Most important learnings from a startup during COVID

Intro/Background

CV19 has undoubtedly been a dark age for most companies, even more so for startups that rely on more immediate business revenues and growth to sustain or continue raising money. I bet that being listed at this point would have been 1000 times better than fundraising and we have seen how tech companies have witnessed a wild growth in stock price on the back of a stock market on steroids.

Following is a tale from my days at GoJek - a decacorn tech startup headquartered in Jakarta, Indonesia. I was the head of GoPay Closed Loop and Liquidity streams at the time of writing.

I and the team were in a war mode back in 1Q20, digital payments were growing fast and we wanted to capture as much upside of that as possible. We were finally in a position to automate most of our strategies and turn our focus on longer-term and tougher business problems such as “how to incorporate CLV (Customer lifetime value) in our user retention strategies” or “how to acquire and nurture users to maturity through a happy path”, etc. Unbehestknown to most of us, the tragedy struck hard in Mid March and the numbers were quick to reflect the scale of impact. The ensuing panic made our Transport business go down (almost completely), significantly impacted our Food business, and severely impacted most other use cases. The following graph puts things in perspective:

Scale vs Impact to GoJek use cases at the start of COVID

Being a payments business with diversified use cases, we were better positioned to deal with the crisis than some of the other GoJek businesses.

Phase 1 - Things we did at the onset of CV19 impact (Mid March to End of April)

Source - KANTAR

Most of us would agree that the initial phase of this crisis was big chaos - work from home being instituted worldwide, unclear government policies around lockdowns and social restrictions coming into place, and a sudden shock to the economic activity creating widespread panic. For us at GoJek, it was an obvious realization that our driver-partners and small merchant partners would be hit the worst because of this crisis. The action plan for helping them, however, wasn’t that obvious.

Nevertheless, in true GoJek spirit of always trying to stand up for the right thing, we went through the following to try and pick ourselves up:

  • Creation of a COVID Strike team - it is no secret that in a highly diversified cross-functional business like GoJek, such crisis call for a cross-function group that can make decisions and gets things done. We were quick to make one and the premise for the team was very clear
  • Figure out how we can help our > two million driver-partners and small merchants survive this period
  • Determine how we can help our consumers stay protected and informed

To better coordinate our efforts, we

  • Did a business and product inception to discuss on-ground info, gather viewpoints, and potential recommendations on the premise above
  • Initiated a daily huddle to discuss the proposed plans and get approvals

Some key decisions that were made from all the coordination we went through:

  • Pause all non-essential spend - the business realities and consumer behavior had changed overnight. For eg, we couldn’t give someone a voucher to travel from point A to point B because it was too risky.
  • Hiring Freeze - onboarding more employees remotely while the company was going through a challenging period didn’t make sense. It would have been a bad experience for newly onboarded employees too, as we didn’t have a solid onboarding process in place yet
  • Collaboration - Bigger PDGs (Product development groups) and Functions, like Driver Ops, Transport, Food, Pay, Merchant platform agreed on multiple business and product-related deliverables. For eg, we realized that consumers were apprehensive about ordering Food online, and thus Food, Merchant Platform, and Driver Ops team collaborated to help make the experience safer for merchants, drivers and consumers
One of the 100 other things our teams partnered to execute within a matter of days
  • The birth of YABB - Saving the best for the last. Keeping up with GoJek’s DNA of being big and bold, the leadership announced a social initiative along with other partners to coordinate efforts around helping the less privileged communities get past this time. Anak Bangsa Bisa Foundation aka YABB
A beneficiary of the YABB program. The smile on their face, priceless!

Again, you can’t move a mountain alone — GoJek reflected the commitment, resources, and trust to bring the Indonesian business community together. And oh boy, didn’t they nail it.

Thank you to all the corporate partners for coming together in such a short period.

Some key activities from the foundation

GoJek Cultural values lived - Fast and fearless + It’s not about you

Phase 2 - Things we did during the peak of COVID impact (May to Mid July)

Everyone right now - Rinse and repeat

By the start of May, it was clear that the pandemic wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Nobody could have planned for such a “fork in the road” event. We had set-up optimistic goals for ourselves based on our past trajectory and future projections — and we knew those goals aka OKRs didn’t make sense anymore. We needed to have an honest assessment of where we stood and quite frankly, prepare for the worst. So we got down to it.

  • Revisited our goals and made them CV19 proof - We had tons of resources available at our disposal depicting how other countries and companies were dealing with CV19, along with some data coming in from China where recovery had started. Thankfully, most of the work that we were doing was based on first principles, such as the fact that transactions were increasingly turning from offline to online (O2O), driver-partners and merchants were always looking to find ways to serve our consumers better (faster and economical), security and trust would always be paramount in our ecosystem, etc. We doubled down on these first principles and made adjustments to our objectives and ensuing targets. We also projected multiple scenarios based on how recovery might occur (L, U, V shaped recoveries, have genuinely lost track on the kinds that exist) and prepared for the best and worst-case scenarios
  • Realigned teams towards the new goals - with some streams (such as Food, Online, Games) becoming more prominent than the others (such as Offline, Transport), we quickly repurposed our team to serve the user needs during the “new normal”. It also presented a great opportunity for the teams at GoJek to try and expand their skill-set to the newly minted objectives and work with a different set of people
  • Settle in the remote way of working for the foreseeable future - working remotely is hard. We all know that. I (along with many others) missed being at the office - seeing our friends, sharing our work and life over coffee/meals, grabbing hold of our leaders to get some decisions out of the way, etc. Now we were stuck in the endless loop of virtual meetings. GoJek supported everyone to adjust to the WFH routine by starting virtual activities such as Yoga/meditation, Open hours with the leaders, Book club chats, and many more. Many teams also started initiatives that bonded individuals together over online games, non-work tea sessions, and morning runs. We are doing as much as we can to continue working as a team while reducing the pressure of being always on
The sanitizer/face-shield/mask laden and troubled offline shopping experience
  • Preparation for Ramadhan - anybody in Southeast Asia would tell you that preparations for Ramadhan related initiatives, campaigns, and activities start roughly 3-4 months before the holy month and naturally take a lot of time and effort. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the luxury of time in our hands this time around. However, we did want to continue delighting our users/driver-partners/merchants and although the teams were working remotely and there were a lot of fires to fight, everybody wanted to contribute in making the Ramadhan month as successful as it had always been. Within a week, we had a well-thought-out plan for Ramadhan anchored around E-Badah (derived from Ibadah that means worship), which stood for online worship. Clever. The campaign was a wild success and this campaign video amuses me till this date
One of the creatives from the E-Badah campaign
  • Raised some much-awaited moolah - Facebook and Paypal invested in GoPay and we all celebrated the day it happened. It was a huge testament to what we had been working on and getting support from big tech during such a crisis went on to reflect what a great company we were all a part of
Welcome onboard - Facebook and Paypal

GoJek Cultural values lived - Always be prepared + Collaborate with compassion

Phase 3 - Things we plan to do during the CV19 recovery phase (Mid July till god knows when)

Perform or Perish

This phase is the real deal. This period will decide the winners and the losers. There will be some “survival of the fittest” coming into play here. The crisis is here to stay. When life gives you a crisis, you don’t cry, instead, you recreate yourself.

  • Tough decisions - GoJek made a tough decision to let go of 9% of its workforce along with sunsetting some promising verticals. I lost good friends the day it happened and I supported and wished everyone affected all the very best. Do remember - you guys are rockstars, nothing can stop you from doing well in life.
  • Longer-term bets - being a decacorn tech startup, now is the time that our focus on online infrastructure has to start yielding outsized returns. Online commerce (food delivery, groceries, logistics), Contactless payments and Games/Entertainment are going to take center stage
Prompting users to move towards cashless payments for added safety
  • The new normal strategies on the worst affected yet strategic businesses - For businesses such as Transport and Offline commerce, we are going back to the basics. Ensuring the safety of users and driver-partners during travel (see image below), supporting offline merchants transition some part of their business online, and help explore new avenues with Online events through GoTix. We are going to continue leveraging our massive user base to support our driver-partners/merchants, day in and day out
Protective shield in the car
  • Focus on the product and organic growth - our business has long relied on promotions to try and instill user habit and loyalty. We are transitioning from this (promo based) rather expensive and non-sustainable strategy to a more product-led strategy to spur organic growth and win users over. We have a steady stream of user research-driven problem statements that we aim to resolve and come out bigger and better. This is the top guiding principle for a stronger GoPay and GoJek (and for most late-stage startups)

GoJek Cultural values lived - Shoot for greatness + Become a scientist

I learned a lot from the challenges that the crisis presented. If you liked reading the above, do clap on the left so it reaches more people. Also, would love to hear how you have been navigating the CV19 period in the comments.

Feedback is most welcome. Cheers.

Follow me on Linkedin, Instagram, and Twitter.

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MBA student at London Business School. Worked at GoJek and Uber previously. Know a thing or two about Mobility, Marketplaces, and Payments.

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Priyanshu Taparia

Priyanshu Taparia

MBA student at London Business School. Worked at GoJek and Uber previously. Know a thing or two about Mobility, Marketplaces, and Payments.

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