Forming a Startup in a Pandemic – Lessons Learned

November 09, 2020

Pandemic Startup

Among the many records that were broken in 2020, one was surprising for many — the record numbers of new businesses being formed. 

BillionMinds was one of them.

Many startups and small businesses were formed out of the stark new realities of the dramatic jobs downturn. But ours came from a different place — a perspective sharpened by the change happening all around us, and a feeling of “if not now, when”. In this article, I’ll share how that came about, and what starting a brand new company is like when many of the norms of business conduct are being shattered.

How it Began

At the start of 2020, Ryan and I were full time employees and colleagues at Microsoft. Like many people at the company, we had the benefit of jumping between lots of roles in our time there. These roles spanned both business and technology across multiple industry segments, and allowed us to help emerging startups and established companies build their businesses on the Microsoft Cloud. Most recently, we even got to form our own internal startup, using technology to help transform clinical research — something that has been particularly rewarding in the light of the rapid scientific response to the pandemic. That’s the joy of working in big tech, the sheer diversity of experience you can gain without leaving your organization — and it served us very well.

But as 2020 really began to take hold, our perspective started to shift, just as it did for many people. We began to ask ourselves what we could do with this diversity of experience. What would be the most meaningful way to spend our lives going forward?

The Problem

Much of our time, both inside and outside of Microsoft has been about framing problems, something I wrote about a few months back. Framing problems well is not easy, but it’s an essential part of figuring out what to do with your career or indeed your life. So, what was the most important problem we could solve, and what would be the best way to solve it?

There are of course lots of problems to pick from. While the promise of science and technology is greater than ever, there are still so many challenges facing society. However, our experience drew us to one area in particular — the double-edged nature of the sword of technology itself. Technology has made our lives massively more flexible, but more confusing at the same time. Multitasking operating systems, the Web, the mobility revolution and the rise of social media have given us endorphin hits in exchange for constant distraction and loss of personal and team productivity. Social media has also grouped us into collections of people that largely think similarly and feeds us with information that just reinforces our views.

Unfortunately, in many ways COVID-19 has made the business of being human even more challenging. Its ripped us of much of our remaining ability to separate our work and home lives and it has made most of our social interactions almost entirely dependent on technology. Long term trends don’t look so good either. As we move into an era shaped by automation, robotics and artificial intelligence, humans run the risk of sliding into irrelevance, and ultimately existing as minor distractions to dominant machines. Of the 3.5 Billion years life has been on earth, humans have only been the dominant species for around 70,000 years. We should not take it for granted that this will continue.

It was Supposed to be a Book

The relationship between humans and technology is pretty interesting stuff, and frankly would make a great topic for a book that examines the challenges we face, and proposes detailed solutions. I know, because I started writing that book, and hopefully at some stage I will get around to finishing it.

But then something rather interesting happened. Ryan and I started talking to people — lots of them. In fact it became almost an obsession. People we had known for years and some we had never met before started really opening up to us — several even breaking down in tears as they described how difficult it was to manage their jobs and their lives in the modern world. And the end of each conversation was almost always the same. “What are you going to do to fix it?” Suddenly the idea of a book seemed too abstract — our careers in technology had helped to create this problem, now we needed to build technology that would help fix it. And we needed to do it right away.

So, with that, our new business was formed — a SaaS startup called BillionMinds. Of course there are many tools out there designed to help people work flexibly, and some of them are really very good. But our interviews were telling us that while they might help you manage your tasks, your e-mail or your calendar, they did precious little to help you manage the complexity of your day, or to switch off at the end of it. So we began designing our software to explicitly to solve that problem, to create clarity out of the chaos, through a simple, all in one tool that manages all the components of people’s frenzied lives — personal, family, main job and side gigs; from the most tactical of tasks to the most strategic of objectives.

No Such Thing as a Business Lunch

Once we understood the nature of the solution we were building, it was pretty clear that it wouldn’t come cheap, and we needed some external funding early on in the form of a pre-seed round. But how would we go about raising money in a world that has suddenly gone virtual?

Fortunately the pandemic did not shut down investment in any meaningful way, though it did change how we could build relationships with potential investors and demonstrate our value proposition. Simple things like “reading the room” became much more difficult. It was impossible to focus on delivering a pitch and observe the response to it at the same time.

Then of course there was the challenge of “Zoom fatigue” on both sides. Timing our pitches became very important — ideally delivering them near the start of the day, so we had sufficient energy and those on the other side were not exhausted.

But going virtual was certainly not all bad. We could get through pitches much faster, and found potential investors could often find half an hour to talk to us via video conference very efficiently, in some cases within 24 hours of us reaching out.

Getting to Work

In the best of conditions, creating a product focused startup is an interesting challenge. You are building the product itself, a marketing engine, and the company designed to produce both, all at the same time. In addition to the 300 or so interviews I mentioned earlier, in our first 100 days we:

  • Conducted 17 different experiments to figure out how people manage their complex lives
  • Recruited advisors with expertise on psychology, behavioral economics, the gig economy and gaming.
  • Hired a great team to develop our user experience
  • Iterated and iterated (and iterated) features and functions, based on customer feedback

and worked harder and faster than ever before in our lives.

Starting a company in these conditions has helped us question some basic assumptions, such as how lean we can start, and where we can get the resources to help us. In a world where everything is virtual, the location of resources is less and less important and the flexible nature of on-demand resources becomes particularly valuable. BillionMinds is being built from the ground up as an exponential organization, and we believe is the better for it.

On to 2021

Like everyone else, we are desperate for a more normal 2021. As co-founders who live in different states, we have not seen each other in person a single time since we formed the company! While things are getting back to whatever the new normal is,  we have a minimum viable product to launch, a marketing operation to ramp up, and our next round of fundraising to plan.