Across ASEAN and around the world, 2020 had profound - and in many cases, unfortunate - impacts on businesses. A survey by Startup Genome showed that 41% of startups globally are threatened in what we call “red zone”: they have three months or less of cash runway left. In Asia Pacficic, 61% of small-medium businesses (SMB) have reported a fall in sales due to the Covid-19 pandemic (The Drum). With so much chaos going on, we may not have noticed the many startups that have quietly pulled down the shutters on their businesses.

However, it is not all bad news. This pandemic has shown the adaptability and resilience of leaders at Southeast Asia’s top tech startups. We have pulled together a list of learnings from resilient startup executives who recently brought their wealth of experience and skill sets to new endeavors.

For this article, we caught up with Peter Bithos, CEO of SEEK Asia (ex-CEO of HOOQ), Frank Stevenaar, CFO at Funding Societies | Modalku Group (ex-CFO of GoBear) and Samsu Sempena, Lead Engineer and Venture CTO at BCG Digital Ventures (ex-CTO at Airy) to hear their advice on leading businesses during the pandemic.

1. Ensuring everyone’s physical and mental well-being is the highest priority

Uncertainty breeds anxiety, and we are living in uncertain times. With so many major events happening in the world right now, it undoubtedly takes a toll on everyone’s mental health. “Safety both in terms of physical and mental wellbeing was and is important for us,” said Stevenaar.

2. Invest in growth in a time of crisis

The pandemic accelerated many companies’ digital transformation agendas, making it an imperative to invest in new ways of working. According to Temasek, Southeast Asia surged in the adoption of digital technology during the pandemic. Investors and businesses in Southeast Asia's internet economy are also prioritising sustainable and profitable growth.

“The pandemic is the time to be part of the great acceleration. Invest in experimentations and in new technologies. This might also be the time to accelerate your non-organic growth if your capital base allows you to do so. And maintain momentum. Time is of the essence.” shares Stevenaar, “For Funding Societies, we have further invested in our technologies to progressively improve our competitive edge. Covid-19 has served as a great accelerator for digital services, and digital SME lending is one of them.”

For Mr. Bithos, this change also meant opportunities. “There are now more opportunities for disruption for startups than any other times, so be excited about this time. Disruption means change and change means opportunity,” shares Peter, “There are real growth opportunities now, if you invest. There is funding out there right now, things are happening and the ecosystem has moved on from lockdown.”

3. Recreate physical experiences virtually

Working remotely creates challenges when it comes to connecting with teams. For Mr. Bithos who took over as CEO of SEEK Asia during the pandemic, and having never had the opportunity to meet his team in person, being able to recreate physical experiences and build rapport was especially important. “Every morning, I have a practice called ‘5 minutes phone call’, where I will jot down some people who I would love to have a quick 5 minutes catch up with during the day”, shares Bithos, “This way, I will be able to connect with them more as people outside of work.”

“In this time, it is all about the people-first and it is important to methodically map everything you had in real life and how to move it to the Zoom world. You had drinks in your team, how are you going to have dreams in your team? You had coffees, how are you going to replace coffees? Replace everything, not just the scheduled meetings. This is a way that I can connect with my team virtually,” said Bithos.

4. Set clear objectives, but give people trust and freedom to execute

This is the magic duo -- giving people trust and freedom, while at the same time setting clear objectives. When done properly, goal setting helps clarify an employee’s role and in turn helps to drive the organization’s goals.

For Mr. Sempena, having trust helps to improve collaboration by increasing communication and the exchange of ideas. “Giving people trust to contribute with clear objectives has helped us achieve greater collective impact”, shared Sempena. Similarly, Mr. Stevenaar found that he was able to more effectively navigate during this crisis period by ensuring that there was a psychological safety net to allow people to take calculated risks without feeling insecure, doing regular check-ins, and aligning on the goals, roles and execution plan.

5. Having an adaptive leadership approach is more important than ever before

The leadership challenge from a people standpoint has unique complications for companies not used to working in a distributed and remote environment, as motivating, supporting, and developing people can not be done in the exact same way as it is in the physical world.

“You don’t get to see your people face-to-face, you don’t know what is happening in their world, so you don’t know what stress they might be facing, and you don’t get all the informal communication you get when you’re working in the office like the coffee chats, the informal drop by their table chats” shared Bithos. “And more importantly, if you lead a large organization, what about the next level down, and the level down after that, how do you connect with these people?”

This will be when being more flexible and adaptable is more important than ever before. “You will have to make changes to both the business and people side. Changes to how you run the company, how you manage people”, said Bithos.

6. Create an open atmosphere for sharing and debating ideas and perspectives

Fostering an open culture where diverse groups can freely debate and question things openly is important. “At Funding Societies, we are scaling things up - we recently opened our latest market, Thailand. However, we still debate why we do things and why we do them in a certain way.”, shares Stevenaar, “It is crucial to be able to debate openly, even when you have found product-market fit”.

Mr. Sempena shares the same views. “It is important to find people you can trust and discuss with them”. He also shared that by trusting and openly discussing, there will be a greater sense of support among the team. “You may find that you are not alone in the storm and potentially helping out each other.”

7. Move fast, learn fast

“Big businesses tend to be more risk-averse, and one of the bigger benefits of a startup is that you’ve got nothing to lose, so you move fast and learn fast,” shared Bithos, “At SEEK, we are trying to actively experiment faster and bolder in Covid times as the world is moving faster, and we will also learn faster by moving this way.”

8. Take care of yourself and your own mental state

As a leader, taking care of your own mental state is extremely important. Being unable to take care of your own mental state can have a ripple effect throughout the organization -- increasing stress, undermining trust, engagement and psychological safety in your teams.

“It is easy to start your day with Zoom and spend an entire day on Zoom, and by the end of the day, you’re exhausted and you have not thought much. Making sure you prioritise your family, your health and your mental realise from Zoom is important,” shared Bithos, “Take care of your own mental space, because people rely on you.”

In these times, reconnecting to your life purpose also helps. For Mr. Sempena, he mentioned that “taking quiet time for [him]self despite all the storm, reconnecting to [his] life purpose and taking a leap of faith helps.”

9. A growth mindset helps surmount obstacles

Adopting a growth mindset during the pandemic helps build resilience and mental fortitude. For Mr. Sempena, he noted that BCG Digital Ventures looks for this mindset in their new hires. “We have a slogan “Let’s grow together!”, shared Sempena.

10. Finding your purpose amidst the pandemic

For all three tech founders, the opportunity to take on a new leadership role during the pandemic reinforced their intention to use their position to improve the lives of others.

For Mr. Bithos, he hopes to lead SEEK to be able to help more people find jobs during this period. “I love being able to connect both the B2B and B2C and use it to help more people find jobs. The opportunity to spend the next 5 years helping people find jobs and helping their careers is a really great next part of my career,” shared Bithos.

For Mr. Sempena, he also hopes to use his new role to help generate more jobs during the Covid period, stating, “One of the reasons as to why I was inspired to take on the new role at BCG Digital Ventures was because I would be able to help large corporations build meaningful ventures with high impacts. Hopefully this can help to keep and generate more jobs during the economic recovery.”

Lastly, for Mr. Stevenaar, he loves being able to support the underserved and unserved SMEs in Southeast Asia, and working on this purpose with a diverse, humble and dedicated group of people. “Today, we are the largest SME digital financing platform in SEA that helps to close the region’s USD 320bn funding gap. As a 2-sided platform, FSMK provides growth financing to creditworthy small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), while at the same time helping platform investors earn attractive returns and diversification in their portfolio. Business financing for SMEs are disbursed through a mix of on-balance sheet and crowdfunded loans, of which the latter is crowdfunded by individual investors and institutional investors. In the last 6 years, we have helped to finance close to 4 million business loans with over USD 1.5m billion in funding.”

The pandemic has indeed been a catalyst for change and questioning the status quo. With so many opportunities ahead, there’s never been a more exciting time for leaders to position their businesses for a brighter future. As we reflect on the challenges the pandemic has thrown us, we are impressed and inspired by the passion, courage and tenacity of SE Asia’s startup operators. For founders facing seeking new ways to navigate their next steps amidst the pandemic, we hope the insights above can help provide some inspiration and takeaways that have helped others be successful.

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