COVID-19: The Story From Start-ups and SMEs
How Start-Ups and SMEs are Responding to Covid-19
Covid-19 has presented challenges for us all. From getting the kids through home school sessions to navigating the furlough system.
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. We connected with a few leaders from start-ups and SMEs across Europe to see how they’re responding to the Covid-19 crisis.
Catherine Pratt, COO @ Small Robot Company
Small Robot Company is an agri-tech start-up commercialising a deceptively simple idea: small robots not big tractors.
Catherine, operating as COO of Small Robot Company, has achieved qualifications as a CSPO, CSM, CSP and a SAFe Agilist; is certified in Prince 2, UML, proficient in BPMN, and is practised in all aspects of Business Analysis. Catherine has proven experience in both public and private sectors, and successful delivery of IS projects using different methodologies including Waterfall, RUP, IBM Method and Agile frameworks including SCRUM and Kanban.
Small Robot Company are a small start-up, largely funded by VCs who, in the current climate, are naturally starting to take stock.
“We are a small start-up and funding rounds are going to be smaller/delayed. We’ve had to completely re-plan our business model to take into consideration that VCs might take longer to commit. That has had an impact on a lot of our plans. We’ve become even more focused. We’re making different decisions and take a completely different approach.”
But, for as many problems the changes to the way Small Robot Company has brought up, there have been plenty of opportunities too.
“We were looking at expanding our site. Now it’s not as much of a priority because we’ve proved we can work from home effectively as a company. We will potentially save a lot of money in commercial real estate if we crack this.”
Where Catherine and Small Robot Company really have a lot of thinking to do is around how their staff can continue to deliver amazing work from their home in a way that is both productive and safe.
“Some members of the team have garage workshops. If they were working on-site they’d be benefitting from all the PPE we have and a buddy system so they’re never working alone. Obviously, they don’t have that when they’re at home. We’re having to think differently from a health and safety perspective to ensure our guys can be productive and safe while working from home.”
Having a diverse cast of colleagues, ranging from HR to marketing to manufacturing, all under the relatively small roof of a start-up, Catherine has a uniquely difficult conundrum.
With their stream of revenue being dependant on engineers and manufacturers developing new products and changing existing ones, Catherine has had to get smart with how she protects them, both mentally and physically, while in isolation.
“We’ve put into place a scheme where we are always checking up on each other, a buddy system. The challenge here for us is that we’ve got a very diverse group of people. Marketing people are naturally very outgoing along with engineers who are quite introverted. We’ve had to think long and hard about processes that are right for everyone.”
Olof Söderbaum, Product Manager @ Kry
KRY are a Swedish based Digital HealthSec company with technology that allows you to consult a qualified health professional within minutes, via your smartphone. Through digital technology, KRY provides equitable access to high-quality health care – at the patient’s own convenience.
Olof Söderbaum, having joined KRY 1 year ago with a background in product management and marketing in both B2B and B2C sectors, is now responsible for 2 growth teams in Sweden. His day to day includes product road mapping and strategising for the future during a massive period of growth for KRY.
“2 out of the 3 of my new starters have started during the Pandemic. We’ve onboarded maybe 40 people during the Pandemic and we’ve had nearly 1000 applications come though over the past few weeks.”
This massive growth comes as no surprise when considering the nature of the product, a system that bridges the gap between healthcare and digitalisation. As a result, Olof’s team is operating at peak capacity to get this vital service out to those who will benefit the most.
“We’re trying 5-10 things every week to see what effect we can have on the top and bottom line.”
Olof’s team, which consists of 4 full-stack engineers, 2 product designers, a product analyst, and an engineering manager, is as busy as you can be at a time like this. As such, a big point of contention for Olof is keeping that team engaged while they work remotely.
“We have a daily standup where we both focus on the sprint. We need to deliver value on a weekly basis. On Monday’s we have sprint planning, what do we need to do everyday. We now also have a sprint wrap up at the end of the day. This was done since everyone moved to working remote. It’s very easy to lose pace when you’re working this way. That’s why I executed this additional meeting.”
When your team is this busy, it becomes a question of how you can help them digest and decompress the weeks which, when working from home, can sometimes all blur into one.
“We have a refinement at the end of the week. We go through the backlogs for the week. I want to get the teams all involved, it’s not me as a product manager telling them what to do, it’s me laying out the challenges and everyone sparring them around.”
Of course, it’s not all plain sailing, and having mountains of work to do, although going a long way towards keeping you occupied, won’t ease the burden of worry that COVID-19 has brought. For Olof and his team, the emotional well-being of everyone comes first.
“There is quite a lot of uncertainty and people don’t know how long this will last. We tend to always make time for check-ins whenever we meet.”
And this ‘people-first’ methodology is starting to have an impact on the productivity of meetings which are now being operated fully remote.
“Big formal meetings, where we are bringing together different groups, i’ve seen a definite upturn in productivity from these meetings. This efficiency is increasing on a weekly basis. People are preparing themselves better.”
Naturally, with KRY being a digital Health-sec company, they have their fingers very much on the pulse of their employee’s well-being. Not everyone will have access to a Head Psychologist, but for KRY, this insight only provides them with a better platform to deliver important work that will help save lives.
“The Head Psychologist has provided 2 mini-mental workouts on how to handle quarantine, as well as running comms for free psychological meetings for all employees. We’ve also sent out breakfast sets to all employees, free movie vouchers, and candy to everyone in Quarantine. They are also doing online classes for parents on how to manage workload with kids at home.”
These positive strides from KRY’s senior leadership has had a very tangible impact on the bottom line of productivity. Something that sits in line with Olof’s own working methodologies.
“My role means I always try to find quantifiable ambition in everything we do. Conversion with X. Engagement with Y. I measure that on a weekly basis, positive things, negative things.”
This single-minded focus on result-based outputs that are quantifiable makes it easy to set achievable goals, something that contributes to the overall productivity and happiness of a team. A ship without a captain with a clear direction will naturally get lost when the COVID-19 waves start crashing around them.
KRY, like most companies, has seen a raft of changes brought in that effect the day to day and business as usual for employees during COVID. Recently, the line of questioning has shifted towards whether these changes will stick. Will we still be commuting to work for over an hour when we’ve all proved we can be just as productive while working remotely?
For Olof, the changes brought in now are surely a precursor to positive working changes.
“I think business traveling is going to go down. We are already quite modest but people are seeing that they aren’t being any less productive. Meeting times will go down. You can do most meetings in 15 minutes. I also think that people will start to understand the people aspect more, how to handle them and motivate them.”
Lars Osterberg, CEO, MANOMOTION
Founded in 2015, MANOMOTION provides frameworks for real-time gestural analysis. For you and me, that means using our hands to communicate in a virtual 3D space. Borne out of Stockholm University with the launch of the first-generation iPhone, it fell to Lars Osterberg, now CEO, to scale the product and start making money.
“The company was 9 people when I came in and we had just recieved a big EU grant from Horizon 2020 program. To run that program and do what we promised to do with the grant we had to finalise the product, start making money and start recruiting.”
And it was all going pretty well for Lars, who managed to recruit 5 people in the software space to quickly scale that side of their product, bringing their total headcount to 18. We did a lot of recruiting on the research side and a little bit of the software development side.
“Product management or testing, QA and BD is struggling. We did go as planned until November, which was time to go to market, we struggled to find financing. Corona has put everything on hold including financing. The VC’s are taking stock and figuring out which investments they want to keep hold of.”
Confident that the large number of Angel Investors interested in MANOMOTION will keep the company afloat, Lars’s main role at the minute is taking care of the people who work for him right now.
“In Corona times, it’s keeping the team together. We are using Zoom. We have small standups in the morning that fits straight into the agile methodology we use. Each Monday morning we have a short information meeting to keep everyone up to date. As long as everyone has their camera on, Zoom works perfectly.”
Naturally, when you’re in a start-up looking to transition into a scale-up, finding the right talent can be the difference between make or break. And in the current climate, with contractors and other talent being made available, it becomes less a question of finding talent good enough and more a question of actually meeting and assessing the talent.
“Times like these make networking especially important. If you’ve spent time on your network you can minimize on time usually spent getting to know someone on getting them working. Our main sales guys decided to leave independent of this. I reconnected with an old contact who was working in sales who I can bring in on a freelance basis. We aren’t on full lockdown so I can meet him while staying 2 meters apart.”
Erik Bennerhult, CEO, Naktergal
Reflecting on the first few days of lockdown, Erik remembers how quickly the members of the senior leadership moved.
“The second day after the announcement, we sent everyone home. We asked them what they needed to make working from home efficient and we made them sure we ordered them anything they needed.
That was over a month ago. That felt like we were being really responsive and on top of things but that’s now just the new normal. What do we need to doing to build on that?”
Erik Bennerhult is CEO of Naktergal, a Swedish company reinventing lending, taking cutting edge consumer lending into the mortgage lending market.
“We started with our first consumer lending product in 2016, 9 months after creating the company with our first company. That was a hectic few months of coding, coding, coding. We’ve been adding on more and more products.”
Currently looking to scale up and take the product to other countries in Europe, Erik’s day to day activities during Covid-19 are changing every day.
“My day to day role varies. We are a small and quickly scaling company, and when you grow everything changes all the time. My job is to make the company attractive to companies, investors and new talent. Help people buy into the idea. That’s more important now than ever.”
The start-up culture is an attractive one. It’s known for being fierce, competitive, but possessing the kind of comradery that has had larger companies scrambling to emulate. For Erik, it’s at times like these, when Covid-19 is forcing teams who are normally so tight-knit apart, that leaders really need to step up.
“I would advise them to spend much more time than usual on your team. If you usually spend 5-10 hours a week on managing your team and keeping in touch, you should be doubling that during this time.”
Maintaining that culture is one of Erik’s most pressing tasks right now as Naktergal navigates the choppy waters of growth during these periods. And usually, wherever growth is concerned in start-ups, talent isn’t far behind. For Erik, forced isolation has only confirmed the importance of his companies’ hiring strategy.
“We always said that it was really important that people came into the office. We wanted to have this team culture because we’re a small company. We immediately said no to applicants who exclusively wanted to work from home.”
Start-Ups Scaling During Covid-19
Are you part of a start-up operating through Covid-19? What challenges are you facing? What steps are you taking to overcome them?
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