Surviving as an entrepreneur in times of COVID-19

Words: Deepa Mirchandani

For the second piece in her series exploring how the Conduit community is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, Deepa Mirchandani speaks to four entrepreneurs about their lessons for running a business in a time of crisis.

It takes a special kind of person to be an entrepreneur. When you combine that entrepreneurial spirit with an unrelenting appetite to do something positive, you end up with something quite magical. 

I spoke to four Conduit members who are operating in very different markets. All have been affected by the uncertainty and unrest caused by COVID-19. All have had to pivot or adapt their ways of working and, despite the uncertainty of our times, they all radiate a deep belief in the work that they are doing and know that it’s needed, now more than ever. 

Alex Barnes, Co-founder, Lanterne

Alex Barnes leads the location information company, Lanterne which, prior to COVID-19, focused on using technology to help people navigate safely in conflict zones and particularly volatile areas. Recognising that the business had the skills to provide a critical service when the pandemic struck, he and the team quickly mobilised. The Crowdless MVP was up in three days. The initial focus has been on helping the particularly vulnerable – for example, the immune-compromised who have needed to socially distance themselves – navigate how busy supermarkets are at any given time. The ability to provide people with the confidence and peace of mind to go out and plan effectively has been invaluable in these fraught times. As we adjust to the world post-pandemic, the role of Crowdless will no doubt extend into other areas, providing us all with crucial data to navigate both our own health and safety but also that of the broader community. To be able to pivot so effectively has not come easily, notes Alex: “It takes a long time to move really quickly.” Having built a network over time has been crucial for the team to access funds to get Crowdless up and running; growth funding is now on the horizon. 

Foong Ng, CEO, Matchable

Foong Ng is CEO of Matchable, a platform that enables employees to share their talents through skills-based volunteering with organisations that need them. As companies navigated the fall-out of COVID-19 the organisation needed to assess what this would mean for them. After trialling an initial pivot to a business-to-consumer (B2C) offering on a membership subscription model, Matchable returned to a business-to-business (B2B) offer for companies to navigate how to engage their employees in volunteering opportunities. The membership model and pricing has been further adapted to provide a win-win for the business, as well as its clients. Despite the uncertainties, the B2C to B2B pivot has paid off and allowed Matchable to refine its target market – innovative, future-focussed and creative companies that recognise the value of engaging, inspiring and upskilling teams through skills based volunteering. Matchable is now on course to onboard 10 companies (or 6,000 users) by the end of 2020.

Ndubuisi Uchea, Co-founder, Word on the Curb

Ndubuisi Uchea co-founded Word on the Curb, an incredible agency that works with organisations to understand the opinions of underrepresented young people – not just against racial binary lines but communities who have traditionally been overlooked and misunderstood. It provides a way for often unheard voices to shine. Much of the agency’s work had been done in face-to-face forums and so adapting to the new online world, from polling on social media to facilitating digital conversations and content creation, has been crucial. The amplification of the Black Lives Matter campaign during the last few months has been hard hitting for the young people with whom Ndu works. As an organisation whose credibility has been built on seeking out the nuances of opinions within its demographic, it was vital to provide a way to engage that wasn’t simply adding to the noise. Having its roots in spoken word, the team mobilised to put out a song that enabled that voice. You can take a listen to Black Man’s Burden here, and I’d recommend that you do; it’s a gut punch we all need to feel. Proceeds from the song go to the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust and Black Minds Matter. 

Atherton Mutombwera, CEO, Hutano Diagnostics

Atherton Mutombwera leads Hutano Diagnostics and was, pre-COVID-19, focused on Ebola diagnostics for low income communities. Having a deep scientific and medical background, the team recognised that its knowledge in individual, at home, and cost-effective testing design is going to be critical in creating a post-pandemic world. It swiftly expanded its work to include designing diagnostics for COVID-19. There is a lot of talk in the media on vaccinations and testing: who’s doing it, viabilities, costs and distribution. According to Atherton, breakthrough is reliant on shortening the process from receiving the test, administering it and receiving the results. Given the inequity in how this is being managed across the world, affordable individual testing could be the key to redressing this balance. 

Lessons for running a business in times of crisis

What are the learnings from such a disparate group of talented entrepreneurs? The commonalities are perhaps equally true for non-crisis times, but the need to consider these things and have systems in place has definitely been amplified over the last few months. 

The Approach:

  1. Test, learn and fail fast. 
  2. Don’t assume you have the answer; listen closely to what people want and be prepared to adapt.
  3. Trying to determine scale of impact whilst co-designing and pivoting – particularly in COVID-19 response measures, which are constantly changing – is difficult. Make smart projections but know that they’re likely to change fast and unexpectedly, so don’t hold on too tight.
  4. Use your networks for funding, PR and spreading your message – it’s the most cost-effective way to extend your reach.

The Team:

  1. Your team is always crucial, but the limits get pushed in a crisis. Trust they know what they’re doing by cultivating that collective goal.
  2. Keep your mission front and centre in everything that you do. When times are hard it’s easy to follow the money – always hold your “why”. 
  3. Know and trust your business model, your market and your pricing structure. This can get questioned during a crisis but work together to decide what needs adapting, and why.

Keeping Grounded:

  1. Take time out to take stock and really strategise about the direction the business is taking. Are you being true to your vision?
  2. Have the right counsel from trustees, board members and your community. The need for sounding boards cannot be underestimated during “normal” times; they are even more important when it feels like the world is ending.
  3. Perfection may be the goal but it’s seldom achieved; don’t let striving for it hold you back. 

Jon Stewart once said, “If you don’t stick to your values when they’re being tested, they’re not values: they’re hobbies”. These entrepreneurs embody the conviction and grit within the wider Conduit community. Their experiences over the last few months encourages me to hold on to my values, to know that they’ll be tested during these crazy times, and that pivots and learning will be the way for the unforeseeable future.

Knowing that there are people out there who are just as steadfast in their convictions of the role that we can and should play in the world we want to see, is ultimately what community is all about. 

Click here to read Deepa’s first piece, on impact investing in a new world.

Deepa Mirchandani is the Founder of Deep & Meaningful, a strategy and systems development consultancy focused on helping companies, investors, entrepreneurs and changemakers do what they do, better. Deliberately working across sectors and issues, Deep & Meaningful works at this intersection to holistically look at the whole; the systems that perpetuate but also those that can solve complex challenges.