The journey of a startup is fraught with hardships and difficulties. But the COVID-19 pandemic especially made us realize the pitfalls of a national lockdown on the whole economy. To be sure, the SaaS ecosystem like every other sector took a massive beating over 2020. We asked entrepreneurs what they did to cope with this sudden breakdown of the existing order—did they introduce changes in their leadership strategy? And at a more philosophical level—did the pandemic transform their outlook towards life?
The first important thing is that your employees should be able to work in an environment that is conducive to them. At least in SaaS, all companies have moved to work from home. We are privileged, when I compare my notes with CEOs of other brick-and-mortar companies, that software services can work online from home. All our source code is on GitHub. It is a shared environment to work. We can measure productivity. We can use two collaborative tools like Microsoft Teams or Slack and continue to work efficiently. That I see as the least disruption in our narrative of software services as an industry. Almost all the companies were able to shift to work from home in a pretty seamless fashion. There are minor issues—whether you have all the laptops or not, and specific to India people work from villages—but teams have been very committed, one way or another they find internet connectivity and
YOU WILL HAVE TO THINK TWO STEPS AHEAD OF WHAT CAN GO WRONG FROM WHERE WE ARE RIGHT NOW. ALSO, THE BIGGEST ISSUE IS WE SHOULD NOT ADD TO THE STRESS OF PEOPLE.
– MANAV GARG
then they are online from there. That I would say is the easiest part of managing this crisis. Customer communication and the business continuity plan for customers become the key points in such a crisis. How will their business not get interrupted and at times like this when they need more automation than less? You now need software to do things that you could do manually, sitting in the office before.
A lot will also depend on how much money you have on the balance sheet, but no matter how much money you have on your balance sheet, I think you will have to be very financially prudent in these times to make sure that you live through these crises. The two key parts which actually, in my experience, help the most are: discuss the problems at hand in detail and discuss the solution and the options in detail. You will have to think two steps ahead of what can go wrong from where we are right now. Also, the biggest issue is we should not add to the stress of people. There has to be some conversation that is more open, and which recognizes the problem, where people can talk about the stress that they have.
The corona environment has not really impacted us, from a productivity perspective. When we started doing 100 percent work from home, we expected a 20 percent to 30 percent dip in productivity. Instead, we see a 30 percent increase in productivity, and that was a pleasant surprise. People know what they are doing, they have a good relationship; they have trust and they have clarity in their objectives. All of that came because of consistent efforts in investing in culture and continuously talking to employees, meeting them every week, everybody knows everybody else so they can talk to anybody, cut across organizational boundaries. No reason to stick within your hierarchy. All of this is helping us a lot in a situation like work from home because if you try to follow the traditional hierarchical model, it will take a long time to get responses, especially in a work-from-home paradigm. You need to figure out how everyone can talk to everybody and get whatever information they need to get their work done. It means that you cannot go through your manager for everything. You should be able to talk to your manager’s peer manager and then get something that you want, which is very important and possible only if you have invested in that kind of culture.
Our happiness is mostly determined by our immediate surroundings—the people we surround ourselves with, those we talk to on a daily basis, our interactions with the rest of the human beings around us, and our physical surroundings. I think those have a lot more influence on our happiness than all those macro issues. For example, right now, I am in a village, I am surrounded by essentially agricultural workers, some of them own some land, maybe an acre or two, some of them don’t own any land, some of them drive an autorickshaw and so on. These people come from very humble economic strata, but they are genuinely happy, they are loving and they are kind people and I am surrounded by them and I actually have learned to understand their world. Compared to them, my own problems look trivial. I mean, you are talking to a guy who actually has maybe one week’s worth of cash and then next week he does not have any idea of how he is going to ever make money because autorickshaws stopped running during the lockdown. So you realize that your problems are nothing compared to his. Then I actually start thinking: how do I help this guy? I am not worried about myself. Then our own problems go away. This is actually what spiritual gurus always tell you—that there may not be any solution to your own problems, but if you think about somebody else’s problems, try to solve them, maybe your problems kind of go away. I’ve known this from personal experience. If I think about some of the landless workers’ problems here, my own problems actually tend to go away. I don’t actually care about them anymore. So, that’s how I keep myself sane.
Culture has always been number one for us, more than anything else. I think it’s what gets us through these hard times, it’s why we are able to suddenly support customers left, right and centre and in whatever form that we need to because everybody is ready. Without that kind of culture of just rolling up your sleeves and getting down to work no matter where you are, from
CULTURE HAS ALWAYS BEEN NUMBER ONE FOR US AND THAT’S WHAT GETS US THROUGH THESE HARD TIMES, IT’S WHY WE ARE ABLE TO SUDDENLY SUPPORT CUSTOMERS LEFT, RIGHT AND CENTRE AND IN WHATEVER FORM THAT WE NEED TO BECAUSE EVERYBODY IS READY.
— ASHWINI ASOKAN
my teams in Redwood City right up to my team in Chennai, people, all over, doesn’t matter where. The team has been absolutely relentless, and I find myself being very, very thankful for that.
Staying sane is a decision, in my opinion. You just have to decide to be positive and be happy all the time. Even in high-growth situations, we have seen founders who are very anxious and stressed. What I have realized after interacting with lots of people is, fundamentally, you are who you are. Times will come and go but you have to learn to look for positivity. I would appeal to all the founders to say, Hey, this too will pass. Just stay positive, learn to appreciate some of the good things that we have in life, and go back and do what you really love doing. Use the time to focus on things you love, doing the things that give you happiness. Spend time with family and look for positivity. The most important thing right now is, how do we take care of so many people who are losing their livelihoods. It’s devastating for them. So, all of us have to help those people in need, in whatever way we can. I will probably say it again: pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.
The conversations will be more uncomfortable in the growth scenario where you are letting go of people because of your own performance. For example, if you are executing badly as a founder or the individual is executing badly as an employee, then those are the uncomfortable conversations. Today, it is a survival of the company and it is uncomfortable, but I don’t know any way to make it easy. The only way is to be truthful, be honest, and explain the situation. There are some companies which are asking employees to work without a salary for a few months and compensating them with Esops, so maybe there are some employees who can go through that, but at the end of the day, you can still be friends with people even after you separate from them. I am still friends with all the people that I have laid off in my life. It’s important to explain to them what is happening, the reason for this decision, and clarify that it’s not personal. It’s the survival of the company and the company is bigger than anybody, right? It’s bigger than the CEO, it’s bigger than the investor. The company is the first
“THE HAPPINESS OF PURSUIT.” NOT THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS, JUST THE HAPPINESS IN PURSUING THINGS.
— ADITYA RAO
priority for the founder or the CEO and you have to do whatever it takes to make sure the company survives. The dilemma would be, what happens in three months if the situation improves and you have made a wrong call of letting go of all the people. That’s not the wrong call. You may have to do it in order to survive because what happens if you keep all the employees and then in three months the company dies?
This used to be my Twitter bio: “The happiness of pursuit.” Not the pursuit of happiness, just the happiness in pursuing things. What else will one do, 9 to 5, get into a bus, go into campus, write some bad code, sit on a bench and come back. I am not saying there is anything bad with it; I just don’t relate to it. Since I have gone into this journey of building a lifestyle SaaS business of my own, I learned to code, I learned how to play the ukulele, my family life is way better, my health is way better. Especially in these [COVID-19] times, if something happens to you and you are on a hospital bed, you will really be thinking, I have $5 million ARR, and that deal hasn’t closed; I should have probably done these things differently. My wife and I have now completely sold off everything we had in Bengaluru and given away almost everything. We are just living out of two-three bags in Himachal. If the current circumstances allowed, we would have been in a different country, just hoping to earn that $1,000 MRR, keep expenses low and just sustainably grow from there; what else do you need?
*Sridhar Vembu comments are from the Outliers Podcast hosted by Pankaj Mishra ©️SourceCode Media Private Limited
- STAYING SANE IS A DECISION
- BE OPEN WITH YOUR EMPLOYEES
- PAY ATTENTION TO MENTAL HEALTH