Building a business during a pandemic

What does it take to start a business during a pandemic and how do you adapt? Some of the founders from our new companies in the fourth Singapore cohort share their experiences ahead of Antler Southeast Asia’s first virtual Demo Day on July 16 at 5pm SGT.

Register for Antler Southeast Asia's virtual Demo Day here.

These founders had grit, passion and drive when they started Phase 1 of the Antler Singapore program in January 2020. Through the year and the unforeseen challenges that came along with it, they have definitely shown stoicism, agility and just plain old hustle to build their startups and get them off the ground.

Their pitch to Antler’s Investment Committee was done remotely and they clearly gave it all they have got, as they succeeded to get to Phase 2 of the program, where they had to rapidly build an MVP and business in three months. What followed next was a process of clever navigating and adapting as Singapore and much of Southeast Asia went into complete lockdown for two months. From learning to build connections purely online for customer acquisition, to adapting to industries that shifted overnight and hiring as well as onboarding new employees who didn’t have a chance to meet, this group has had to deal with evolving circumstances and regulations as the region was in “circuit breaker” mode, which meant regional travel and physical meetings were impossible. Here’s what the founders who have built startups in the realms of SaaS, Fintech, Proptech, Pet Tech, Agritech, Gaming, Regtech and more had to say:

Jane Peh, Co-founder of Pawjourr - A platform to discover, review & book pet products and services

What happened in their industry: 

“We see a lot more pet owners and brands going online beyond e-commerce; think tele-consultation, online pet events and live-streaming. Companies are being forced to adopt a digital-first mindset to stay relevant, and we also see incumbents e.g. huge event companies going online and coming to us for our digital expertise.” 

“It’s scary and exciting at the same time! We have been practicing a lot because the way you engage with your audience online vs. offline is vastly different. That said, we love that anyone can join and attend demo day, especially since Pawjourr is a global business from day 1.” 

Daryl Lim, Co-founder of YourRent - A fintech platform for efficient rentals without hefty deposits 

Has the vertical you are building a business in changed dramatically because of recent events?

“Yes, the real estate leasing sector has changed dramatically, especially the commercial sector with the forming of the FTFIC for a fairer tenancy framework and companies rethinking how much office space they really need. The pandemic has also meant that many jobs were lost and many expats had to break their residential lease and return home while the lockdown meant fewer incoming expats taking up new leases.”  

Rajith Shaji, Co-founder of Volopay- Simplifying business spending for SMEs

Their learning experiences: 

“Till April 2020, Volopay was running a closed beta for our first 15 customers, with whom we had built a strong relationship prior to lockdown by meeting them several times in-person. And, when we decided to open up Volopay for everyone, all of a sudden we faced this problem of ‘how will we build the same kind of connection we had with our beta customers, virtually?’ This was a massive problem for us, and we had to ramp up our skills overnight- especially on getting better at building relationships over Zoom and Google Meets. Also, during the same period, we onboarded around 8 employees and none of us has met each other in person yet. So, again it meant we all have to be good at building relationships virtually. So, getting good at remote communication has been a big focus for us, and I am seeing it pay some sorts of dividends.”

Srihari Govindarajan, Co-founder of VikRee - B2B SaaS for Ecosystem Engagement

The process of ideation:

“From the start of the Antler program in January, we tested multiple ideas which all had one common theme – how to help companies work better with their partners. We spoke to 30 C-level executives across the region, driving billions of dollars in IT sales, and their responses followed some broad themes. Partners have never been more important and more diverse than now. The majority of the traditional go-to-market strategies used today won’t be relevant in 5 years. It is newer types of partners who help companies disrupt and expand into newer areas of specialization that is needed. The more diverse the partner base, the more difficult it is to engender trust amongst companies who have very little in common with each other. These responses, coupled with our own experience managing partners, convinced us that a solution that can cater to various partner types, and enhance partner trust would be welcomed by companies, especially in disruptive, troubled times. With all the disruptions in recent times, technology companies are pushing partnerships beyond the usual limits. Companies are staying close to partners; to drive visibility and focus to give them a strong sense of shared purpose and improve transparency. VikRee helps to unlock data and insight all along the lifecycle to create more customer value, and we offer a tool that enhances trust and collaboration. Hence, we have accelerated our plans to build and launch the product in 3 months.”

Derek Wong, Co-founder of Moneko - AI-powered personal finance app for millennials 

How COVID-19 impacted their industry:

“COVID-19 has dealt a wide-reaching and heavy-hitting impact on the global economy, especially for young millennials that are just graduating or starting off in their careers. There are countless stories of students having their internships cancelled, entire industries like travel and tourism being grounded to a halt, and new employees being furloughed after just a month of work.”

“A recent survey by OCBC found that 2 out of 3 working adults in Singapore don’t have savings to last them more than 6 months. All these unfortunate events have magnified the importance of savings and encouraged millennials to think more about their current spending and future finances. As a result of these recent events, there is great urgency and interest for millennials to start managing their finances more proactively.”

Michael Oyson, Co-founder of Skibre - A social esports platform

Their biggest learnings: 

“Our biggest learning is that we can build our business virtually with the help of technology. After all, we are a digital platform. ‘Virtual’ works. Startups need to learn to surf if they cannot stop the waves.”

“Our vertical has expanded because of Covid. Pre-covid, mobile gaming was already larger than the film and music industries combined. Because of the stay home policies in many countries, millions of users resorted to mobile games as a form of entertainment as well as a means to connect with friends and family. In a way, Covid-19 accelerated the adoption of casual gaming as a form of entertainment and vehicle for social interaction. Casual gaming has moved rapidly from a niche activity to become a popular pastime for people across countries, ages, and gender.”

Gajendra Babu, Co-founder of Chloropy - Making farms smarter with computer vision

On digitising in an industry that has been slow to adapt:

“The agriculture industry that we deal with is conventional and has been generally slow in adopting technologies. But now, businesses are forced to think about digital transformation. We can see a surge in companies transitioning to digital in the next few years.”

“We did not pivot but we changed the strategy and marketing around our product by emphasising on a feature called remote visualization of farms. It is relevant to the COVID situation when traveling almost stopped. With this feature our customers can inspect their farms remotely, without being there physically.”

James Teo, Co-founder of Approvd - RegTech SaaS for data protection, cybersecurity and AI

The most important lessons learned:

“It is possible to build a business for less, especially if one does not incur rent, business travel costs and unnecessary marketing costs, while leveraging on recently announced government incentives. We were forced to be incredibly lean from the get go to make every investment dollar count, and we view that as a good thing.”

“Every crisis presents an opportunity, such as allowing a small start-up like us the opportunity to work with tech talent and expertise that otherwise would have been full-time engaged by other bigger companies in better times.”

“B2B sales takes much longer as our customers are occupied with business continuity measures during Covid-19. Persistence, agility, and the readiness to accept feedback helped us achieve traction, even though this now takes much longer than expected.”

Ana Ng, Co-founder of PretePop - An Online platform for live retail events

On the pivot: 

“We initially wanted to livestream offline events for online consumption, but due to COVID-19 we decided to move events entirely online. The events industry was entirely put on a standstill due to COVID19 and a permanent digital shift is necessary. All the stakeholders realised that even beyond COVID19, they need to embrace the new way of events - digitally moving forward which could bring about greater opportunities and benefits.”

Biggest Lesson: 

“Be flexible with our plans; work with customers and help guide them through this uncertain time.”

Monika Mehta, Co-founder of  Zealth - Creating the future of personalised value based healthcare

On the importance of being empathetic:

‘During these unprecedented times, our biggest learning has been that start-ups should be all time ready to expect the unexpected and quickly adapt to changes and market needs. Everything was going pretty smoothly for us until covid cases started to explode in India. Since we were working with some of the major public hospitals there, suddenly it became impossible to get doctors on call, get the documents signed and so on. They were very overburdened and we had to be empathetic. When we managed to have detailed discussions with them, we realised that their burning problems have changed drastically and we need to pivot to cater to problems of the new normal that are going to stay there for years to come.” 

Stephan Bruggemann, Co-founder of Workclass - A social hiring app

What have been your biggest learnings during building your startup during this unprecedented time? 

“As many frontline employees lost their job during this time, there was a need for a very scalable, seamless solution to apply for a new position. We immediately launched a chat-based application solution. The response was overwhelming and we are very happy having placed over 500 Singaporeans in this very short amount of time.”

“We saw a surge in the number of open positions in the logistics vertical, which is where our focus lies. Overall, the recent events present a once in a lifetime opportunity to build a frontline hiring platform. The current pandemic has created tremendous liquidity on the frontline hiring market. Many employees have lost their jobs and are looking for new opportunities. On WorkClass.co, some jobs postings have received more than 600 applications. At the same time, employers had to replace huge numbers of foreign workers and will continue building up their workforce again as restrictive measures start to loosen up.”

Eugene Bochkov, co-founder of Empala - Give your employees access to wages as they're earned

What has been your biggest learning/s during building your startup during this unprecedented time?

"Despite all the odds stacked against us, we managed to pull through and create Empala. But we never expected the launch of Empala to be the tip of the iceberg. Mark had to leave Singapore due to personal commitments and we suddenly found ourselves separated by both time and distance. The dynamics of our working style changed drastically as we realized that we were separated by 2,600km of water. With travel being so limited, we improvised and adapted to our current climate. We delegated our roles clearly and provided timely dissemination of information to each other. Constantly checking up on each other's wellbeing, we ensured that both of us never lost the determination and hunger for wanting to bring Empala to the world. To always expect the unexpected, and be constantly open to change, that is my greatest takeaway."

Adrian Joseph, co-founder of Biogenes Technologies - Imagining a future where air-travel and traveling is safe again

On the pivot:

"Everyone of us is eager to return to our normal lives, and that means being able to travel to see our distant loved ones and go about with our business. Yet, the borders of many countries remained closed due to the fear of imported COVID-19 infections. The global air travel industry has been crippled by the COVID-19 pandemic, with financial losses reaching more than $300 bil. and job losses of 100 mil. This also means stakeholders in this industry are desperate to look for solutions and innovations to help them re-start the industry."

"We, at Biogenes Technologies aim to solve this problem by developing portable rapid screening device solutions using biosensor technology. Similar to a glucose meter, we use a low-cost chip to detect the presence of the COVID-19 virus protein in saliva samples, generating results within minutes. The data is digitized and can be integrated into the passenger information system with encryption protection. We want to enable a world where people can travel and meet once again, and nations are no longer afraid of COVID-19 or other infectious diseases."

"Our Team pivoted our startup's focus to this area after realizing the need of the hour. As entrepreneurs, we need to recognize that we are building a better version of tomorrow - when such an opportunity arises, it is our responsibility to build solutions towards creating that future".

John Mellnik, CEO of Path BioAnalytics - Precision Medicine—Made Possible

On the pivot:

"With the emergence of COVID-19, a strong collaborative spirit has taken hold in the biotech and pharma spaces. There is a growing realization that COVID-19 is a global problem that needs a global, coordinated solution. To help develop a therapeutic solution, we've seen companies looking for new technologies to quickly advance their treatments. The old strategy--engineering new animal models in which to test vaccines or therapeutics for every novel viral outbreak--is too slow and expensive, and not very predictive. There has been a significant increase in interest in organoids because they can be quickly and cost-effectively produced in large numbers, and they are highly biologically-relevant. Our deep experience with organoids and our cell biobank allowed us to efficiently pivot into this space and quickly generate traction."

Watch these founders pitch their new startups! Here’s how you can watch:

1. Go to : https://demoday.antler.co/singapore/

2. Enter your details and add the event to your calendar when prompted to do so

3. On July 16 at 5:00PM SGT (9.00AM GMT) tune into the live stream at https://demoday.antler.co/singapore/

4. Ask questions, contact the team, or request a pitch deck during the live stream using the tools found on https://demoday.antler.co/singapore/ (these will become visible once the event starts)

5. Enjoy the show !

This article was written by Puja Bharwani, Marketing & PR Director of Antler Southeast Asia. 

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