During normal times, a startup should always be adaptable and ready to go into crisis mode. As an entrepreneur, you need to be able to change everything you do and see opportunities to be seized.
And as far as crises go, Covid-19 is one of the biggest challenges lots of people will go through in their lives.
It’s so different from 2008. There’s the anxiety of being sick, of worrying about our friends and loved ones, of seeing what’s happening to people all over the world. And then there’s the fact that it affects our ability to move, to connect, to have daily interactions. No matter what anybody might say, being together online is completely different from being in the same room.
Changing our habits so radically can give us insights on what our lives are really like. Take productivity — before the quarantine, I felt like I was working a lot; now I see that I’m working like crazy, and I need to find new ways to do things!
Just as one example, one of the best tips I’ve seen about productivity lately is to cut off all notifications. I did it, and now am checking Slack only twice per day. It changes everything, because now I can really dive deep into different projects.
Still, that’s a pretty specific example. There are some general lessons for entrepreneurs that I see as important both during and after the crisis:
1/ Be pessimistic about the short term and optimistic about the long term
This crisis can cost you a lot if you’re optimistic right now. If you think the quarantine will end in May, and do everything over the next weeks to be ready for that, you’re going to lose. Nobody has a clue when this will end. So if you’re thinking, “This is going to last for 6 months,” it’ll just be good news if it stops earlier.
This is linked to a bigger truth: Adapting to good news is much easier than adapting to bad news. Don’t try to predict, your ability to react is better than your ability to forecast the future.
Because after all, reality is always more surprising than you’d imagine. We’re limited by our imagination — if we imagine a monster, it’s just a combination of things we already know. Even if you try to imagine DEFCON scenarios, they’ll never be “real” enough for what actually happens. Take the Fukushima example: They had plans for catastrophes: earthquake, terrorist attack, tsunami. But they didn’t have a plan for an earthquake followed by a tsunami. That’s why it’s best to try and prepare yourself to be as responsive as possible.
2/ Don’t risk not being able to play again
I love taking risks, but I never take the risk of not being able to play again, of being completely kicked out of the game. As a founder, that means you need to cut costs. Any crisis creates ways to experiment and new problems to solve, you can try new things. But that requires finding a way to stay in the game.
So reduce your cash burn to a level that’s actually sustainable, and remember that preserving your ability to be an entrepreneur is critical for your future. Accept the idea that many companies and entrepreneurs won’t make it out of this crisis.
Now, a few tips for remote work that can help people adapt to this brave new world — because there are things that can let remote magic happen.
1/ Writing is the new talking, so craft thoughtful messages
When you have people in a room, your charisma has an impact on them. You can provide energy and get people excited. But when we can’t be in a room with others, everything changes. The strangest part about remote within a team is not getting that subtle in-person feedback that helps you make decisions.
That’s why it’s so important to make your energy come through your writing. In the end, remote work is about becoming as good at writing as you are at speaking.
I saw it the hard way. The first week of confinement, I had 131 calls. It was exhausting. So I went on Slack to send a message to our startups and our team. I tried to write the message as clearly as I’d write an article, and included some brief questions. It let me cancel 90% of my upcoming calls, and provided value to everybody who read it.
(I’m not saying get rid of calls altogether — they’re a good short-term measure, but you can’t sustain it over the long run. Writing with enthusiasm works much better. I took inspiration from one of our entrepreneurs, Lucas of StarofService, who for years has been regularly writing super energetic emails to his team of 100+ remote workers.)
How can you write better?
- Never send a message right away. Leave it, and then re-read it an hour later to see if you’ve been clear.
- Talking to yourself out loud can help get your thoughts straight.
- Short sentences are best — it’s not about style, but clarity.
- Don’t write for more than 10–15 minutes, otherwise you can get lost in your thoughts.
And always remember that writing is open to interpretation (this is why clarity is key). For the same book or article, you can get as many different interpretations as you have readers. In business, you need to master that so everyone stays on the same page ;)
2/ Manage the overall mood & energy
Within a team, realize that there are big inequalities between people who have children and those who don’t. People with kids at home now are operating with way less bandwidth, you need to take that into account. But it’s ok — we’re not in a sprint, it’s a marathon. Make sure you’re asking for things that won’t hurt them over the long term. Be proactive and set up a system that works for them too.
On the other hand, many of your team might now be alone, and they could have a tendency to work too much. As a manager, you should resist the temptation to make them work all the time. With a team in burnout, 4 months of confinement will feel endless. So care for them — for real. I used to always think, well, if someone’s unhappy, they can go find a different opportunity elsewhere. But that’s not possible anymore — so you’ve got a responsibility to make them feel like they’re in a situation that feels as good as possible.
This can come back to some really simple things: ask people how they’re doing. Ask about the last fun thing they’ve done, ask for a movie recommendation. Before this, we would think about people working remotely as having a social life after work; but now you need to account for the fact that your teammates are isolated and could easily feel depressed.
3/ Work on long-term stuff
Being remote can be an opportunity to work on things that previously seemed unimportant. We all need to be optimistic for the future, so working on things that will make the eventual rebound easier is good. Maybe that’s redoing your admin, cleaning up your expenses, working on a new backend, figuring out how to scale your various activities…