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Engineering your start-up for success in lockdown - and beyond

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Peshkova)

The ‘new normal’ is now ubiquitous with the changing world that we live and work in. Many start-ups in particular have experienced significant challenges.

Economic uncertainty has caused some investors to be more cautious, which has meant some start-ups found it difficult to secure resources at the start of lockdown. In a bid to offer greater support, the government recently announced a new £500 million fund for start-ups.

Now more than ever, it’s critical for start-ups to future proof against the uncertain and likely challenging business climate to come over the next few months, and possibly years.

In the start-up circuit, we’ve had to make adjustments and changes at incredible pace to how we operate our business and the ways that we work together remotely. 

From an engineering perspective, many projects have been scrapped or revamped to reflect both a drop in demand and the current business climate. We’ve been looking at some of the practical steps that engineering and product teams could be taking to help to set their start-up for success in today’s ‘new normal’, but also in the future.

Applying lessons learned from the past to engineer a better future

When thinking about this, we reflect on the lessons learned during the economic crisis in the early 2000s.

Entrepreneur Peter Thiel’s iconic work, ‘From Zero to One’ provides an informative look into our tech industry and also a road map that can help engineering and tech teams determine where to focus their efforts to make a positive impact on the business.

According to the book, the four characteristics that any dominant company should have, include economies of scale, intellectual property, network effects and branding. The crisis has crippled if not fundamentally levelled these characteristics.

Economies of scale have vanished for most industries. Businesses that are dependent or software-based have been less impacted. Conversely, the effects on established companies like Uber and Airbnb have been immense as people are restricting their movements during lockdown, meaning that travel demand has dropped off a cliff. 

If efficiency used to be your company’s competitive advantage, lockdown totally changed the fundamental rules of engagement. Your business structure is now your biggest liability, as it is a fixed cost.

How can this be mitigated? While the ‘new normal’ certainly has impacted projects and plans for a majority of businesses, there are still opportunities for engineering and tech teams to make a lasting impact on products and services that are needed now, but that also will be critical after the pandemic.

Our team has implemented a three-step process to overcome challenges posed by the pandemic - wait and perfect, embrace and change course. Wait and perfect, as well as embrace can be adopted quite quickly, but changing course requires a total shift in the business, not just across a handful of tech teams.

Deploying phase one - wait and perfect

The most immediate reaction across teams is to wait and see how the situation will evolve, given that “this is rare and will go away”. However, the decision to keep some part of your teams working across product excellence or continue with their usual projects could be a mistake.

This is a pitfall that could lead to an ostrich algorithm approach, meaning that teams avoid problems that could occur in super unlikely scenarios. If you asked me six months ago, I would have said a global pandemic would have been one such scenario.

This approach should shift slightly to wait and perfect. You are likely missing opportunities to explore new solutions and products. And, if the situation remains the same for longer than anticipated, the business could experience serious challenges in a couple of months.

Think about the key parts of your platform or business that are needed now more than ever. Let your users and customers help you determine how you can best support their changing needs. At Badi, we evaluated the parts of our platform that were vital to users during lockdown and we focused on improving their user experience.

At the same time, we listened to our users and began to anticipate what features they’ll need most once lockdown is lifted - for example, Badi’s search engine and platform curation. After three months of lockdown, more users will likely be looking to move - so we want to optimise their search to show them the best listings. At the same time, we want the booking process to be seamless - ensuring users can quickly, securely and easily book a room on Badi.

We actually invested more time in both of these areas so that we can provide the best experience to our users, even though we wouldn’t see a measurable impact anytime soon. For us, the key question we asked ourselves was - who is going to still need our help the most after lockdown?

By asking ourselves this question as we were progressing new features and projects. It helped our team to focus on what will matter most to our users and most importantly, ultimately have the biggest positive impact for our business long-term.  

Embrace the ‘new reality’ - it will help to guide new innovations and solutions

Arguably, embrace is actually the most challenging strategy to adopt as a business. It’s critical to let go of all pre-Covid 19 preconceptions and to focus on a new reality.

For experienced engineers, in particular, this is a step forward from usual practice, thinking of scalability and maintainability. Usually when planning a long-term project engineers consider potential issues, changes in technology, new requirements, different global policies and features, among others.

As a result, they usually propose engineering designs that aren’t necessarily optimal in the short term, but they’re reliable in the long run. With this in mind, it’s critical to pose the questions to the team: what will our users need now? And how will these products or features also make sense in a post-lockdown world?

Changing course - provides new challenges, but also opportunities 

While this is certainly easier said than done, now is the time to assume sunken costs due to unforeseen circumstances. Many projects will need to be shelved or completely abandoned at this time. When considering what projects to prioritise, we asked our engineering team - ‘Would we ever come back to this project?’

If the answer was ‘when things are back to normal’, it’s likely time to table this initiative. It’s incredibly difficult to predict when normalcy will resume for businesses and consumers and what that normalcy will look like.

What’s next? A focus on embracing and channelling your start-up’s purpose 

Lockdown has been an opportunity for many of us to strengthen connections with our communities - at work and at home. Our focus is on building a community of global citizens who believe that finding their place in life is just as important as finding their place to live.

When thinking about how to re-centre and drive momentum for your start-up, consider what your business’s purpose is and how you can re-energise efforts to deliver on your start-up’s purpose.

Ask the business ‘how can we harness this opportunity?’. For Badi, we’re focusing on shared experiences. As a room rental start-up, we believe that experiences are more valuable when shared with others. Our users echo this sentiment as nearly two-thirds (60 per cent) found living together with others during lockdown to be positive. 

This focus is enabling us to deliver new products and services at pace that will make a positive impact for our users now but also in the future. While what’s to come is uncertain, channelling your start-up’s purpose will enable you to engineer new solutions and products that will positively impact the business.

Reengineering teams requires a total mindset shift. Our job is to take on new challenges and identify opportunities as a business. One of my favourite books, Trillion Dollar Coach sums up this approach perfectly - it’s “not about what happened and who’s to blame, but what are we going to do about it?”

Ezequiel Cura, VP of Engineering, Badi  (opens in new tab)

Ezequiel Cura is Badi’s VP of Engineering, leading a team to deliver user-centric features for Badi's platform. He holds a CS MSc from the Universidad de Buenos Aires.