Surviving in uncertainty: Karan Bajaj lists top lessons from COVID-19 for rising entrepreneurs
We had started our Series B fundraise in March 2020 when the first lockdown was announced. Like everyone, I was worried for the health and safety of family, employees, and the world at large. But as a founder, I had another worry below the surface.
Would WhiteHat Jr survive the lockdown? We had just launched in the US, barely a year into our inception. With scaling came uncertainty and unknown costs, and unlike Lockdown 2.0 now, venture capitalists had all but stopped deal-making in the ambiguity of Lockdown 1.0.
With limited cash in the bank, we had to decide on leaning in to grow versus scaling back to survive. We ultimately chose the former.
Here are some lessons from this period for entrepreneurs in similar situations even as experiences in each category and context will be unique.
Your mission will guide you
In the midst of daily fires, such as our support call centres being shut down overnight during the lockdown or recruiting and onboarding 200+ new hires remotely each week, we kept centred because we knew our mission was more relevant than ever in the pandemic.
Kids experiencing the joy of learning by building things was critical with schools all over the world struggling to make the transition to online school. On the other hand, our endeavour to create thousands of women teaching jobs in India was more urgent than ever as the Indian economy shed thousands of jobs daily, making it an almost moral responsibility for entrepreneurs with functioning business models to go all in to create jobs.
As a result, we were never truly in doubt about leaning in despite the fundraising uncertainty. Our mission was our guiding light. In times of doubt, your mission will always give you your resolution.
Track daily metrics rigorously
Immediately after the lockdown, we started a tradition of reviewing twenty of our most critical metrics from class ratings to time spent on the platform daily at 10 AM as a full management team.
The daily discipline has continued each day without fail for more than a year now, enabling us to make both big decisions, like launching in new countries like Brazil and Mexico when core countries have hit cash flow stability, to daily tactical decisions of workforce planning at a granular level.
What gets measured gets managed. And in a time of uncertainty, shifting the management horizon from the more typical frequency of quarterly or monthly reviews to daily reviews, brings order and certainty daily in an organisation.
Be unafraid to take the counter-view
At the onset of the pandemic, all investors advised their startup portfolios to scale down and conserve cash, shifting significant decision making until things became clearer. We took the counter view and invested heavily in student and teacher support software and systems right at the start of the pandemic.
As a result, our Net Promoter Score (NPS) rocketed up from 50 to more than 70, significantly increasing our referrals and organic acquisition. This allowed us to become cash-flow positive much earlier than expected. Likewise, we made some of our most critical senior management hires during the pandemic when everybody was shedding staff to cut costs, and the company grew in leaps and bounds, from 1000 teachers to 10,000+ teachers, because of their singular efforts.
There’s wisdom in the dominant view, of course, but a founder who’s very close to daily metrics has a deeply intuitive sense of their business and should be unafraid to take the counter view.
Identify behaviour change patterns
Times of great uncertainty will also be singular times of customer behaviour change. If you’re deeply entrenched in your business, you’ll be able to identify green shoots immediately and make seismic shifts to meet your customers shifting needs.
In WhiteHat Jr, for instance, we saw classes and projects done by student cohorts grow exponentially even with schools reopening after the pandemic. We called parents and immediately understood that students wanted more from live online learning beyond coding and we expanded to curricular subjects like Math and Music, something we hadn’t considered in the original thesis of the company.
In times of uncertainty, be closely connected to each action your customers take, identify behaviour change patterns, and take swift, decisive actions in response, fundamentally changing your company’s destiny.
Your team is your greatest strength
Like most startup founders, I’ve often felt that you could take my business, brand and systems away, but if you just left my team with me, I’d probably rebuild the company from scratch once again within months. Your team is everything for a startup.
Unlike a big company where the wheel is set in motion for years and each new person who joins gives it a little push forward, in startups, you move the wheel daily, furiously, always working towards a better business model, a better distribution channel, a better margin structure, a better product, something.
Invest in your team, be it in generous equity ownership or a transparent, genuine concern for their well-being and growth. You’ll be surprised by how a team of people working on a common goal never fails to find a ray of light amidst the darkest of clouds.
I hope these can be of some use to fellow entrepreneurs in these times of uncertainty. The country needs you, the makers and builders, now more than ever. And as always, please drop me a note if I can be of any help at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)