How Do Startups Get Through This?

Table of contents:

This virus and recession will, undoubtedly, have massive consequences for businesses of every size and scale. In this article, however, I want to focus on how it affects start up businesses, their founders, and their teams, and I want to share what we, at Scribly, are doing as a young start-up business to cope.

This article was written by Scribly's Head of Growth, Paul Gerken.

The world has begun to enter a new reality. 

Depending on how CoVID-19 spreads across the world over the months ahead, it is not an exaggeration to say that things will never be the same as before. 

Yes; we will live, laugh, hug, dance, drink, eat and work again. We are humans, after all. Yet precisely how we work, how we travel, how we gather, how we communicate and how our globalised world is organised and interconnected, could undergo a profound and fundamental change. 

So what does that mean for us, as start-ups and small business owners and employees? 

Whilst start-ups by definition beat the path into the future; by developing new technologies, concepts and visions for our world, they still rely on a basic understanding of what that world might look like in the future, based on where we are today. They draw an evolutionary line from a known starting point, today, to a future vision, tomorrow.  

Yet it’s that knowledge about how the world is organised now, that is increasingly uncertain. Will office environments disappear? Is international travel ever going to be the same again? Will the global outsourcing of manufacturing to China be reversed? 

We simply don’t know. 

This virus and recession will, undoubtedly, have massive consequences for businesses of every size and scale. In this article, however, I want to focus on how it affects start up businesses, their founders, and their teams, and I want to share what we, at Scribly, are doing as a young start-up business to cope. 

I hope that some of these actions can resonate, inspire and support other businesses. After all, we will all need each other to survive this. 

So let’s get to it. 

Taking care of yourself, as a founder

Founders are the cornerstone of their businesses. A startup exists because of the founder’s talent, vision, dedication and passion, and friends and family often look at founders with admiration at their ambition, freedom, creativity and potentially lucrative rewards. 

Yet the psychological price of being a founder is often overlooked or misunderstood. For every post on social media about a new client, a new product feature, or a massive growth rate, there are countless sleepless nights, self doubt, and moments of anxiety. Founders have to always put on a positive face. They have to ‘fake it til they make it’. So it’s no wonder a massive 72% of founders report having mental health concerns. 

And this is before a global pandemic and impending recession. 

Today, the pressure has just been notched up immeasurably. Not only will revenue streams be tightened, but entire product-market fit assumptions could be redrawn. 

So it’s deliberate that the first thing I want to talk about, in how startup businesses tackle this crisis, is to talk about founder mental health. 

Please: Learn how to look after yourself, and to look after your mental health, as a priority. 

If you’re stressed or anxious, your mind is clouded and distracted. You might exaggerate threats whilst overlooking opportunities. Your focus will falter, and your mood to your colleagues will likely be sour. 

No amount of mental energy will change the circumstances of the world around us. Yet your framing of the situation is under your control. If you can reduce stress and anxiety, you give yourself the best weapon you have to get through this - a clear, proactive mind. 

I know it’s pointless to say ‘hey, just cheer up’ at times like this, especially when you’ve got bills to pay. But there is a simple, stark choice: You either get on top of it, or it gets on top of you

So let’s look at some practical actions you can take to be the owner of this situation: 

  • Avoid overindulging in the news 

At times like this, the news becomes addictive. Like any addiction, it’s not healthy, and it’s certainly not positive. Allow yourself 30 minutes a day to catch up on the important stuff, but then close all those news tabs and focus elsewhere. 

  • Get outside, into nature, everyday (if you can)

We don’t have many options under lockdown, but for now at least, many of us can still get into nature and walk. But don’t look down and churn over business concerns. Look up and around; breath in the fresh air, look at the birds, and give your brain a break.

  • Identify your thoughts

Understanding that ‘I think my company could suffer, and that thought gives me stress’ means that you correctly see the thought as the thing giving you stress. Your thoughts live in your mind, over which you have control. You can then say to yourself ‘that thought is negative, and I choose to distance myself from it. Instead, my thoughts are going to focus on what I will do positively for myself and others.’ 

  • Make a plan of action 

One of the most positive things we did at Scribly was to wrestle with what we were going to do, and give ourselves tasks for the week. Action fights depression and stress. Even if you’re not 100% on what is the best thing to do, do something. We’ve knocked up a mini-site of supportive materials for businesses, created a new client target list, and will produce a load of new content to help other businesses, just this week. 

  • Get a new routine 

What you can and can’t do has likely been radically changed. It throws us off kilter. I hate not being able to go to the gym in the morning before work. Routines make us efficient because they reduce procrastinating and thinking about what to do next. Get a new routine, get stuck in, and get your productivity back. This will help your stress. 

  • Get some exercise 

A healthy body breeds a healthy mind. Our gyms are closing, but the outdoors provides space to stretch your legs. Try and work up a sweat; run if you can. If you have pent up adrenaline, exercise can help get it out of you. 

Lastly, remember these are difficult, different times and we are all prone to suffer from anxiety. Don’t beat yourself up if this happens. Understand those feelings, and move forward when you can. 

Take care of your team (they’re stressed too) 

Your team members are aware of what is happening, and they’re aware that it’s going to have significant consequences. In many cases, your team members will be people who joined your startup because they believed in the dream and vision of the business. They might have left the security of a larger corporation for the fast pace and excitement of a startup, only to be now facing the realities of what startup insecurity means. 

The stresses of this situation will also be felt acutely by them, and so your team member’s mental health is going to be extremely important. Arguably, it could be harder to control, as many different workers mean many different perspectives and approaches. 

At Scribly, we have a small core team and then a network of writers spread around the world. One of the first things we did was to offer up a subscription to Headspace to all our writers who were interested in it, and pointed them in the direction of home yoga and online meditation. 

Here are some further actions that startups - both founders and team members - can do, that we think will make it easier to get through this time: 

  • Allow space to share concern and feedback

It’s natural for people to be anxious. These thoughts aren’t ‘wrong’. People should be allowed, and have the platform and space, to share their feelings. Provide that opportunity. Make it judgement free. 

  • … but don’t allow negativity to fester

This is a delicate balance. It’s not about telling people they’re wrong to feel bad, or countering every expression of concern with a reason not to be. But negative thoughts are also contagious, and giving them too much space to grow will be counterproductive. By creating a time each week to share concern, you can ask people to limit sharing worries to that time, so the rest of the time you’re tackling things with positivity. 

  • Remind people of their value and importance

Recognition drives us all. We need to know that our work makes a difference and that there is still a reason for us turning up, or in these circumstances, logging on to the conference call. Isolation means we won’t get that casual water-cooler pep talk. You’re going to need to write a message, make a call, or designate some time in the daily catch ups to your team members, specifically to tell them you’re pleased with what they’re doing. 


  • Be open, honest, but positive 

Your team members will be hungry for updates on what is going on. They will be attuned to sugar-coated news, and will likely see through attempts to mask a difficult situation. Be honest, but not a doom monger. You likely work with adults that will appreciate honesty, but make sure the sharing of bad news is accompanied with the sharing of an action plan. 

  • Encourage fun 

During this time, we’ll need some levity to get through things. The situation is so grave that our minds will need a ‘stress-vacation’ and moments when we can laugh and relax. Use a slack channel that is open just for sharing silly moments at home, or fun ideas for entertainment during lockdown. 

  • Be careful with your chat 

I’m guilty of finding some news fascinating rather than scary, and sharing it immediately. As this is such a new situation, there are so many surprising developments. Take for example, that the mobile networks crashed the first Monday when the UK was told to work from home. Incredible! But whilst that information might be fascinating to you, it might be genuinely concerning to a colleague who knows they need to be in contact with a sick relative. We have a responsibility to each other to not inflame sentiments and build worry. 

Should you change your message, or change your product? 

Some businesses will inevitably be more adept at survival, or even growth, during this period. Any business model based around remote work, activity within the home or home delivery logistics will naturally grow, whereas businesses built around real-life human interaction, gathering and socialising may not make it past the next few weeks. 

However there are many businesses that will fall somewhere in between these two extremes, where their business model would have a greater chance for survival if their messaging or value proposition is reframed. There will also be businesses that can survive, but only if they execute a more substantial pivot. 

Here are some practical steps you can take in order to understand whether you need to simply adapt your message, or execute a pivot: 

  • Understand your clients changing needs

This situation is creating challenges in unforeseen ways. Businesses will find themselves with a new set of priorities that they wouldn’t have planned for just two weeks ago. Reach out to your clients and learn what these are. Identify patterns where possible. This new set of needs will provide the basis of how you can respond. 

  • Audit your skills, assets and product capabilities

Now is the time to really understand not what you do now, but what you could do in the future. What skills and resources does your team have? What can your product do on structural level, and how could it be recalibrated or modified to provide a different service? Undertake an audit of skills, competences and functionalities so that you know exactly what you have in your arsenal. 

  • Marry your customers new needs with your potential 

With both new customer demands and an audit of your capabilities, you have a matrix of your clients' needs against what you can provide. The result may simply be framing your product in a new way, or highlighting a previously underutilized feature. Whispr.ai (an app for voice guided workflows) have, for example, highlighted their products capacity to ensure that cleaning tasks are completed to avoid COVID spread. At Scribly, we’re supporting businesses to help them communicate about how their business will remain relevant over the weeks and months ahead. 

If you assess that you do need to perform a fundamental pivot, then it is important that you consider the following steps, to give yourself the best chance of success. 

  • Act decisively and quickly

Hesitation could be fatal. Runways are shrinking as potential revenues and investments will be tightening, so the quicker you can pivot, the better. 

  • Create a new set of goals

With a pivot, your goals and ambitions are likely to be very different. Understand what these look like. Internalise the new ambition, and share it with your team. Make sure everyone knows what the new dream is. 

  • Don’t throw the previous work on the bonfire

Not only will that hurt morale, but you may risk losing something that can be helpful in the future. Pack things up, save them, understand what you have archived and review it again further down the line. 

  • Keep client communication consistent 

Check whether the new direction is needed. Develop it. Check back again and again on whether you’re solving a problem. Iterate as quickly and as often as needed. 

  • Critically analyse your pivot

Is it providing enough opportunities for growth in the future? As there are so many unknowns, it’s important to keep reflecting on how a new business can find space in fundamentally different markets. 

Should you market and advertise, when resources become tight? 

A natural inclination during difficult times is to save resources. It’s intuitive, and also necessary for survival. If your income is reduced, your outgoings should be reduced. 

So each business will need to understand where to spend and where to save. One of the perceived ‘easiest’ saves can be advertising, as you can reduce your spend without hurting anyone. You don’t need to make any redundancies, and so the personal face of the cut is not felt. 

And yet studies consistently show that cutting advertising, or marketing in general, will only hasten the demise of a business. For each recession of the past hundred years, those businesses that maintain their promotional activities come out of the recession much stronger. 

The reasons for this are clear. As your competitors reduce their promotional activities, your business has an opportunity to increase its share of voice. Your share of voice is directly correlated to your market share, which in turn relates to your revenues and profitability. 

But not all methods of marketing are created equal. What works during a boom period will not be the same as what works during a downturn. You need to be wise with exactly where you invest your resources. 

Consider the difference between paid advertising on Google and investing in lead generation and nurturing. Paid advertising generally targets those that are further down the sales funnel, hoping to draw those who are close to making a purchase. The reality of a downturn is that more and more businesses will be deferring their purchase choice until a later date, meaning that cost per acquisition ratios could increase. 

However, potential leads will still be online, actively searching for solutions to their business problems. This means that more potential customers will be in, and may remain in, the awareness and consideration stage of the sales funnel for longer. The result is that more of your efforts should be concentrated in lead generation and lead nurturing; and informative, entertaining content is the best way to do this. 

Moreover, the creation of content is an investment in an asset that will continue to add value to your business. Content will attract, engage and delight your clients now and in the future, meaning continuing to allocate resources to it, will continue to strengthen your business. 

However, it’s important to focus on the right type of content. It’s true that during the ‘good times’, business can explore and develop a lot of content without being laser-focussed on a desired outcome. Now, things are different. Now is the time to really understand the function of your content, and cut the fluff.  When creating content, ensure you’re doing the following: 

  • Targeting the right keywords

Execute proper keyword research, especially looking at long tail keywords, and ensure your articles are hitting the right volume (but are not keyword stuffed.) 

  • Structuring your content properly

Organise your content around the ‘pillar and cluster’ model, with a central long-form piece of ‘pillar’ content and several sub-topic ‘clusters’. 

  • Focusing on being engaging, informative and entertaining

Old school tricks for helping your SEO around meta descriptions and keyword stuffing are out. Google will rank your content on quality, based on how long users are engaging with it. So make sure it’s informative, well-written and answering a question.  

Understand who is now your target customer (they’ve probably changed)

As we enter a world where structures and behaviours look to be changing into something we’ve not known before, inevitably your business' place and relationship in that world will be different. 

As we have explored, you may be pivoting your product or adapting your messaging. Therefore, you’ll need to understand to who, or to what, your product or message most applies to. 

At Scribly, we’ve taken some time to understand who might most need our services today and in the near future, and we’ve made a list of some of the services and industries that we think will be doing well over the first half of 2020: 

  • Delivery services and logistics
  • Hygiene products
  • Health supplements 
  • Digital Media, such as streaming services 
  • Book and eBook readers 
  • Home entertainments (including board games) 
  • Home improvement
  • Online communities or platforms 
  • Communication supporting softwares or technologies
  • Remote working, team planning and coordination softwares 
  • Online consultation services 
  • Online education
  • Home schooling 
  • Workout / Home Fitness Apps

However, the world is going through a rapid period of change. What we could assess as being a growth industry today, might well look different in just a few weeks. Moreover, it’s highly likely that opportunities that are as yet unknown will come into being before the end of the year. 

Keep yourself updated on how people are behaving. 

How do you best work remotely? 

There are several elements of this crisis that mark it out as different from anything we’ve ever experienced before, and the distinction stems from the self-isolation we are all being asked to undertake, on a global scale. 

What that means for workplaces all over the world, is that we have to coordinate and work together at a distance. For some businesses, this won’t be anything new. We feel slightly fortunate at Scribly, as we have been a remote set-up since our inception. 

Yet for many others, the situation is different. Teams that are used to being able to come into close contact to discuss ideas, projects or business developments at regular intervals, face to face, are confronted with an entirely new way of working. 

So here are some best practices I’d like to share, about how to work remotely effectively: 

  • Get comfortable with video 

Sadly, cameras are often not our friends, and we can hate looking at ourselves on screen. So naturally, many of us want to switch them off. The important thing to remember is that we need to read each others’ faces when we communicate, especially when tackling difficult topics. Get comfortable with seeing yourself, as others appreciate it - and they’ll be judging you a lot less than you think!

  • Prepare before calls 

On video calls, it’s more important than ever to be well prepared. Poor connections and other conference call ‘annoyances’ make it more important to be efficient with your time. Know beforehand what you need to say, and crucially, what you need to ask. 

  • Appoint a host 

There may be a natural leader to every call, but where there isn’t, appoint someone to write minutes and to stick to the agenda. This will make every call efficient and worthwhile, keeping motivation and productivity high. 

  • Have a daily check in

Give everyone a chance to check in, each day. Many companies already operate a daily stand-up, so allow that moment to continue online over a group call. Ensure focus is kept, but if people need an outlet to have some social chat, allow that to happen. We’re in isolation, so we need opportunities to enjoy some small talk. 

  • Lean on software 

Not everything needs to be covered in a call. Work progress can be effectively monitored across platforms like Monday.com or Trello, so that verbal reporting can be kept to a minimum, and calls are used exclusively for things which need to be discussed in person. 

  • Prioritise outcomes 

Managers and teams might be used to a lot of close contact that allows everyone to have a natural view on how a particular piece of work is progressing. That view is likely to become a blindspot, as workers operate apart. This will mean we need to get more comfortable with seeing an end result, as opposed to having a regular view on progression. 

  • Learn to trust 

Which leads to trust. Start from assuming the best of your teammates until you’re proved otherwise. Be clear on what is expected, when work needs to be delivered, and then trust they will get it done. As long as deadlines continue to be met, try not to be concerned about when and how people are working.

Good luck. Let’s come out of this stronger. 

Every recession sees businesses close, but it also sees businesses that come through it, come out stronger. They are leaner, meaner and often hold a bigger market share. It’s tough, no one is saying that isn’t. It’s tougher still because this is a crisis without parallel. We’re all nervous. 

However, I hope that this article has helped give some ideas, pointers and inspiration about how to get through to the other side. We’ve also trawled the web and pulled together a mini-site to give you free tools, tips, ideas and advice to help you through, which we’ll be updating as things develop. It’s there to make use of!

Good luck to you and your startup. I know how incredibly stressful this time is. Remember the important things in life, and keep a smile on your face when you can. 

Be safe. 

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