Why startups don’t want the workplace to return to normal

  • Prior to COVID-19, startups were at a competitive disadvantage – keeping pace with larger corporations but without the budget.
  • As the pandemic hit, startups were well positioned to work remotely, highlighting their resilience and agility.
  • A post-pandemic recovery should prioritize this new, fairer working model.

If you were to encapsulate the state of business in 2020 (and so far, most of 2021) in a word, it should be “friction.” I am not referring to the complications of the overnight change to digital workplaces, the lockdown of retail, or even the bureaucratic nature of vaccine rollouts. I’m talking about the constraints that disappeared for some startups, revealing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to thrive. The COVID-19 pandemic was, and is, a watershed moment for more startups to compete on a global scale. I believe that even more of them can succeed and grow in the COVID-19 recovery – if we can maintain a hybrid model of both in-person and remote business.

Before March 2020, startup and fintech founders had little choice but to play the game of large corporations. If you were trying to secure a business partner or investor from halfway around the world, you had to get on a plane. There was no option to raise money, evaluate an acquisition, or build a business partnership if you were not in the room. If you wanted to get attention to your product, you needed to attend or speak at over 30 conferences a year, from Web Summit to CES to Davos. And, most importantly, to get ahead in all the ways that mattered, you had to be in high-rise conference rooms, marbled foyers, and members-only “back rooms”, making key relationships that would pay dividends in your business. These are the typical costs of doing business for large corporations.

But for many startups, including AZA Finance’s 150-strong team spread across Lagos, Nairobi, London and Madrid, it was prohibitively expensive in money and time. Just flying from Nairobi or Senegal to London for a conference was a major expense. But we had no choice – this was how to get the investors, partners, and customers we needed to pursue our mission of expanding economic opportunity and access in frontier markets. Our agile team collaborated remotely across continents for years, and I joined Zoom conference calls as I hopped between airports. In that time, we built technology platforms from scratch that now manage more than $2.5 billion in financial transactions a year and are part of a worldwide tsunami of fintech adoption.

The reason we were able to succeed … was our prioritization of technology and our culture of flexibility.

—Elizabeth Rossiello.

The reason we were able to succeed in our efforts, despite our small size and the crowded competitor landscape, was our prioritization of technology and our culture of flexibility. We were not unique in this approach. Startups worldwide were using the same tactics to disrupt multinational behemoths like banks and Fortune 500 corporates – while following the same manic schedule of meetings, speaking engagements, and pitches. Building a business in that environment required extreme resiliency, both to business crises and personal challenges.

As a CEO and working mother, it often felt like I was living three lives at once, running company operations, running my family and being an omnipresent global evangelical for our company mission. Rather than sacrifice part of my life or work for the other, I just became more efficient, more productive and more resilient. I had to be. I learned to be on all the time and to find a solution immediately for any problem that came my way. I found a way to do more, and be more. This tightrope is one many startup CEOs walk.

Pandemic highlighted need for resilience

Why would a typical big company, with comfortable two year project schedules and a normal pace of life and work, ever need to cultivate that level of resilience? Especially the ones that primarily hire and promote male CEOs and senior executives, who are often tasked with less childcare and home responsibilities (even during a pandemic), and live in metropolitan areas like San Francisco and London with plenty of amenities and support – and a large team to cover them while they travel in first class. Here’s the answer – they didn’t.

It was always unacceptable that large companies were able to succeed without the same level of preparedness and resilience. They did not need to move to remote working to attract talent from all over the world. They did not have to use technology to automate and secure as much as possible to cut costs and keep small teams. They had no pressure to embrace emerging technologies such as blockchain and other fintech to capture market share. They could send hundreds of executives on planes to every conference every week, deluging the market with their product, service, and story. In other words: if necessity breeds invention, it is clear that they just did not need anything to change. Business was good.

Until a crisis large enough arrived. Suddenly, the world was full of friction, but our business was refreshingly free of it. We already knew how to be agile and deal with crises (in the case of AZA Finance and our fellow African startups, we were well prepared from previous epidemics like Ebola). We could raise money, hire new employees, and continue to push our mission forward. As a result, throughout 2020 we saw startups succeed in capturing unheard of levels of market share and customer attention. We could finally close deals on Zoom and speak at conferences from the comfort of our homes. We spent time previously lost to transatlantic transit on development and customer retention. The deciding factor became the product, not the environment. It is game-changing, and the large companies know it.

Time to embrace a new model of working

As our world turns back to normal, will we keep this model? Or will startups and fintechs be again relegated to playing the game of large multinational companies, always playing catch up? I have a suspicion that the large companies, especially those who got stronger during the pandemic, want to go back to normal – because that is how they secured and maintained their dominance.

In my opinion, we should embrace a new model of working that embraces both remote and in-person business and, above all, prioritizes unlocking value for all of society (not just those who can afford to be “in the room”). During April’s World Economic Forum Global Technology Governance Summit this was a pivotal point driven home alongside my summit co-chairs Alice Gast (President, Imperial College London), Jim Hagemann Snabe (Chairman, Siemens), and Sharan Burrow (General Secretary, International Trade Union Confederation). As one of the few and far between positive impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, we agreed that the top priority should be to protect the resiliency and competitiveness of startups and SMEs.

A good way to begin is for all of us – from SMEs to large enterprises to investors to governments and more – is to remain amenable to remote meetings, presentations, and speaking opportunities. Remote should remain the default setting not only for personal health and safety, but also to maintain equal access to the board rooms and stages where opportunity is present. If you have a great idea, you should be able to share it without needing to travel around the world on a moment’s notice at huge personal and financial cost.

COVID-19 had, and continues to have, a grim economic, personal and emotional toll on us all. It is not the equalising moment any of us would have chosen. But as we raise our gaze to an unknown future, I am confident that we can build a better business environment that prioritizes equal access to opportunity – if we take seriously the lessons we have learned.

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