Entrepreneurship in a Time of Crisis: Lab32 Entrepreneurs Tell it Like it is

COVID-19 has compelled startups the world-over to adapt to the changing business environment and display chutzpah, creativity and a robust ability to innovate. This harsh lesson in crisis management was learned by Suraj Meiyur, founder, Next Skills 360, and his team when their product’s launch in the toy retail market was abruptly cut short by the pandemic. “We were badly hit,” he says. “In the current crisis, startups like ours are being tested in unimaginable ways.”

Almost overnight, the Lab32 startup had to pivot in order to survive. Suraj recalls that although the team was ready with the software apps for the launch, the manufacturing came to an abrupt standstill due to the lockdown triggered by COVID-19. This compelled the startup to think on its feet and reimagine the business model. The team came up with a unique DIY kit that can be made and printed at home by children, the startup’s target audience. The primary challenge was that the team couldn’t access the high-end development machines that were in the office as everyone was now working from home. Thus, they had to make do by using all the available machines in their homes and on the cloud to eventually release the DIY kit. According to Suraj, the pivot was a true testimony to the startup’s resilience to bounce back despite the lockdown.

This example is a reflection of how entrepreneurship has taken a leading role in fighting the pandemic. Apparel companies are switching gears to sell anti-bacterial face masks; distilleries and breweries are pivoting to manufacture hand sanitisers; and FoodTech unicorns have entered the doorstep delivery of groceries segment. Even large commercial airlines such as American Airlines have pivoted from passenger flights to cargo-only services.

 The list of businesses pivoting to seize new opportunities to navigate the COVID-19 crisis is seemingly endless.

The pandemic has compelled startups and large conglomerates to adopt a new mindset to prepare for the unexpected and to be resourceful in times of uncertainty.

Lab32 startups lead the way amid COVID-19

T-Hub’s intrepid entrepreneurs who are a part of its flagship Lab32 incubation program for emerging tech startups, have set new rules and norms to tackle this crisis. Like Suraj, other founders, too, have repurposed their business model and applied their knowledge and skills to identify opportunities for new revenue streams. For instance, Abdul Rahman Janoo, co-founder and director at Tericsoft Technologies, pivoted the company’s products to COVID-19 symptom monitoring solutions to help defeat the spread of infection at the base level. Being nimble and agile turned out to be beneficial as it helped the startup secure fresh leads for the business. Further, the co-founders also undertook services projects such as web and AI development—a shift from their core competencies—to meet pre-determined revenue targets. Though the ticket size was modest, Abdul and team believed it would be the best approach if employees were to be retained in the long-term. 

Arun Satyan, CEO, founder, Hyreo, believes in creating a positive approach with clients during these grim times. “We have been in constant touch with our existing and prospective customers,” he says. “We have been extremely flexible in accommodating some of the delays and ensuring that our customers are confident about our abilities to manage the workflow processes.”

The value of communication and team bonding 

The pandemic provided a unique opportunity for startup founders to focus on fostering relationships, both within the company and at the ecosystem level. Suraj believes that a crisis of this nature should not take the focus away from the well-being of team members. “It is crucial for the management to lend support to employees to ensure their emotional, physical and mental health,” he says. He adds that the crisis has led to better team interaction and bonding through online communication tools such as video conferencing and virtual meetings. 

For Abdul, COVID-19 was a revelation in how to manage the company’s finances that took a hit as customers were unable to pay on time, and direct purchase orders got delayed. This had a ripple effect on employee salaries. To soften the blow to their employees, Tericsoft’s co-founders came up with a coping mechanism. For the first three months, they decided to pay the base salaries to their employees and convert the balance amount to equity shares. Also, despite the disruption caused by the pandemic, the company gave annual increments to over 55 per cent of its workforce in the current financial year.

Arun Satyan says that founders should also focus on getting their brand ahead in these turbulent times. They should be visible on social media and showcase their capabilities and competitive edge in the digital space. “A good PR activity might be a good idea as we need to be relevant to our customers in the days to come,” he says.

Heralding a new era in leadership and entrepreneurship

The unique challenges posed by the pandemic have also made startup founders more empathetic and aware leaders. 

In the case of Tericsoft, when work from home became a mandatory policy, some of the employees who were from Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities had limited access to the Internet. The management recorded videos to help all team members keep track of workflows and targets. Regular catch-up calls also contributed to the efficient workflow processes that the current scenario demands.

Next Skills 360 created a company account that was accessible to each member of the team. Employees could use this account to purchase urgent essential groceries and medicines, with the understanding that all accounts will be settled later.

As startups everywhere collectively fight COVID-19, their humane side has emerged, heralding a new era in entrepreneurship. The pandemic has strengthened the resolve of entrepreneurs to reimagine a new world order that rests on the bedrock of compassion and adaptability.

Further, ‘collective good and purpose’ is at the very heart of the story of the pandemic. Entrepreneurs are trying to break away from the shackles of ‘individual enterprise’ and forge collaborations with other stakeholders to create a roadmap for the post-COVID-19 scenario.

Within the T-Hub startup ecosystem, too, Lab32 founders are making a dent on the startup ecosystem through their unique innovations and never-say-die spirit.  “As entrepreneurs, we are going to be faced with challenges throughout our entrepreneurial journey. The only way we can ride out the pandemic is by staying relevant, resilient and positive,” says Arun, capturing the essence of what entrepreneurship signifies during the age of COVID-19.

Adapting to the new normal, Batch 4 of Lab32 is going hybrid – while following the same secret sauce that has helped us make a difference to over 150 startups over three previous batches. Apply for the new batch here.

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