Covid-19: 5 Tips for Startup Success in Challenging Times

Original article can be found here (source): Artificial Intelligence on Medium

Covid-19: 5 Tips for Startup Success in Challenging Times

Embracing the new normal to transfigure your trajectory

Covid-19 is one of the biggest challenges in our lifetime and we need a paradigm shift to thrive. I recently gave a talk at an exciting London fintech startup, on redefining challenges to drive success. I predicted that way we communicate and adapt our business in defining moments determines the eventual winners. Our ability to accommodate a new normal means being super-agile; let’s not pretend that nothing has happened. What can a start-up founder do right now to turn this challenge into transformative change?

In the early days of my career, both completing my PhD, and subsequently in industry, I managed projects and people in situations I’ve never experienced before. I had to adapt. The team needed to be motivated as external stakeholders rightly demanded strong results. Super Agile Focused Communication was key, with a core passion to drive success.

Tip 1 — Keep the Focus

I’m slightly obsessed with focused productivity. As an AI Scientist I develop solutions for industry, transforming cutting edge AI into actionable insights. Hence, when I’m solving a particular problem, I’m focused on the unknown unknowns. The upside is getting a lot done without distraction. The downside is demanding too much productivity from others and potentially hurting their feelings. Which I did. Once. Never after that. And this was, simply because of the way my words were interpreted and perceived. It was not because of my intention. My intention was to get the job done as quickly as possible, and with as little distraction as possible. Keeping your focus on the solution, and communicating the changes in a way that the whole team is on board will make you unstoppable.

Solution: Working from Home, with the ‘Rope Trick’

Empathy is a little used word in business. But it’s key to working with colleagues and demanding clients. Aligning team focus, emotions, and big picture dreams, with new goals brings a powerful synergy. Your responsibility as a leader is to share your vision, and encourage others to contribute to the new solution.

“Rope Trick”: Seek to understand the other person’s perspective and act as one.

One of my favourite books — The Diamond Cutter, talks about the concept of the Rope Trick, where you are bound to act as one by a symbolic rope. This means understanding unique personal and business goals, and different personality types. Synergy between teammates necessitates good communication and the goal of mutual success.

After all, we each bring unique qualities to the table and when aligned the sum is greater than the individual parts. For this to happen, in working from home conditions, communication channels need to be crystal clear. Establish regular catchups between all members of your team, and be warned that some people might take longer than the others to adjust.

You could apply the Rope Trick to the whole team, the whole nation, and the whole world. Which brings me to the second potential hurdle:

Tip 2— The Illusion of Communication: a New Understanding.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. “

— George Bernard Shaw

In 2011, I worked in a startup building on the technology at the core of Siri before it was sold to Apple. Our goal was to create a learning companion. It was a very exciting project for all of us, and we were so passionate that we went way beyond just improving a core platform.

We made it scalable, without any need to update the algorithms. I remember a day full of meetings with the SRI team in Menlo Park. I later proudly discovered that my UK team had delivered a new ‘learning bot’ on a completely new subject, the same day. SRI team were impressed because they understood the tech. But our non-tech management team didn’t get it. How could they not appreciate what we’ve built? There was a communication issue.

It was two years later, that Google acquired API.AI today known as DialogFlow, and Facebook acquired Both are now very popular and enable anyone to create a simple bot in a matter of hours. That proved that what we had at that moment was very special, very advanced of the competition, and very hot on the market, but the broken communication lines between the tech and non-tech teams meant this strategic advantage was squandered. The assumption that what we knew, they also knew, was not based on reality. Which is why, to prevent this happening, I decided to lead the business side of Sentient Machines as a CEO.

Solution: Team Communication

Being transparent and as open as possible with everyone is key. In the absence of face-to-face meetings, a video conference can be as productive. Everyone has a part to play in delivering a total resurgence. Acknowledge this, and you will witness a productive environment where everyone is contributing their absolute best to deliver larger goals. Which takes me to the next point:

Tip 3— It’s Your Responsibility to Sell

What are you doing to save costs and make sure you can survive in the next 12 or 18 months? How are you motivating your team and driving sales? The economy will crash significantly harder if all businesses simply stop, and it is our responsibility not only to sell for our businesses, but to support others and enable them to thrive under new market conditions.

Covid-19 has made people vulnerable, and rightly cautious. Your pitch might need to be adjusted. Understanding changing requirements and implementing transformative solutions is paramount.

Solution — Thinking Ahead

As a founder, you always need to think ahead of the game and lead by example. It is important to own your desires, beliefs, and decisions. To always have a plan B for survival in critical conditions.

Ayn Rand in The Fountainhead talks beautifully about Creators vs. Second handers. Creators are typically not welcomed by the world because they disrupt Second handers. But the world is making progress on the back of the work of the Creators. For the benefit of humanity, Creators are what moves us forward.

In the time of crisis, Creators will be the ones making a shift. There is nothing wrong with being authentic and different. Which brings me to the next point:

Tip 4— Understand Your Motivation

We spend a lot of time running around, ticking off our todo list. We are constantly bombarded with information our brain needs to process. In the time of pandemic, you could get exhausted if you don’t have strong motivation. What really gets you out of bed in the morning?

Solution: Find Your Mountain Garden

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

– Leo Tolstoy

Recall when you felt content and happy and align with it. Keep reviewing this until you get to a clear understanding of your motivation.

Yoga, swimming, running or any activity that helps you get out of your mind, will afford you a higher level perspective.

It will help you find your Mountain Garden, — a concept from a beautiful fable about self-actualisation. Following your intuition to align with everything you love. Your Mountain Garden can be hidden at first, but becomes clearer as you tune into yourself, rather than the outside world. I remember reading this book at a very stressful time of my career, and it really helped me to realign with my core values and happiness. As if someone has tapped me on a shoulder and said ‘everything is fine, you are doing fine’. It’s exactly what’s needed in the time of uncertainty.

This ability to concentrate brings clarity to the things that matter, which is my next point, taking direct action:

Tip 5— Keep It Fresh

We need to be inspired to move out of our comfort zone on a regular basis. We are creatures of habit, and by adopting the positive aspects, we can optimise personal evolution.

It’s not easy. Even under normal circumstances, being a founder brings a lot of joy, but also stress.

Solution: Surround Yourself with People and Things That Inspire You

It’s important to always make new friends and take note of people who inspire you. Spend as much time with them as possible. People who have their interests aligned with yours (remember The Rope Trick?). Working in a company where people inspire you is important, because that’s what’s going to push you forward.

Elon Musk is a big inspiration. For his tenacity, big vision, persistence, and the fact that money is the resource to get things done. I couldn’t remove the smile from my face when I heard a song he recently produced. In the words of Elon Musk, if you feel inspired to make a difference:

“Don’t doubt your vibe, because it’s true

Don’t doubt your vibe because it’s you”