Startup in the Time of COVID-19

It can be the best of times, it can be the worse of times...

We founded our company in the second half of 2019, some months before COVID-19 sprung forth from Wuhan and onto the world. For better or for worse, COVID-19 will form a core part of our company’s narrative and history in the months and years to come. Since its onset, we’ve hustled to make progress on our fledgling company amidst increasingly drastic nation-level hustle around the globe to contain the coronavirus. It’s an interesting (time) period to start a company in the typically capital intensive automotive sector. It’s an even more interesting (time) period to try and raise capital while you’re at it.

I came across this cool animated GIF while poking around Google Image Search for writer inspiration. It summarised countries’ recent responses perfectly, shifting from containment to curve-flattening so as to avoid overloading their intensive care healthcare capacity.

In the same vein, it also reminded me of how pre-revenue startups like ours are responding to the crisis and its associated travel restrictions, supply chain disruptions and investor caution, by changing our game plans and conserving cash to extend our Zero Cash Date. In peacetime, startup founders are more likely to spend and accelerate their product development, acquire new customers or retain repeat customers to gain more momentum towards positive unit economics and their next venture raise. In prolonged wartime situations like that which we find ourselves in these days, here at Ion Mobility, we’ve scaled back on the magnitude and velocity of our forecast on travel (not that we have much of a choice in this aspect), hiring roadmaps, rental, renovation expense assumptions, so as to stretch our Plan C further into next year and give ourselves options ahead of our Series A raise.

On the investor front, we find some prospective angels goggling at their in-the-red equities and not feeling especially liquid to contemplate illiquid higher-risk harder-to-price investments in early-stage tech companies. Funds who have dry powder are also holding off any forms of decision making given the forward uncertainty, and rightfully so, because any still-standing companies will be better bets months down the road. It’s an especially challenging environment to operate in, but what can’t kill us can only make us stronger.

Empty aisles at Geylang East Public Library - “Social Distancing: Your health matters to us. In view of the evolving COVID-19 situation and as part of social distancing measures, we have reduced our seating capacity. Please do not move or rearrange the seats. Thanks for your understanding and cooperation.”

Despite our fledgling stage, our core team is spread out across Singapore, Jakarta and Guangzhou, which makes social distancing a “bug” of circumstance rather than a “feature” of company policy. Whatsapp, Wechat and Zoom have been our best interlocutors thus far. Our supply chain has started recovering albeit more slowly than expected, but it’s not been that big of a deal for us since we’re not yet in the production phase of our market entry. We can only pray for COVID-19 to have run its course in the coming months.

Entrepreneurship is all about attempting the impossible with less resources than you’d like, making hard decisions and juggling all sorts of tradeoffs. We surprised ourselves with how much more we could do without when push came to shove. Winter is upon us, and it might be here to stay for longer than we’d like. Nevertheless, we’ll take this time to batten down the hatches and take the time to build a better Model 1 to delight customers, and bide our time to trigger our go-to-market later this year.