I just reached out to the CEOs I work with with on this topic and figured I should also do a quick post to speak to the CEOs who follow Kellblog as well.
The primary purpose of this post is to remind busy startup CEOs that an important part of your job is to be out ahead of things. Usually that means customer needs, market trends, and competitors. I’d argue it also includes potential epidemics, such as the one threatened by COVID-19.
Nobody wants to work for a CEO who’s panicking. But nobody wants to work for a CEO without a plan, either. You owe it to your employees, customers, and (yes) shareholders to start thinking about the impact of the Coronavirus on your business. That starts with your first action item: having a conversation about it at your next weekly e-staff meeting, if you’ve not done so already.
My thinking is based largely on this Scientific American article about what individuals should do to prepare for an eventual outbreak. On the theory that most startup employees are relatively young and healthy, the reality appears to be that the lives you save may not be your own — but instead those of the sick, elderly, weak, or otherwise vulnerable around you .
The driving principle behind the article is the best thing people can do to slow the spread of a virus is to stay away from each other for a few weeks. That’s not easy for a business to do, but at least in software we rarely rely on physical supply chains so we have one less major factor to consider in our planning.
So, with that warm up, let’s jump into a list of things you should consider:
- Researching how other companies are responding to help inform your own response. Call a few of the CEOs or Chief People Officers in your portfolio peer group. Or go online and read documents like Coinbase’s four-tier response framework .
- Sending an all-hands note letting people know you’re on top of this, perhaps with some links to practical, authoritative information.
- Issuing a friendly reminder on the basics of preventative personal hygiene such as hand-washing, face-touching, etc. Basic as they are, they appear the number one tool in the fight.
- Letting people know that elbow bumps are becoming the new handshake, though this is surprisingly not without controversy .
- Sending a strong message telling people not be a hero and stay home when they’re sick. Startups are full of people who give it their all, so it’s not uncommon for folks who are not feeling well to come into the office for that big presentation or meeting .
- Placing restrictions on travel, including not only guidelines for travel to affected areas but also guidelines for what you should do if you have recently traveled to one .
- Taking the pressure off live attendance. Tell employees they don’t have to come into the office if they don’t want to or don’t need to. Heck, you might even see a spike in productivity as a result.
- Changing the format of regular, periodic meetings. Most startups have some form of quarterly business review (QBR), typically a live two- or three-day meeting. Now is a great time not only to try it as a videoconference but to re-invent it while you’re at it  .
- Encouraging customers and prospects to do videoconferences, particularly if they are uncomfortable with a live meeting. While salespeople love live meetings (and so do I), a videoconference is far superior to no meeting at all. We need to keep deals moving through the pipeline, so if someone suggests delaying a few weeks, I’d counter with a videoconference every time. For both the customer’s business and our own, the show must go on.
- And, while some folks will probably trash me for saying this, if you have a natural, non-contrived marketing angle that can keep your business moving, don’t be afraid to gently say it . Examples: (1) it’s more important now than ever to have real-time supply chain information, (2) in times like these business analytics have never been more important, (3) we all have an obligation to our employees, customers, and shareholders to keep business moving ahead.
Let me end by providing links to some other excellent thoughts on this and related subjects:
- Elad Gil’s comprehensive blog post on the exact same topic, but with more background and history. He also provides plenty of great links to sources.
- Ray Wang’s blog on how to handle events in such times.
This is part II in this series. Part I is here and covers the basics of management education, employee communications, and simple steps to help slow virus transmission while keeping the business moving forward.
In this part, we’ll cover
- A short list of links to what other companies are doing, largely when it comes to travel and in-office work policies. (I’ll try to update as others announce.)
- A discussion of financial planning and scenario analysis
- A list of links to useful information sources
What Other Companies are Saying and Doing
Relatively few companies have made public statements about their response policies. Here are a few of the bigger ones who have:
- Stripe: COVID-19 precautions for Stripe employees and customers
- Salesforce: For the Safety and Well Being of You and Those Around You
- Twitter: Keeping our Employees and Partners Safe During Coronavirus
- Coinbase: Publishes Three-Phase Response Plan
- Amazon: Defers Non-Essential Moves Even Within the US
Financial Planning and Scenario Analysis: Extending the Runway
It’s also time to break out your driver-based financial model, and if you don’t have one, then it’s time to have your head of finance (or financial planning & analysis) build one.
Cash is oxygen for startups and if there are going to be some rough times before this threat clears, your job is to make absolutely sure you have the cash to get through it. Remember one of my favorite all-time startup quotes from Sequoia founder Don Valentine: “all companies go out of business for the same reason. They run out of money.”
In my opinion you should model three scenarios for three years, that look roughly like:
- No impact. You execute your current 2020 operating plan. Then think about the odds of that happening. They’re probably pretty low unless you’re in a counter-cyclical business like videoconferencing (in which case you probably increase targets) or a semi-counter-cyclical one like analytics/BI (in which case maybe you hold them flat).
- 20% bookings impact in 2020. You miss plan bookings targets by 20%. Decide if you should apply this 20% miss to new bookings (from new customers), expansion bookings (new sales to existing customers), renewal bookings — or all three. Or model a different percent miss on each of those targets as it makes sense for your business. The point here is to take a moderately severe scenario and then determine how much shorter this makes your cash runway. Then think about steps you can take to get that lost runway back, such as holding costs flat, reducing costs, raising debt, or — if you’re lucky and/or have strong insiders — raising equity.
- 40% bookings impact in 2020. Do the same analysis as in the prior paragraph but with a truly major bookings miss. Again, decide whether and to what extent that miss hits new bookings, expansion bookings, and renewal bookings. Then go look at your cash runway. If you have debt make sure you have all covenant compliance tests built into your model that display green/red — you shouldn’t have to notice a broken covenant, it should light up in big letters (YES/NO) in a good model. Then, as in the prior step, think about how to get that lost runway back.
Once you have looked at and internalized these models, it’s time for you and your CFO to call your lead investors to discuss your findings. And then schedule a discussion of the scenario analysis at your next board meeting.
Please note that it’s not lost on me that accelerating out of the turn when things improve can be an excellent way to grab share in your market. But in order to so, you need to have lots of cash ready to spend in, say, 6-12 months when that happens. Coming out of the corner on fumes isn’t going to let you do that. And, as many once-prodigal, now-thrifty founders have told me: “the shitty thing is that once you’ve spent the money you can’t get it back.” Without dilution. With debt. Maybe without undesirable structure and terms.
Now is the time to think realistically about how much fuel you have in the tank, if you can get more, how long should it last, and how much you want in the tank 6-12 months out.
- Serial entrepreneur Elad Gil’s excellent living document on the Coronavirus
- Harvard Business Review’s Eight Questions Employers Should Ask About the Coronavirus
- Hosting Events in the Age of the Coronavirus by Ray Wang of Constellation Research
- Getting Your Workplace Ready for COVID-19 by the World Health Organization (WHO)
- Preparing for the Coronavirus to Strike the US in the Scientific American
- R/China_Flu, a Reddit community focused on the topic and with informative, crowd-moderated content
- Lead your Business Through the Coronavirus, in Harvard Business Review
- The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on Coronavirus Prevention and Treatment
- The WHO on Coronavirus Disease Advice for the Public
- Coronavirus (COVID-19) Global Cases Map by Johns Hopkins CSSE
- National Institutes of Health (NIH) on Coronavirus (COVID-19)
- Great people to follow on Twitter: NEA Partner Scott Gottlieb, Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch, Columbia virologist Angela Rasmussen, Johns Hopkins assistant professor Caitlin Rivers, or the rest of this long list.