Startups get their hustle mode on to deal with the coronavirus challenge

Border controls. Travel restrictions. Event cancellations. Ban on gatherings. Malls shuttered. As the world readies for a recession in the aftermath of COVID-19, startups are hustling to deal with the ongoing health crisis and economic consequences.

Startups get their hustle mode on to deal with the coronavirus challenge

Tuesday March 17, 2020,

10 min Read

Since it originated in China in late December, COVID-19 has infected tens of thousands of people across the world. The spread of the novel coronavirus, known for the crown-like spikes that protrude from its surface, has left the world reeling: it has spread to 135 countries, and caused more than 169,000 cases and 6,500 deaths

Apart from the human cost, the pandemic has roiled financial markets and left the world teetering on the edge of an economic downturn.

International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva termed the outbreak the world’s “most pressing uncertainty”. Meanwhile, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has said the global economy may now grow at its slowest rate since 2009

And as businesses around the world count the mounting costs of the pandemic, startups are getting into hustle mode to tackle this pressing challenge. A founder's mental makeup lends a “bias for action”. This focus on clear thinking and innovation is now being used to rapidly assess fast-changing developments, their many implications, and figure out how to deal with both: the health and humanitarian crisis, and economic shock. 

According to a McKinsey report, COVID-19: Implications for Business, the pandemic may lead to one of “three broad economic scenarios might unfold: a quick recovery, a global slowdown, and a pandemic-driven recession”. However, the consulting firm believes that decision makers should not “expect the worst” and that the “prevalent pessimistic narrative, which both markets and policymakers seem to favour as they respond to the virus, underweights the possibility of a more optimistic outcome to COVID-19 evolution”.

Startup Impact of Coronavirus

The impact on startups

Startups in India have an eye on both - the impact and the opportunities – that the pandemic brings to the fore.

Yes to remote working 

Organisations across the world are in agreement that minimising the spread of coronavirus is important to ensure employee safety and well being, and that this needs to be put ahead of business interests. Companies such as Cognizant, Wipro, Godrej, Infosys, Hindustan Unilever Ltd., and Paytm are among those who are pulling out all the stops. 

At many offices across India, remote working is being seen as the way to ensure “social distancing”

Cloud-based software company Salesforce is “strongly encouraging employees to work remotely”, and claims to have this decision “based on guidance from local leaders and governments, and in service to protecting our employees, their families”.

Bengaluru, India's Silicon Valley, went into lockdown mode with many companies, including Microsoft, Bytedance, BYJU'S, Udaan, Swiggy, Ola, and Uber, rolling out remote work. Internet behemoth Amazon has announced work from home for all its employees till the end of March. 

India’s leading ecommerce marketplace Flipkart, along with its allied businesses Myntra and PhonePe, has also extended its work-from-home policy to the end of next week. Flipkart is also promoting the use of video conferences for meetings, including job interviews, and is temporarily avoiding events and training programmes. 

Farooq Adam, Co-Founder of Fynd, a fashion ecommerce portal, said,

“We have come up with Remote Work 101, our action plan to empower our team members to be location-independent. The action plan lists down personal and team productivity habits that individuals and teams can practice to stay focused.”

He added that the startup planned to share this action plan to help people transition to remote work smoothly as “working from home can be a new concept for teams around the world”. 

No to non-essential travel

With curbs on travel and large business events, many startups, IT majors, and corporates have ruled out non-essential domestic and international travel. In a statement, IT major Wipro said: “Wipro has suspended travel to and transit through mainland China, including Hong Kong and Macau, until further notice. Employees have also been advised to avoid non-critical travel to Singapore, South Korea, Japan, and Italy.”

The company also cautioned employees who had travelled to the destinations to remain vigilant and stay at home for 14 days before returning to office.

Asheesh Chanda, CEO of digital wealth management startup Kristal.AI, said all necessary precautions as advised by the government were being taken. “Kristal.AI operates in three locations - Singapore, Hong Kong, and India. Non-essential travel between offices is currently discouraged. We have asked all employees across locations to avail of work-from-home options if they have the slightest concern about their health. Our offices are being cleaned and sanitised twice a day. We have also provided sanitisers and other preventive measures to all our employees."

Increased focus on hygiene

Indian companies are also implementing measures to ensure and maintain high levels of hygiene at the workplace. A rulebook, COVID-19 Precautions, is being circulated among the startup community on Twitter. The document, prepared by members of the community, shares updates, recommends precautionary steps, and also lists hospitals and other essentials.

Even as FMCG companies double down on production of hand sanitisers, startups have started doing their bit by putting the bottles out for everyone to see - and use. Multiple bottles are now seen in bathrooms, cafes, breakout areas, and open zones. Masks are also being provided at some companies. 

Flipkart is focusing on keeping its vast fleet of wishmasters (delivery personnel) hale and hearty. “We are providing all our wishmasters sanitisers and other required equipment to use while they are on the go. We are keeping track of impacted areas to minimise exposure, and advising those who are unwell to rest with all assurance of medical support,” a spokesperson said. 

Ola has ensured that walk-in centres across cities have a steady supply of health advisory material, sanitisers, and masks that can be picked up and used by driver partners. “This will help create a safer and cleaner ride experience for our customers as well. We are also reiterating the importance of practising recommended personal hygiene through a dedicated preparedness module for driver partners, which can effectively reduce the extent of the contagion by building high awareness,” an Ola spokesperson said. 

The ride-hailing unicorn has also set up a task force comprising members from various internal departments to ensure continuous monitoring and 24X7 support for all stakeholders. 

Asheesh of Kristal.AI added that precautions were being taken to ensure that all food delivered to the office premises is safe for consumption. “We are in regular contact with all vendors to verify that optimum safety measures are in place. We understand that it takes a collective effort from the management and employees to ensure that work goes on smoothly,” Asheesh said. 

He explained that as a technology company, they have inbuilt processes to guarantee that it's business as usual even if teams are working remotely. "We also have a business continuity plan available for use in case of any emergencies,” he added.

At many startups, the measures also include gig economy personnel who are part of their network. For example, Urban Company, formerly known as UrbanClap has rolled out a COVID-19 health insurance and income protection cover for all 30,000 service professionals active on its platform in India.

“We are committed to helping our service partners live a secure life. These are unprecedented times and we want to stand by our partners. Additionally, we are training our service partners on how to maintain hygiene,” said Abhiraj Singh Bhal, Co-Founder, Urban Company.

What are foodtech startups doing? 

Some sectors such as hyperlocal delivery, food delivery, and logistics need to follow stronger and stricter codes to ensure hygiene.

Bengaluru-based foodtech unicorn Swiggy sent an email to all its consumers, detailing the different measures it was taking to deal with the situation. Zomato soon followed suit, announcing its own safekeeping measures. 

Both foodtech unicorns have, since then, introduced contactless food delivery. 

Deepinder Goyal, Co-founder and CEO, Zomato, said, “A consumer can now choose this option through our ‘delivery instructions’ feature.” He added that an “app update over the weekend will make this explicitly clear to everyone”. 

"We are emphasising best practices of how to handle food packages to ensure safe and hygienic delivery. We have asked our delivery partners to self-quarantine or reach out to a doctor immediately if they have any symptoms. We're also informing our fleet that they don't need to force themselves to work for financial reasons if they get infected with COVID-19. We'll support our delivery partners with financial assistance, on top of medical insurance, in case they are diagnosed with COVID-19,” Deepinder said. 

Impact on the edtech ecosystem

Food delivery may continue to have takers, but the pandemic seems to have shuttered learning across the world.  Last week, UNESCO said the coronavirus outbreak had led almost 22 countries across three continents to close schools, affecting over 290 million students. 

UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay then said: “While temporary school closures as a result of health and other crises are not new, unfortunately, the global scale and speed of the current educational disruption is unparalleled and, if prolonged, could threaten the right to education.”

Many state governments in India too have shut down schools and colleges to prevent the spread of the virus. 

Edtech startups have come to the forefront to offer help at this critical time in the educational calendar, when most schools slot final examinations and appraisals. Several startups, including BYJU'S, Vedantu, Unacademy, Toppr, Educational Initiatives, upGrad, and Lido Learning, are offering free online courses to ensure that learning is not disrupted. 

Vedantu Co-founder Vamsi Krishna said, “We will ensure academic requirements, continuity, and learning do not halt while schools and colleges are closed. We are offering entire learning live and online, which can easily be done from home and does not involve individual contact. We will ensure the teachers train, adopt and get confident with the online technology platform.”

Amid the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, online learning platforms and tutors can help students keep at their academics.

Zishaan Hayath, CEO and Co-founder of Toppr, which is offering free classes for students from Classes V to XII, said: “Our video classes have always been available as a free learning resource. We hope we overcome this situation soon. Meanwhile, students can log on to our website to catch up on their studies from the comfort and safety of their homes.”

Hospitality and travel sectors infected

The government’s decision to cancel almost all visas until April 15 is set to adversely affect the industry that caters to about 10 million foreign tourists a year. The visa ban and travel advisories have also led to ticket discounting, hitting the depressed aviation market. 

Amit Damani, Co-founder of Vista Rooms, said bookings had dropped by five percent till now, but the startup was taking measures to keep travellers safe. “We have made sanitisers available at all properties and are going in for additional cleanings every day. We have partnered with nearest hospitals and are sharing details with guests. Additional medical kits have also been placed at every property to ensure maximum hygiene,” he said. 

Vista Rooms has also extended an option of rescheduling up to 48 hours prior to check-in. Stays booked in March can be rescheduled for any property until September 30.

Amit said that many people had chosen to cancel international trips, and were looking at nearby, driving-distance getaways. 

Meanwhile, wearable startup GOQii has introduced “Contact Tracking”, which will help users track every moment, activity, and those who have been in close contact with those infected. The updated feature will effectively help in social distancing as recommended by the WHO.

“The GOQii COVID-19-related features will help with contact tracing and remote quarantine management. We are hoping that we can play a major role in helping people take precautions and help the government and health authorities to contain COVID19. We hope our combined efforts will rapidly lead to a better epidemiological understanding and improve outcomes,” said Vishal Gondal, Founder and CEO GOQii.  

Clearly, prevention appears to be the best cure when it comes to the fast-spreading novel coronavirus. And startups are leading the way. 

(With inputs from Teja Lele Desai, Debolina Biswas, Vishal Krishna, Thimmaya Poojary, and Sindhu V Kashyap)