Company Growth in COVID-Time

The tale of coronavirus is yet to be entirely told. The pandemic’s long-term side effects are still not clear (not just the epidemiologic ones). If you’re acquainted with this blog, you know I mainly deal with the backstage stories of my startup, Oribi. They’re not the shiniest success stories you usually read on such blogs. I simply tell real-life stories. No filters. In this post, I will share Oribi’s COVID-19 side effects, the doubts we have, and the trends we witness.

Mid-March. The World Is Changing. Should You Make Changes or Wait It Out?

The tsunami of change reached us mid-march without warning. Its immediate impact was an exceptionally high churn rate (abandonment of paying customers). It happened in that dramatic week in the middle of March when the entire world went into quarantine. The reasons for this churn surge are obvious: Some of our customers immediately pulled the plug on their marketing budget, and non-frequent Oribi users simply cut their ad budget. The high percentage of cancellation was, nonetheless, an absolute bummer. But! It had little to no effect on the company’s revenue. The more significant damage was a psychological one; Is a colossal crisis coming our way? How can we predict the changes that are bound to happen? And, most importantly, Do we need to shift things around immediately? Or is it better to wait it out?

When it comes to entrepreneurship, my philosophy is to move fast; not just when it’s crisis time. I believe that proper entrepreneurs make mistakes, a lot of mistakes. That’s why we must be comfortable with rapid changes. We need to pivot quickly, know what works and what doesn’t (even if it’s just a gut feeling), and make bold decisions. Coronavirus started when we were in a golden era of exponential growth. Everything worked like clockwork. But being a fast mover, I decided to take some drastic measures – immediately:

● Cut our Sales and CS workforce (after a long process of doubts and hard decisions)
● Cut management salaries
● Substantially cut marketing budgets
● Re-route our product roadmap

I want to elaborate on the last point, which is—in my opinion—the most crucial one. The uncertainty I (and other CEOs across the globe, I’m sure) experienced on that wretched week in March was extreme. We didn’t know if the world is heading towards a financial crisis, how long it will take, how the market will react, and whether our products will survive.

One of the essential principles of excellent management is focus. Startup resources are too limited to be spent erratically. The most successful companies started with one really good feature. Those who design a bunch of mediocre features – never excel. However, during that tsunami of uncertainty, I decided to adopt a different approach. Focusing was not an option. I knew that—in this dangerous climate—it’s too risky to put all eggs in one basket. So I turned our product roadmap into a 3-lane road that solves three opportunities.

Lane 1: Perfecting Oribi’s eCommerce solution.
Truth be told, even before COVID, this was a priority (over 33% of our customers are eCommerce companies). It was evident from the get-go that this industry will boom.

Lane 2: Advancing Oribi’s core technology—automatic detection of website visitor behavior.
We invested in integrating and exporting the data we collected to other marketing channels such as Facebook, Google, Mailchimp, etc. This was a major technological and product advancement for us, and the reason I chose this lane was the added value I sought to add to our product.

Lane 3: Adding more ‘sticky’ features.
Granted, all three lanes included developing aspects we’ve previously discussed, but going all-in on all of them is a very non-conformist approach for companies to adopt.

During the past couple of months, we went back to our pre-COVID one-lane roadmap. The main reason for that is our understanding that customers are back to ‘business as usual’ and went back to using our product the traditional way. I saw no use for a backup plan anymore. We finalized the final milestone of lane 2, put a pin in lane 3, and are still focusing on lane 1—eCommerce.

It’s hard to say in hindsight whether we made the right decision. Even though we were pretty lucky—having no need to make dramatic changes—had things gone the other way, every month of staying the course could have proved damaging for the company’s survival.

So What Works and What Doesn’t? Put the Pedal to the Low-Touch-SaaS Metal

The startup world is divided into:

● Enterprise-facing – organizations that generate huge deals across a smaller number of customers.
● Low-touch – SMBs that run smaller deals but target a large pool of clients.

These are entirely different companies with distinct DNA. What’s better? Good question.
There are many advantages to being a startup that sells to enterprises:

● The initial growth comes faster.
● Prospects are easier to reach.
● Less marketing effort is needed.
● Investors simply love you.

Managing low-touch startups requires a different mindset and a mature product. But I know now, without a doubt, that all the hard work pays.

At Oribi, we invested a lot in building an agile, marketing & sales-oriented operation. One that will allow us to immediately allocate budgets from one channel to another and gain measurable results in a short period.

Combining a robust marketing strategy and a short sale cycle (an average of fewer than two weeks) allowed us to quickly understand what works and what doesn’t. This is a huge advantage. The fact we could get immediate feedback on how much to invest in our marketing, what channels to use, and to what extent sales decreased – is critical.

Though we cut our marketing budget to a third in March, it still sufficed to test different audiences during April-May and understand who’s buying and who churned. We were able to keep a finger on the market’s pulse and decide when to go back to big spending and growth mode. Over March and April, we had fewer deals than our average. In May, it all bounced back, and we went back to marketing for growth. During June and July, the results were similar to the ones we had before the pandemic, and we penciled in a 10-15% growth in company revenue month over month. Moreover, we maintained the same stats we had for cost per new customer, amount of closed deals, and average deal size.

Another advantage low-touch companies have in times of world crisis is, well, being low touch. No need for face-to-face meetings with prospects, no tradeshow participation, and there’s literally no reason to travel. We were WFH-ready even before it was an absolute must.

Get ready for an exciting year for enterprises. In my opinion, coronavirus accelerates the processes that are long due. I predict that B2E companies will start emulating low-touch companies. All sales activities will happen online (even the complex, top-tier ones), and low-cost sale processes will be adopted.

The Influence of Remote Work

I was an advocate of remote work way before COVID-19. When I founded Oribi, I even entertained the thought of building a 100% remote workforce. Though working at an office has its pluses, it’s much less effective due to long corridor chit chats and even longer meetings. Working remotely also contributes to a more accurate measuring of the impact an employee has. I believe that KPIs and contribution to the business are more important than who clocks in more hours. Remote working also encourages independence and ownership, even if it means full control over when the work is done.
Just like in other companies, our productivity wasn’t affected. In some teams, we even had an increase. I also learned that somehow, I get more done despite the kids and the hustle and bustle around me.

But… And it’s a big but, while during the first lockdown, we didn’t feel them, the long-term ramifications are just around the corner. We are less aware of the state of our colleagues (both professionally and personally). Are my employees ramped up? Are they Content? Do they have any fresh ideas to contribute? I learned that I’d underestimated the importance of those chit-chats I complained about earlier.

At the end of the day, the key to a startup’s success is collective ownership. It’s teamwork; it’s culture. And it’s not something you can build or maintain over Zoom calls. My WFH policy is – there is none. Whether you prefer 100% remote or full-time office – it’s ok. But it means that some people have not met for almost five months. It’s now apparent that remote working is not a 1-2 months hiccup. So for the past couple of weeks, I’m wrapping my head around finding an alternative that will nurture relationships that are not dependent on physical proximity; online social activities, smaller think tanks, ‘pulse check meetings, etc. I assume that remote work is a trend that will outlive coronavirus. And it’s a positive trend in my opinion. The gap between not coming to the office at all and coming in 1-2 days per week is colossal.

Even though Oribi is growing at a steady pace, we still keep a weather eye on things at all times. We analyze customer behavior weekly, follow the trends, and adjust acåcordingly. And, like everyone else, anxiously awaiting to see where the world is headed. What will go back to normal, and what will be the new normal?

Here’s hoping for the best. I’ll keep you posted.