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Crisis strategy

How Businesses and VCs Deal with Covid-19—Growth Strategies for Startups, SMBs, and Enterprises

Marta Klimowicz is the Head of Growth at Monterail. Operating at the intersection of sales, technology, data, and marketing, she is responsible for creating and executing growth strategies. 

Dark clouds continue to gather over much of the business world due to Covid-19, but companies are not giving up, drawing up and adopting strategies designed to sustain them through the crisis. 

And although survival is realistic for many, our clients expect growth to remain elusive in these dynamic, fluctuating circumstances: “In my opinion, there’s little chance of fund raising right now unless you are in sectors that benefit from the current shutdown or if you can show evidence of cutting burn rate to survive and thrive. Growth is unlikely for upwards of a year again unless you can reinvent yourself fast or are lucky enough to be in a sector that benefits like conference calls software like Zoom." -  says Duncan Cheatle, founder and CEO of  Learn Amp

As our client roster includes startups, SMBs, and enterprises, we decided it would be a good idea to ask them how they’re dealing with the circumstances brought on by the pandemic and how they retooled their own growth strategies. Then, from our own ongoing analyses and their insights we extracted a set of five strategies that could provide executives and management staff with much needed perspective from other business leaders.

The solutions they offer can easily be transposed or adapted to fit a number of other industries, as much of the business world currently shares the same problems. Naturally, the strategies we feature below are not mutually exclusive–they can be combined and reconfigured for even better results.

Strategy 0: Stay Agile

0_ stay agile@2xBy definition, crises have a highly dynamic trajectory, which requires a constant reframing of mental models and plans. Consequently, becoming or remaining Agile is arguably one of the best approaches a company can adopt in light of the ongoing pandemic and early stages of recession. We called it “Strategy 0” because we believe it should be the first choice for companies looking to find their footing in these uncertain times. 

"It does not matter how many Agile certificates a company has, the COVID-19 situation will be an agility exam that will show how Agile companies are and how fast they can actually adapt to the given situation.” — Wiktor Żołnowski, Co-founder & CEO at Pragmatic Coders

As huge fans and practitioners of Agile methodology, we’re pleased to see it’s espoused by our clients as well. 

Paola Moretto VP Engineering at cPacket, a software solution enabling network-aware application performance, recommends embracing change and doing so fast.

Paola Moretto photo" Paola Moretto VP Engineering 
at cPacket

“Adapt and change. This is going to be a game of fast adaptation. Make fast and decisive adjustments to changing circumstances. Whether it is revising plans or forecasts, or providing better support to customers, or maintaining productivity and execution speed, or preserving cash. It means the companies that can adapt the fastest can come out the other side of the pandemic still standing, while all the competitors have been battered.”

Rapid responses like these, however, are essentially impossible without having pre-arranged action plans for a variety of crisis scenarios. Many companies will definitely have to model and prepare for a demand drawdown that is expected to hit countless business sectors and industries. That was the first step taken by Avisio, a company in the hotel procurement and inventory management field and a VC-backed seed stage startup.

Matthias Depenbusch, Avisio’s co-founder & CEO, decided to set up crisis prevention meetings at which the staff identified risks the company faced, laid out their potential impact in multiple scenarios, and designed countermeasures that each of the scenarios called for.

Matthias Depenbusch photo Matthias Depenbusch  Co-Founder & CEO
at Avisio

“Since our biggest risk involved loss of planned funding, our starting point for the scenarios was always our available funds, the runway we have, and the funds needed until the next round. The measures mostly depend on a given scenario, but all of them are aimed at ensuring funding and liquidity and focus on taking action within these topics:

1. Extend the runway. It helped us a lot to visualize the runway in all the scenarios. We are extending our runway until the next investment is needed by cutting down on costs and applying for available crisis funds. Depending on the scenario, the runway needs to be stretched by anywhere from a month to a more significant time frame. Stretching the runway usually involves cutting costs (e.g. by cutting down on product features or development headcount) and increasing efficiency, but also finding ways to monetize the product earlier (i.e. by decreasing go-to-market time or ramping up sales efforts earlier than initially planned).

2. Ensure Bridge Financing. We are now pooling further contacts from our network of investors that would be willing to invest very soon even if the situation stays like this. Most investors hold on to their money currently. The idea is to always have someone as an „backup“ investor to ensure liquidity for a short time frame, even if the terms aren’t ideal. Depending on the industry, the coming months are not very attractive to close a larger round - for us it can make sense to go for such a small „bridge“ round / financing measure. Only for that case if current investors would not be available out of course.

Commersya

Commersya is a currently developing Zaadya, a mobile and Web-based application that uses the latest artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques to automate, digitize, and manage all your purchasing related information drawn from your invoices.

“This is the time when Agile business strategies prove to be most resilient. Technology businesses are probably already better positioned than most other industries. This situation has provided a driver for less tech-based businesses to accelerate adoption of well established practices and technology for remote meetings and collaboration." — Farid Al-Awlaqi, CEO at Commersya

Farid Al-Awlaqi photo Farid Al-Awlaqi  CEO 
at Commersya

"We reprioritized the anticipated launch of Headminer.com - our workforce exchange platform- based on three pillars:

Alexander Strobbe Co-Founder 
at Headminer

1. Expediting our 'going live moment' by two months, which would not have been possible without the smooth collaboration with Monterail.

2. Focussing our platform development and communication on solving the short- and long-term problems caused by the Covid-19, fully in line with our own mid- to long-term goals.

3. Teaming up with key stakeholders and semi-governments that are dealing with the same problems and seeking a partner for a platform like ours. Doing so, we can focus on bringing our value to the masses while lowering the entry cost for new users (e.g. through activating their network, obtaining grants/funding, etc)." - Alexander Strobbe, Co-Founder at Headminer

Strategy 1: Build a community around a brand

1_ brand community@2x

Building a community around a brand improves its perception, engages existing and prospective customers, and fosters brand loyalty. Naturally, brand communities must go beyond selling a product and provide value and support for members. It is about creating a place for customers to spread their ideas and foster peer-to-peer discussions. This shouldn't be a crisis-only initiative, by the way. 

In these uncertain times, all companies are looking hard for opportunities to show their customers, prospects, and respective sectors that they’re still there and ready to engage. Similar efforts have been the cornerstone of the growth strategy that Guild has been pursuing since the company’s earliest days. Guild, a secure messaging application for professionals launched in the UK, delivers a private networking solution tailored for the mobile age. 

Guild offers two types of community groups:

  1. If you just want to see what Guild is like, you can join the ’Try Guild’ group for free.
  2. If you want to share best practice, recommended resources, interesting content, contacts etc. and benefit from the collective expertise of the group, join the Professional Community Leaders group— it’s invitation-only.

In light of the COVID-19 crisis, however, Guild went a step ahead in their efforts and set up the CREO (Coronavirus Response for Event Organisers) community, a peer support group for anyone who planned to launch or host an event in the next 6 months.

“The group gathered over 100 members within 24hrs of set up. Members include event organisers from around the world as well as professional membership associations for event organisers. Specialist experts on PR, comms, crisis management, legal, insurance, health and safety etc. have also been invited into the community to help.”Guild explains on their website.

The CREO community has also crowd-sourced a document compiling all the advice, resources and insights generated by the group. The "CREO Manual” is publicly available for anyone to read and share.

When state-level efforts are focused primarily on implementing social distancing policies, building a community online seems a must as people are craving community now more than ever. For users, digital communities provide a sense of being a part of something much bigger than themselves. 

Strategy 2: Become solution-oriented2_ solution oriented@2x

One of the most effective and relatively fast strategies involves implementing solutions that yield quick gains that significantly benefit the company but carry little cost in either time or money. Let’s look at some examples. 

Pizza Hut

This global restaurant chain took slightly different steps from country to country, but they were still essentially forced to close most of their establishments around the world. At the same time, they shifted their focus to the delivery-side of their business and asked Monterail to introduce a new business-critical feature to their Web and mobile apps—contact-free delivery to the doorstep. 

They wanted to put necessary precautions in place to ensure the safety of their delivery staff and customers in Poland, and still be prepared for a new type of delivery to begin after the introduction of statewide social distancing measures. Now, everyone making an order with Pizza Hut, whether through their mobile or Web applications, is made aware of the contact-free delivery and can choose it at checkout. Thanks to quick strategic decisions and considerable flexibility on both sides, Pizza Hut managed to ensure the continuity of their deliveries and they’re working to expand the number of restaurants that work as delivery-only sites:

During this time we expect sales to move into online, especially when staying home is obligatory for most of the society. The delivery channel has been a strategic pillar for the AmRest for years now so we have it well-developed and prepared for a large number of orders." — Adam Mularuk, Chief Franchise Brands Officer at AmRest

Pizza Hut's new feature - contact-free delivery

The pop-up on Pizza Hut website informing about contact-free delivery 

But that’s not all. Pizza Hut is testing running three of its restaurants in Poland as “shadow kitchens,” meaning that they only operate back of the house facilities and remain closed to walk-in customers. This means that they’re smaller and can be opened in places that traditional restaurants can’t. Shadow kitchens service online orders only, which means that AmRest is able to deliver the product faster and increase the range of brands that can have their meals prepared inside the same kitchen e.g. KFC, Burger King, and Pizza Hut. 

The AmRest group also opened a handful of takeaway-only Starbucks cafés in a few Polish cities. At the same time, the company strengthened its commitment to the community and began offering free coffee to all medical staff and healthcare employees as a token of support and gratitude for their tireless work during the pandemic. 

Morizon

Morizon.pl was another company that managed to deploy a rapid response plan to the crisis and quickly made it a reality. Morizon is the biggest online real estate marketplace in Poland, with considerable investor appealit is slated to be acquired by Ringier Axel Springer Media (RASM). Although Morizon currently lists over 320,000 properties for sale and rent (the largest number of listings in Poland), visiting them in person is currently very difficult due to safety precautions implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. To continue operating despite these unfavorable circumstances, our client decided to digitize the process and introduce a video tour to their Web and mobile app.

We built a production version of the app in only 4 days making video tours available to potential customers interested in property offers from both primary and secondary markets in Poland. Adding online video property tours to their listings allowed Morizon to pull ahead of the competition at a crucial time-it is now the first and only company in the Polish real estate industry to offer such a capability.

"As all businesses faced by the pandemic nowadays, we needed to act quickly and adopt the unusual conditions as fast as possible. Thanks to Monterail's help and skill set, we managed to allow our customers to continue their business operations without significant losses to either quality or productivity.”—Michał Jaskólski, VP of Product

Michał Jaskólski photo Michał Jaskólski VP of Product 
at Morizon
Video tours offered by Morizon

admyt

As an innovative car parking system aiming to compete with regular paper ticket-based approaches, admyt has been in an advantageous position since their earliest days. With a contact-free service at the core of their business, they were immediately ready for precautionary measures recommended or strictly enforced around the world—and their example well illustrates the future of contactless services in general. In South Africa, where admyt is available in a few shopping malls, a lot of people think the current situation is actually an opportunity for admyt because with their app installed you don’t need to touch anything—and the safest way to park in pandemic conditions is to avoid the pay station altogether. With admyt, no cash or paper tickets have to be handled and users don’t have to stand in tight lines.

“The most obvious strategy for us was creating a more seamless environment which also includes making parking "touchless". Because we've digitised the parking and payment experience you shouldn't need to touch any buttons on your way in and out of malls and basements.” — Devon Beynon, COO at admyt

Devon Beynon photo Devon Beynon COO
at admyt 

Strategy 3: Cut costs or lower prices

3_ cut costs@2x

Many businesses will definitely struggle with cash flow in the coming months and many have already experienced a sharp decline in demand for their services without a similar drop in running costs. The coming recession is expected to prompt massive cuts in expenses that businesses will have to introduce to simply survive the crisis. Although governments around the world are introducing relief programs for entrepreneurs, companies will still have to make tough decisions and trim costs they deem unnecessary and find better ways of doing things to secure short- and long-term cash flow.

CrowdDesk

CrowdDesk provides a SaaS platform that enables financial intermediaries and businesses to raise capital online. At this point, there’s still not enough data to make predictions about how the sector will fare as the crisis unfolds. Right now it can go both ways—people can either stop supporting crowdfunding projects due to the sheer unpredictability of the situation or they can actually crowdfund more digital businesses/digital transformations as there'll be high demand for such services.

Johannes Treitz, CTO at CrowdDesk shared with us the company’s decision of reducing prices on his platform: “We lowered the price of our entry-level product to zero. This product enables small businesses to lend up to €100k from the crowd.”

Joahnnes Treits photo Johannes Treitz CTO
at CrowdDesk

Learn Amp

Learn Amp is a learning, employee engagement, and performance management platform from the UK—and its example well illustrates the situation that many British startups are facing right now: 

“We and most businesses we know are making salary cuts, stopping discretionary spend and asking suppliers to make substantial cuts to their costs or offering payment holidays or both. It’s bleak for most businesses and about survival right now not growth."— says Duncan Cheatle, Founder and CEO at Learn Amp

Duncan Cheatle photo Duncan Cheatle Founder and CEO
at Learn Amp

Avisio

Aside from embracing the strategies we shared in the opening paragraphs, Avisio also advises taking care of the pricing strategy.

“Mutual reassurance with customers is key. We’re now checking in with our pilot customers in an increased frequency and making sure they all stay on board when we launch. We've set in place special discounts for the market start, to ensure they stay with us. The number of customers (e.g. signed contracts) is an important KPI for coming investors. What they’d pay initially is secondary as long as the willingness to pay after recovery from the crisis is given.” - Matthias Depenbusch, Co-Founder & CEO

Commersya

“Cash is King! Relying less on FTE and high cost fixed overheads (fixed salaries, back office rents) for mundane repetitive tasks through adoption of automation and cloud computing technologies alongside multi tasking FTE will probably become more popular. So scalable tech products and web enabled businesses will probably get a big boost. I rely more on “consultants” on equity remunerations and flexible outsourced services to achieve tasks. Not easiest to control and drive things but during unsure times in the business, it's the least draining on the business.” - Farid Al-Awlaqi, CEO at Commersya

Strategy 4: Make pivots and transform digitally

4_ make pivots@2x

Most companies are going to become more reliant than ever on their digital strategy. In many cases, these strategies will end up deciding whether they make it through the tough times ahead. Let’s take a look at how our clients transformed in anticipation of the recession following the pandemic, and why some of them decided to embrace this change for the long run. 

Gutwin

Gutwin Software is a comprehensive legal management platform helping its clients maintain thorough compliance with Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) regulations by providing both the software and relevant consulting services. The client wanted to expand the Gutwin software suite by creating an e-learning application for its employees and clients.

“Our main product usually consists of software, legal content and consulting. Our consultants go to the client‘s site, create a register of all the legal requirements the company has to fulfill and help organize and implement an effective system to manage compliance with these requirements. This process happens offline in a great majority of cases. Because of the restrictions that already started to affect us beginning of March, we refined our process for online consulting. We are using this process for new projects, also sent it out to existing clients and got a good response. We‘re also planning to keep the online consulting process once the crisis is over.”—Lucas Gutwinski, Managing Director at Gutwinski Management 

Lukas Gutwinski photo Lukas Gutwinski Managing Director 
at Gutwinski Management
Gutwin Software - EHS e-learning platform

 

The repurposed module made Gutwin Software more comprehensive and increased its competitive edge. By making the training sessions digital, Gutwin Software is now able to better allocate resources and save time for consultants, allowing them to work more efficiently when visiting clients to draw up a list of training requirements.

Afriwise

Afriwise is Africa's largest and most advanced legal know-how platform. It revolutionizes how companies can access critical legal and business intelligence and makes doing business in Africa more affordable and accessible. The app involves 100 of Africa’s leading legal counsel and thousands of experts across 20 countries. Afriwise received international recognition by winning the Innovation Award at the 2019 African Legal Awards.

"First of all, using the strength of our platform developed by Monterail and the content in our databases, we were able to launch a complimentary COVID-19 module on our platform, in just a few hours’ time. Over 60 large companies have already registered for the module and tell us that they greatly benefit from having COVID-19-related questions answered immediately and in one place.

Steven De Backer photo Steven de Backer Founder and CEO 
at Afriwise

This was an eye opener for us and prompted us to become more solution driven. Hence, we are pivoting into solutions focused on sectors, certain types of companies and certain roles.

Using a tool Monterail developed (the ability to create new modules on our platform using existing content on our databases), we are rolling out new modules.” — Steven De Backer, Founder and CEO at Afriwise

Afriwise dashboard - Africa's biggest legal platform

 

This is also the strategy of Tendering Center. It is a complex procurement platform designed to facilitate the full tendering process for both tenders and bidders. This intuitive app makes tendering services on the Kuwaiti market much easier and more credible.

“We are expediting our launching date, our platform comes as a solution to ease the current tendering practice and take it to online completely and to support working remotely. We will also increase market accessibility to users, which will reflect in lower cost, more business opportunities and efficiency. As we speak, we are preparing our introductory video and soon it will be circulated around to introduce our platform to the world as the place for online tendering and procurement.”— Khamis Almerri, Founder at Tendering Center 

Khamis Almerri photo Khamis Almerri Founder 
at Tendering Center

Pivoting seems a proven strategy—and not only in times of crisis. That’s what Cooleaf decided to do after teaming up with Monterail in 2011. They pivoted their business idea three times: going from a B2C health and wellness program, to organizing micro-events boosting engagement, until finally settling on selling white-labeled recognition and rewards software for corporate clients. Read why they embraced pivoting as their strategy and what they do to boost their presence in the HR tech area.

Advice from Business Leaders

5_ business advice 1@2x

Systems Engineering

  • Empower individual decision making. We make sure that our employees can make real decisions about their domain without having to ask up the chain all the time. This both helps in these days, where the chain of command can be very disrupted, but also it generally allows for very agile companies where we can adapt.
  • Empathy. We trust our colleagues to make the right decisions, and if they don’t have the time in times like these we make sure to always take time out of our days to help each other. There is no task too small to help out with. If the CEO has to answer a support call then he will do that, and if I have to empty the garbage I will do that. — Emil Kampp, Lead Developer & Product Owner

Seat Unique

 

Seat Unique is an innovative marketplace platform founded in 2018 in the UK to fill the gap in online access to premium tickets and hospitality packages for sport, music and cultural events. Here’s what Philipa Hicks, Sales & Marketing Director & Co-founder advises:

Phillipa Hicks photo Philipa Hicks  Sales&Marketing Director,
Cofounder at Seat Unique
  • Safety is paramount. Put safety of employees first and rapidly adopt all measures for employees, these include smart working, social distancing, video interviews, no visitors, no business trips, different cleaning protocols etc.
  • Manage psychology – it’s important to empathize with your team, celebrate victories (small or big) and adapt your company culture to the current reality that is going on.
  • Manage losses – continue to drive forward stronger than ever, to win instead of just surviving, reorient channels (from sales to onboarding new partners).
  • Focus on gaining ground – identify supply and demand imbalances and follow consumer and business behaviour changes.

The VC perspective

5_ business advice 2@2x

The opinions of our clients on venture capital funding are rather pessimistic. Farid Al-Awlaqi, CEO at Commersya, predicts: “Unfortunately, for less established tech startups, this initial period is not going to be very easy, since investors are going to be highly conservative with cash; this is why startups should bootstrap!”

But is it true that VCs will be less eager to part with funding? To get an answer, we reached out to two investors who recently shared their plans at the Wolves Summit online conference with our Head of Growth, Marta Klimowicz at a panel focused on fundraising and growth strategies during a crisis. Here are the insights:

Christian Arndt, Investment Manager at High-Tech Gründerfonds:

“From my perspective, yes I think VCs will focus more on „keeping the portfolio alive“. That does not necessarily mean they stop investing, but I expect VCs will „sacrifice“ one or two potential new investments they might have planned in order to have more money to invest in the current portfolio. In times like these, I expect most VCs to allocate more time on the current portfolio (to keep it alive), and therefore time to invest in new startups is limited. My advice for startups:

Christian Arndt photo Christian Arndt Investment Manager 
at High-Tech Gründerfonds

1) If you have an additional runway of 12-24 month, monitor cash position and maybe adjust the cost structure if revenues do not come in as expected.

2) Looking at startups that run out of cash in 2020, I expect them to be laser focused on the business now to hit the KPIs. If the corona impact is too heavy I expect them to do everything that’s necessary to keep the company alive.

Priority 1: Reduce burn-rate if you don't expect to raise a follow-on round due to corona. Earlier monetization is definitely important, especially since it lowers your burn-rate (more revenue = same costs = lower burn). Cash is king currently and will probably stay king at least for the rest of 2020. For some startups it makes sense to sacrifice a fraction of their growth rate in order to lower their burn-rate.”

Rafał Celej, Venture Capital Lawyer

"In the face of a crisis, rather than on new investments, VCs are now focusing 80-90% of their attention on screening their portfolio companies and using their corporate rights to preserve the value of their investments, in particular those that could be potential "home runs".

Rafał Celej photo Rafał Celej Venture Capital Lawyer

To the greatest extent, this applies to funds that are at the end of their investment period, and which have several start-ups in their portfolio. Such funds must be very careful when deciding whether to spend available money on new investments or on follow-on rounds in their best companies. In the face of the crisis, it is highly likely that most of the funds will decide on the latter.

A slightly different situation concerns new funds that have just started their investment period and made no more than a few investments. These funds need to actively seek new investments opportunities and their attention will probably be split 50-50% between the new investments and analysing their current portfolio. Of course, a lot will depend on the relationship between the General Partners and their Limited Partners, which - in times of crisis - may also want to limit the investment expenditures.

When it comes to the relationships of VCs to their existing portfolio companies, the funds are already using their corporate rights, such as the right to convene shareholder or supervisory board meetings or request the management to provide relevant information, in order to thoroughly assess the financial situation of these companies and react quickly.

Typically, VC investment agreements provide for catalogues of corporate and business matters ("reserved matters"), which require prior consent of the fund. This proves to be particularly important in times of minimizing costs and cash burning, and gives VCs a real control over the companies’ expenses.

In addition, VCs might wish to revise the business plans and annual budgets in order to adapt them the crisis times. In extreme cases, if the management teams are not able to quickly adapt to the new realities, VCs might use their corporate rights to appoint Management Board members (in most instances, new CFOs). This is not a common practice, but in times of crisis, it can save a startup, and thus also the whole investment."

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