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Perspectives

What we know about tackling Covid-19 as a business, so far

Tessa Clarke, CEO & co-founder of OLIO
Tessa Clarke, co-founder OLIO

Whether we were in training or not; whether we were fit or not; whether we wanted to or not… every business owner in the world was entered into the Marathon des Sables — the world’s toughest race — sometime in early Spring 2020.

As we come to what feels like the end of the first marathon — with another 5 ahead — it makes sense to take stock of what on earth has just happened. This is a brutal fight for survival. Which means learning on the go is critical to our chances of crossing the finishing line with our businesses still in tact (if barely recognisable).

Here are 5 lessons we’ve learned so far at OLIO — the food sharing app — as we’ve attempted to navigate this unwelcome race:

1. Speed of adaptation is key

It’s widely believed Charles Darwin said: “It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.” And never has this been truer than in a crisis. From the macro level — where countries that responded fastest have seen the lowest death tolls — to the micro level where businesses have sprung into action to support their clients, staff and communities, we’ve seen that speed of response has been key. We learned this when our first initiative — to equip our Community Heroes (volunteers) with printed flyers offering help to neighbours — took far too long to execute and so had limited impact. Whereas when the school closures were announced it took just 26 hours to go from an idea in my kitchen — that we should galvanise our community to #Cook4Kids to help ensure the 1.3 million school children who rely upon school meals don’t go hungry — to a fully fledged multi-media campaign with the backing of celebrity chefs including Melissa Hemsley, James Martin, Thomasina Miers and more. Critical to enabling us to respond so quickly was our daily COVID-19 meeting, attended by the head of each function. This enabled us to agree the strategy, take decisions and remove bottlenecks at lightening speed. Another great initiative we’ve seen has been Bandcamp Friday. The platform announced it would wave fees from sales every Friday during the Coronavirus crisis, allowing artists to increase one income stream while others have been stemmed.

2. Resiliency isn't wasteful, it's essential

Every single day of this crisis I’ve been beyond thankful that we closed a round of financing in January. At the time we were asked why on earth we were fundraising when we had plenty of money in the bank. The answer is that is was a combination of fear (surely the 11 year bull market had to break sometime soon?!) and greed (we knew 2020 was going to be the year the world finally wanted to take action on the climate crisis). We certainly didn’t have the foresight to predict a global pandemic, but what we *have* learned is that our prudent approach to financial management has been the difference between life and death for the company. And we’ve continued to apply this approach by taking fast, decisive action in this crisis to manage our cost base to enable us to have 24 months runway — which is what the crowd-sourced wisdom from our investors suggested was optimal. Having resiliency in your finances or supply chain or team has historically been seen as wasteful; for the rest of this marathon and beyond it will be seen as critical to business success.

Making the most of local suppliers and partners

Alexandre talks us through how his business pivoted and found support in local suppliers and businesses

3. “Where were you during the war?”

How we show up during this time of crisis will determine how we will be remembered for many, many years into the future, and will either be a source of pride and competitive advantage, or shame. In addition to the actions your business takes in the fight against COVID-19, you will also need to ensure that you treat your customers, suppliers, partners and employees with transparency, empathy and respect. What this means is honoring pre-existing commitments where possible (we paid our media planner for work done on our cancelled marketing campaign), going above and beyond to support any employees that you’re letting go (we gave an extra month notice period), and at all times being as honest as you can with your communications, despite the uncertainty of the circumstances (the team know pay cuts may still come into play). Now more than ever, is when you show your true colours and demonstrate what your company values really are, and this will be far more powerful than any posters on the wall. It’s been both inspiring and depressing to see examples of businesses either supporting their partners or failing to do so. The hospitality industry has been dealt one of the toughest blows, so to see businesses like Fuller’s writing off rent for it’s landlords indefinitely is brilliant – and will inspire new custom and loyalty from their partners and customers alike.

4. Crisis is an amplifier, not a leveller

In the early days it was often touted that this crisis was a “great leveller”, given that a virus doesn’t care who’s rich or poor. And once lock-down was announced there was plenty of talk of the “blitz spirit” and everybody “being in it together”. Whilst such statements might seem intuitively correct, and certainly appealing, we’ve learned that this is an *enormous* fallacy, on every level. Very quickly members of our community reached out to us, desperate to access food as they were forced into isolation, or had lost their jobs, or were working long shifts and confronted with empty shelves at the end of the day. When research emerged that 1.5 million Brits are going hungry every day, it merely served to reinforce what we instinctively knew — that this crisis is not in fact a leveller, it’s instead an amplifier of unconscionable levels of inequality. We’ve also realised that even amongst our team, the crisis has had a very unequal effect — team members who are homeschooling kids whilst trying to work full time, or who are living alone, or who have health concerns, or who don’t have a garden are having a remarkably different experience than others. What this means is that now more than ever, it’s essential to spend as much time reflecting to our differences as it is embracing our similarities.

5. Crisis is an accelerant to the future

As well as being a great amplifier, we’ve also learned that this crisis is great accelerant too. Trends that would have taken years, or even decades to unfold are taking place in just weeks and months — tele-medicine, digital learning, e-commerce and remote working being perhaps the most obvious examples. However we’ve also spotted some other interesting trends that are emerging. In the area of food for example, we’ve come across research which shows that roughly half of all people have changed their attitudes towards the value of food, and the amount of food they’re wasting has significantly decreased. And with the great swathes of people now volunteering, and an incredible number of community and local initiatives popping up all over the country, we’re hopeful that the corona virus will usher in a new, much more purposeful, and human decade. The corona virus has shown us what we *can* do in a crisis. Now it’s up to all of us to seize this momentum and ensure that we emerge from this series of marathons emboldened by our new sense of agency, and determined to build a future that is much more sustainable and fair, than our past.

 

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