO made no effort to pivot and the company ran out of cash.

The Key to Resilience

You cannot predict the future, let alone control it. The only thing under your control is building adaptive capacity in your organization.

First Things First: An Infrastructure to Enable Adaptive Capacity

Cloud

Before anything, I wanted to make information available to anybody in the company. One should find any information they need in less than 60 seconds from anywhere. This was my way of making sure we have good data and transparency.

Quality of Sound

In my 10 years of leading remote organizations I learned that quality of sound is the most important productivity factor in remote communication.

Improvised audio setup for video conferencing. See mixer rack on the right and gooseneck mikes on the table
Standard setup for a desk

Real Time Collaboration Tools

The next thing required for distributed work are real time collaboration tools. We decided on Slack for fast tactical communication, JIRA for activity planning and tracking, Confluence for content creation and sharing, and Box and Dropbox for document storage. We eventually ended up with more than 50 apps in the cloud to support this remote collaboration way of working.

  • Slack
  • JIRA
  • Confluence
  • Dropbox
  • Box.com
  • odoo
  • Bill.com
  • Expensify
  • ScreenCloud
  • Wix
  • Pingboard
  • Zoom
  • Geekbot
  • Lucidchart
  • Frame.io
  • Breezy.hr
  • ApprovalMax
  • Zenefits
  • OfficeVibe
  • SignNow
  • Office365
  • Voltaiq

Disciplined Rituals

It is difficult to make a bunch of people with different schedules, time zones, and interests effectively collaborate in a virtual environment. It all starts with time awareness ( See here a blog article describing my definition of time awareness).

  • We always describe in the invite why are we meeting and what is the ONE thing we want from that meeting
  • You are required to RSVP at least 48 hours before the meeting
  • Every meeting has meeting minutes recorded in Confluence. If it is an external meeting with a customer we post the link of the minute in the CRM chatter for that particular opportunity.

Clear Intent

At FastCAP nobody knew the company strategy and they were never asked for input. Unrealistic promises were made to customers which translated to toxic work culture and unrealistic expectations for employees.

Optimized Talent

We want our people to understand each other from a personality needs lens. When compared to face-to-face communication, remove interaction gives far less clues when trying to understand another’s behavioral needs. We teach people to use behavioral science to understand the needs of their colleagues in absence of face to face interaction. (See here an article on how to create a behaviorally balanced organization)

Trust and a Web of Symbiotic Relationships

If you want to prepare for a crisis, you need to create a web of trusted relationships with your investors, lenders and customers. For FastCAP the journey to regain trust of our shareholders and the investment community was slow and bumpy. We started from a significant disadvantage. The key to success was constant communication and demonstration of trustworthiness every single day. We never hide bad news and we explain good news with cautious optimism. We want to under promise and overachieve.

Nanoramic through the COVID-19 crisis

Immediately when we realized the pandemic will hit the United States, we scheduled two daily 15 minutes stand-ups for the executive team, one at 10am and one at 3:45pm followed by a company wide zoom stand-up. During this stand-up we go through all the good and bad news of the day and we allow employees to ask any question they want anonymously or not.

How do you know you are doing what needs to be done?

More resources on intent driven management

From 5 to 50 to 500 book

Intent Driven Management

Intent is what drives highly adaptive organizations

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