Being a Startup in COVID-19 Times

6 min read

Today, we're taking a break from our regularly scheduled Dolt and DoltHub content to talk about our experience as a ten person startup in Los Angeles over the past few months as we've all dealt with this pandemic.

In the beginning...

I can't say we were ignorant of what was happening. For those of you that don't know, we built a database designed for sharing data. We are always on the lookout for interesting data to publish. We were on the John Hopkins COVID-19 data when it was still distributed as a Google Sheet. Commit Logs don't lie. We knew this might be a big deal on February 5.

Given the above, February and early March, before offices started shutting down in the US, were pretty exciting for us. We had interesting data to write about and share. Even looking at the data every day and being part of the conversation, I can't say I expected all that happened next. I guess another way to say this is even for a person "in the know" I was caught by surprise.

The shutdown

The virus numbers started to build first in the Seattle area then in San Francisco. Los Angeles has some cases but the numbers were small. A big moment of realization for me was when Zach sent me an article about asymptomatic spread. If people can walk around feeling fine and give it to other people, everything we were doing in the US was moot. The prevailing wisdom was if you feel sick, stay home.

The week of March 9, shit really hit the fan. I think we all have our moments when we realized life was changing. For me, it was the NBA canceling a game right before tipoff and Tom Hanks announcing he had it within an hour.

That week, a couple of my employees decided not to come into the office which I was ok but not thrilled with. I'm an "in the office" kinda guy. On March 16, I sent the following email:

All,

Everyone should work from home until next Monday (at least). The city is basically shut down and I think we should abide by the spirit of that order. I'll reassess this weekend whether we return next week or not.

My expectation is that you do the best you can to be productive under the circumstances. If you need to run to the office to drive your monitor/keyboard home, please do. If you have other expenses that will make you more productive at home, please let me know and we can discuss. Please understand that I don't care when you are online or when you are working. I learned a long time ago that time spent is an input and what you produce is output. My job is to measure output not input. It's going to get a little hairy especially for those of us with kids. Work against the task list I proposed here: <redacted>. Do the best you can.

Business-wise, we raised at a good time. Our strategy was to build cool software and datasets and blog about those. Drive traffic to Dolt with interesting content. It's working and it will work whether we're remote or not. Hopefully, the economy is coming out of this when we're ready to raise again.

--Tim

We never went back to the office.

Good timing

As you can tell from the above email, we had just closed a funding deal at the end of 2019. We had over two years of runway at that point without doing any expense control. We had not decided if or how to deploy the capital we raised. So, in a sense, COVID-19 made that decision for me. Batten down the hatches and weather the storm.

Because of the above, I made the commitment to employees to avoid layoffs. This was a tough decision for me. If we had been in even a slightly worse funding position, I may have decided to cut the team to get to about two years of runway. I'm sure a lot of founders were going through the same calculus. I try to be as "robotic" (ie. logical, direct, etc) with my business decisions but having such a small team with people that took a chance on you and your idea when there was nothing, emotions definitely affected my decision. This CEO thing is hard.

Here's my robotic calculus from the time on how long this thing was going to last. No vaccine. If we get a vaccine, how long to get 7B doses worldwide? Or evn the 250M doses we would need in the US to stamp this thing out. Multiple years. R0 of 4 means ~80% of people need to get it for it to die out. R0 of 1-2 means ~60% of people need to get it for it to die out. Cycle time of 4 weeks. In March, let's say we had 1M cases. You do the math. In either scenario, you are looking at one and a half to three years of this thing. Since then we have more information, some good, some bad. Universal masks may be enough to get the R0 < 1 but you may be able to get it twice. Fuck me.

Anyway, I'm prepared for this thing to be an issue for as long as my startup has cash and probably longer.

Optimism

Back to the timeline. April and May were pretty good for us. There was an initial excitement to working from home. It was different. I would say our company was about 80% productive. Some were more productive. Some were less. I was less. As I said, I'm an office guy. We still had a store of creative ideas on the roadmap to implement.

Moreover, the software world seemed to be still dialed in. There was an overarching COVID-19 theme to everything but people still seemed to care about new products. For us, we had a blog post high up on Hacker News for a while. That was nice.

In retrospect, it seems the newness combined with the backlog of "creativity" was able to sustain us for a while. For our company, the office is a place where we get motivation and creativity. The social environment provides energy to those two endeavors. I think tasks can be accomplished from either the office or home, and in some cases more efficiently from home. But at the stage we're at, creativity and motivation are tantamount to accomplishing tasks. Once we burned out our backlog, we felt the shutdown more acutely.

Black Lives Matter

For good reason, lots of people got lots of angry. Here in Santa Monica, we had a protest get out of hand and our office building was set on fire. We weren't in there anyway but let's just say the whole thing was a little unsettling. Less importantly, it also generated a bunch of work for me.

I'm pretty stoic but June got me rattled. I had a hard time focusing on work. I could tell by our business metrics that others felt this as well, compounding the problem. I wasn't really sure what to do personally or professionally. Between COVID and the widespread anger and fear, it really felt to me like civilization was being stretched at the seams. At times, I was scared. At other times, I felt an extreme sense of helplessness. I'm sure I was not alone. All through this, I had an overwhelming sense of duty to my cofounders, employees, and investors to be my best which made it worse. I'm still not over it.

The present

June faded into July and COVID-19 didn't go away. Protests continued. In California, we started another round of business restrictions to try and keep the virus in check. This is going to be a long haul. The recent news that schools are going to be remote in September has parents like me back on edge.

I'm starting to get my motivation back. I hope others are as well but I wouldn't blame you if you aren't. I'm trying to reach out to people and cheer them on. I know people could use positive vibes right now. I also wrote this blog so people know they are not alone in their anxiety.

Interest in our business is light as well. Talking to other people in a similar position, it sounds like that is common. If your running a company, unlike in the early days of the shutdown, it seems like we've entered the dark times. I guess I expected this and should be glad it took this long. Again, you are not alone.

Looking forward

As a startup CEO, I'm looking to manage three things going forward:

  1. Motivation - How do I keep myself and my team shipping?
  2. Growth - How do I get people to care about what we're building when it's hard to care about anything?
  3. Creativity - How do we restock our idea supply?

As you can tell from the story above, these have all become more challenging over the past few months and there is no sign of the world letting us off the hook. I don't have any answers yet but writing this was a good start. This CEO thing is hard.

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