Covid-19 has presented challenges for us all. From getting the kids through home school sessions to navigating new and difficult working conditions.
For some out there, operating in small businesses with tight-knit teams, this crisis poses a even more problems.
Start-ups are notorious for their cultures, for their pioneering new products and for their absolute defiance in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
In some cases, funding has completely dried up as investors and venture capitalists, confronted with an uncertain landscape, proceed with caution.
We spoke to start-ups and scale-ups across the Nordics to see how they’re tackling the challenges COVID-19 is presenting.
This article is part of a series. If you missed part one, you can find it here.
Camilla Forsberg COO @ Bright Energy AB
Camilla Forsberg is the COO of Bright Energy AB, An app that help users make better, smarter, and more economical use of their electricity.
With more electrical cars on the road, more solar panels on roofs, and smart homes in our neighborhoods, smart use of electricity has never been more important. And now, with more people spending time at home, electricity use is something on everyone’s mind.
A team of 13, Bright Energy AB is a company that was very used to the concept of remote working and has, in response to the COVID-19 crisis, made a number of changes.
“We have different types of team members, the ones who are really missing the office and the ones who want to be safe at home. We need to cater for both.”
With over 100 square meters of office space, social distancing measures are an option for those at Bright Energy AB who want to continue to go into the office. For those who want to operate from home, they’ll benefit from the more streamlined communication that Bright has worked hard on integrating.
“Almost all of our teams are working with Slack. This means the teams are hearing from their teammates almost every single day and we are bringing ourselves in line with what the teams are struggling with on a daily basis. We have to have smaller and faster calls to make sure that everything is ticking along.”
One of the biggest challenges for Camilla and the team at Bright Energy AB was making sure that they manage priorities as people shift to fully remote working.
“The most difficult thing for us is that we have so much going on that the priorities keep shifting. This is the area we are trying to make the most improvement through Slack and project management timelines.”
With most of their projects going through GitHub the team can easily see where everyone is up to at any given time. Creating this clear pipeline and roadmap is key for Bright Energy AB maintaining engagement with staff who may not be used to full isolation from what was a very tight-knit team that is still growing, despite the on-going pandemic.
“We have one new hire who has been brought in during COVID. We have just met him once at the office so we have to speak to make sure he’s okay and he’s got everything he needs.”
With an interview and onboarding cycle happening during Lockdown, Bright AB Energy are certainly not slowing down as COVID continues to separate teams. In fact, Camilla believes that this may well open the flood gates to more widespread acceptance of remote working.
“People are seeing that it works. People can do both. They can work from home and maintain their personal situation.”
Dan True, Freelance Software Engineer, Architect and Tech Lead at Labflw
For many start-ups that are currently looking for funding, the market couldn’t be in a more difficult position. Dan True is involved in two start-up projects, both in the looking for funding phase.
“The biggest change we’ve seen have been in the financial aspects. Both projects are looking for funding and that has completely dried up. The big funds are being very cautious, they want to see where things are going. A lot of the venture capitalists and angel investors, some of their wealth, the wealth they’d liquid to invest, is tied up in stock markets which are now decreasing in value.”
Outside of the start-ups Dan also works in a consultancy and advisory capacity through his own consultancy firm with two other freelancers. His first customer is a major software infrastructure company in Denmark, where he consultants on development and DevOps.
“My second customer, which is mostly maintained by my two freelancers, is a small company who is launching a product which I’m helping to build. There are 6 people on that project.”
Dan’s position in such a small company means that he only ever hires people who he can trust to be self-starting. This was his policy before COVID and has set his company up well during COVID.
“I only hire people who are highly motivated and are able to take an assignment and run with it themselves. If I need to micromanage them then they’re not worth the investment. I want to get to the point where I can grow more junior consultants on a one-to-one basis but right now, I don't have the time.”
Larger companies, with the resources to support their permanent staff through uncertain times, will be better placed when it comes to closer, one-to-one management. For Dan, it’s a trade-off.
“If I’m spending one hour managing and guiding someone, it might unlock 20/30 hours of productivity for that team member. If I’m spending all my time micromanaging then we both lose productivity.”
Dan, who hired the two freelancers a few weeks before lock-down, was able to get them both to meet the customers they’d be working with before full lockdown. A debate that has been going on for a long time before COVID and will continue to rage long after it will be the freelancer vs permanent staff debate.
“In Denmark, when you hire a permanent member of a team you have the base salary but then you also have all the extra benefits you have to add on top of that. In Denmark that is high.
Hiring freelancers gives you a lot more flexibility.”
Alexander Ulander, CTO and Co-Founder @ Skillbreak
Alexander Ulander is the Co-Founder and CTO at Skillbreak, an e-commerce platform for creative activities like cooking and painting.
“I’m the head of the technical aspects of everything, I take care of the break-end and front-end programming, as well as the database structure. This expands into bigger technical questions like g-suite, security and developer management.”
Right now, Skillbreak would be classed as a small company, with 10 employees, including 2 developers mainly using Ruby on Rails and React.
“With Skillbreak being such a small company, we prefer our developers to be permanent staff. We start off with internships at quite a junior level, they integrate into the team and then into full employment.”
Maintaining a culture is often one of the most challenges aspects of running a start-up. As you have to rapidly scale, it can be hard to find talent that can fit straight in and understand the culture. It comes as no surprise that Alexander is always looking to invest in his teams with new talent - especially when Skillbreak have been forced to pivot their business proposition in the face of COVID-19.
“We are an ecommerce platform for creative activities. The whole idea is that you go into the experts studio, you meet them. So that goes against everything, every piece of government guideline around COVID-19.
We’ve had to redo our business model in a similar fashion to what AirBnB experiences have done by going into fully online versions of everything. We’ve canceled our product roadmap basically, and worked on fully online workshops.”
A complete shift in priorities should be something that those working in start-ups are used to, but without the workplace to bring everyone together, this shift can be challenging.
“I remember when it first happened and everyone else was leaving the office while we were still sat there. We were wondering if it was still safe for us to stay. For us working from the office we can make sure we get the bike rides in, we go out for food together and we just look after each other. When i was working from home for the first 2 weeks, it was getting to me. It’s hard to maintain that wall between work and rest.”
To combat this, Alexander and the team started doing daily stand-ups everyday at 10am, which wasn’t something they did before. This was to make sure everyone was up to date with all the rapidly changing business brief. Now, however, the majority of Skillbreak are back in the office after a 3 month period of isolation.
Looking to the future, Alexander has mixed feelings about the future of remote working.
“I read a lot of positives like work/life balance but I also read about how it lowers your opportunities for bond building and your chances of securing a raise. When you’re a small company, like we are, the bonds are so key.
We will always prefer people coming into the office. Take a day from home, sure. But our standard will continue to be office-based working.”