'Cribs’ Calls, Financial Transparency and the Value of Luck: a Start Up's Lockdown Diary
Matthew Goldhill (pictured below), founder and CEO at Picnic Media, writes about what the lockdown imposed to fight the novel Coronavirus has taught his mobile ad start up and the industry at large over the past few months.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings hit upon a realistic truth a few years ago when he skewered the fashionable idea that companies are like families, likening them instead to pro sports teams – full of high-performing stars who work well together but will part ways without hurt feelings if that ceases to be the case.
I’d always liked that metaphor, because I think that telling your employees that you’re all a family has a nasty whiff of emotional blackmail. But earth-shaking developments put things in a different light.
As a small technology business offering premium social-style mobile ad inventory, in the time of COVID-19 our definition of success, which was previously based on growth and new opportunities, has changed overnight. In its place are a new set of goals and imperatives: stay solvent, take the opportunity to build for the future, and above all, make sure everyone is alright. Perhaps we were more a sports team than family before, but these days it’s not quite as clear-cut.
Here are four things we learned in the first month of lockdown:
For the moment, at least, we are a sort of family
Picnic is a relatively young company with eight staff. We got on very well before, and now a big part of our focus is to keep each other happy, healthy and sane. We are in touch constantly, and not only in work mode – we have been doing weekly quiz nights, and each week we have had a ‘cribs’ video call where we show each other around our homes. More to the point, we haven’t slashed salaries or furloughed staff and, although we’ve lost some work, looking after the team will continue to be the number 1 priority. More than ever before I have shared the details of our financial realities with the team, so everyone knows exactly where we stand. When cashflow stalled in the first week or two, everyone knew I was spending the next few days chasing bills, and when the money came in, we all shared the same sigh of relief.
There’s no substitute for a bit of luck
The fact is, we’ve been lucky so far. Some of that luck we’ve inadvertently made for ourselves, and some we haven’t. If this crisis had hit a year ago, when our product wasn’t established and our business wasn’t relatively secure, it would have sunk us in no time. We haven’t been clever there, just fortunate. I’ve also done a lot of work over the last year, from detailed business models to credit lines and internal processes, which at the time felt a bit irrelevant but have been a godsend over the past few weeks. That phrase about fixing the roof when the sun is shining turns out to be true and I do believe that small businesses will benefit from making good decisions at the right time, mixed in with a little bit of luck.
When the world changes, it keeps on changing
Advertising is a bellwether for the wider economy and we’ve been able to see the various ways COVID-19 and the lockdown are affecting all kinds of businesses and industries. The impact was immediate – all travel and lots of retail advertisers stopped advertising. Over a month into the lockdown, we’re reminded how all things are interconnected. When the Olympics and Euros are put on hold and their mind-boggling global sponsorship revenues withdrawn from circulation, how does the loss of that money to agencies, broadcasters and other media groups affect the wider advertising ecosystem? Well, it hurts, and we’re still finding out how much.
There are opportunities in even the worst of circumstances
No-one is enjoying this and it may get worse. But there is no point denying that it gives us a chance to pause for breath and see where we’re headed. It’s given me an opportunity to spend more time with our engineers, focusing on what products to build that will be beneficial for when this is all over. All our old targets – the ones involving growth and new hires – have gone out of the window, but the work we do in this strange time may make us stronger in the long run, and better positioned to pursue those sunny-day goals again. And meanwhile, in entirely non-metaphorical terms, it is a sunny day today – so that’s one thing to be thankful for.