Running a Tech Company Remotely in Uncertain Times
Hopefully you’re getting used to the four walls of your apartment serving double-duty as the four walls of your office in recent days. Maybe you’re adjusting nicely to attending meetings in sweatpants, and writing emails with the warm comfort of your cat or dog in your lap. Or maybe you’re already going stir crazy, wondering when you’ll be able to leave this office-apartment-gym combination from hell.
Whether you like working remotely or not, there is a lot of anxiety surrounding the spread of coronavirus, and the concerns aren’t only health-related. We’ve all wondered: What’s going on with the market? How will businesses be affected? Is your company prepared?
As local governments in at least six states around the country close bars, restaurants and movie theaters, the impact of the coronavirus is hitting small businesses hard. Many establishment owners are working to secure unemployment benefits for themselves and their employees as quickly as possible.
Large cities are suffering too, not just from slowed business but because the social distancing required to slow the spread of the virus goes against the way cities are inherently designed. Residents of urban areas are scrambling to find solutions for staying virtually connected, especially for populations that are already socially isolated like elders and people with disabilities.
In San Francisco, where the city is under a “shelter in place” order requiring residents to stay in their homes as much as possible for the next three weeks, leaders at tech startups are charging ahead as best they can, offering extra support to employees and being as transparent as possible during this time.
Though they’ve moved to mandatory work-from-home policies, many companies in the Bay Area are still interviewing, hiring and onboarding, handling everything through video calls. To prepare for a slowdown of business, some have strategies in place to make extra cash available and to communicate more often with customers.
But most importantly, leaders of these organizations are doing everything they can to ensure the safety and well-being of their employees in this new, uncertain reality.
Interviewing, hiring and onboarding remotely
Bringing on new talent hasn’t stopped for Zendrive, a San Francisco startup that uses data to lower insurance premiums for safe drivers. They’re conducting all interviews remotely and, in some cases, onboarding new hires remotely as well. Zendrive co-founder and CEO Jonathan Matus said he and his team are open to making new hires during this all-remote period, despite not being able to meet the candidates in person.
Scalero, a local email marketing consultancy, has not paused hiring either, though they’ve slowed down the process to better understand the current environment, according to Will Pearson, co-founder and managing partner of the company.
“We will handle all interviews remotely, and have no hesitation to hire based on video calls,” he said.
Upwork, a platform for freelancers with offices in Santa Clara and San Francisco, has not slowed hiring, but it’s not increasing hiring goals right now either. The company has moved to 100 percent remote interviewing and is in the process of evaluating which remote collaboration tools work most effectively to minimize technical difficulties.
One unique approach Upwork is taking to the interview process is increased auditing, said Dan Collins, director of talent acquisition and employment branding at Upwork. The company has multiple people sit in and observe the interview process with candidates. That’s a practice they normally use about 50 percent of the time, but will now do for all interviews.
“It’s super important to have a second set of eyes when the interview is video only,” Collins said.
Ironclad, a tech platform for legal teams to design and deploy their own contracts, has also moved all operations, including candidate interviews, to Zoom calls and they made several new hires remotely last week.
“The largest disadvantage will be our inability to showcase how great our office culture is,” said Joyce Solano, chief marketing officer at Ironclad.
Adjusting business goals
There are many unknowns for businesses right now but one thing is certain: Things will slow down.
Zendrive has begun asking customers for feedback every week to continually evaluate their position in the market. “We’re an enterprise business, so our customers are large companies and they’re suffering quite a bit from [concerns around] coronavirus,” Matus said. His team is also checking in with customers weekly just to see how they’re doing, listen to their concerns and offer help where they can. “Even if there’s not much we can do, we want to show them we care,” he said.
“Even if there’s not much we can do, we want to show them we care.”
Scalero is trying to move forward with business as usual to the best of their ability, according to Pearson, but this week the company decided to pause its outreach sales.
“We felt it wasn’t a great idea to reach out to companies during this time when they are likely dealing with a lot of challenges internally,” he said.
Because Scalero is a B2B business, they are somewhat concerned that uncertainty around coronavirus will cause companies to reduce spending on additional products or services over the next few months. “We rely on new customers for growth but have been able to manage a positive cash flow business, which is helping us feel a bit more comfortable now,” Pearson said. If business slows or current customers opt-out, the company plans to reduce travel and any extra expenses where possible, to maintain a surplus of cash on hand.
As a SaaS and digital contract provider, Ironclad expects its market to grow in the next few months. “It’s more important than ever to have a strong handle on your legal obligations as a business,” Solano said. “The operational data inside a contract has to be easily accessed and acted on in real-time.”
When San Francisco mandated that all large gatherings be canceled, Ironclad postponed its Apex conference, which showcases new digital technologies for legal teams, just three days before the event with minimal financial repercussions. The team was able to quickly find the “force majeure” clauses in all of their contracts, (a provision that allows the parties involved out of their contractual obligations when circumstances arise beyond their control) which limited the impact on the business.
“That said, we are evaluating our go-to-market plans for particular impacted industries, like travel, hospitality and high-end retail,” Solano said. “Our goal will be to focus on 2020 growth within areas that will weather the downturn more successfully.”
Solano said they do expect Ironclad customers of smaller companies will suffer from revenue slowdown and some may need to layoff talent. Ironclad will work with those customers to offer support and even re-evaluate payment terms in some cases.
Preparing for a fundraising slowdown
Zendrive is staying more up to date on the VC fundraising field than ever before. They’re taking frequent meetings with their investors to understand how fundraising is likely to change in the coming weeks and months so they can be prepared, Matus said.
At Scalero, Pearson says a little more grit than usual is necessary right now as less funding becomes available. “There won’t be as much runway, so it’s time to focus on the most optimized aspects of the business and double down,” he said. But Pearson is staying optimistic. “The strongest companies will come out of this period.”
“There won't be as much runway, so it’s time to focus on the most optimized aspects of the business and double down.”
New solutions for working remotely
Remember when this professor was being interviewed live on the BBC and his kids suddenly barged into the room? Now imagine that happening to millions of people all over the country every day, as school closures mean remote parents are home with their kids during work hours.
Managers understand that working from home with children is going to present many difficult challenges and are experimenting with new solutions.
At Upwork, employees with children at home are encouraged to block off specific time for caregiver duties like preparing lunch. “Schools closing has caused a massive change in a parent’s availability,” Collins said. By setting aside specific time for kids, teams can better understand when employees are available and hopefully minimize disruptions — though most understand kids won’t always respect their parents’ calendars.
Supporting employees beyond their work
Collins has also been advising Upwork employees to go slow. “We operate at such a high velocity and agility,” he said. “It’s important to be intentional with communication — to be more empathetic, more frequent and more deliberate.”
“It’s important to be intentional with communication — to be more empathetic, more frequent and more deliberate.”
Zendrive is taking the threat of coronavirus very seriously, Matus said, but he’s also taking time to reassure his team that their jobs aren’t going anywhere. “It’s OK if we don’t have all the answers,” he said. “But it’s time to give our teams confidence through visibility and transparency.”
As the situation continues to change rapidly, Scalero’s Pearson is taking it one day at a time. “There is no playbook for this situation,” he said. “Be supportive of your team, first and foremost, as this virus will affect everyone in some way, and give your team the freedom they need to take care of themselves and their family.”
Solano of Ironclad agrees that employees need to know their leaders care about them beyond work productivity right now. “Enabling flexibility around family obligations is critical,” she said. “And, of course, finding time for personal displays of empathy will go a long way.”