How Your Startup Can Survive a Worldwide Pandemic

It’s time to figure out the minimum of what’s needed to keep your company alive — and what needs to be left behind

Steve Blank


Photo: Six_Characters/Getty Images

WWith the Covid-19 virus now a worldwide pandemic, if you’re leading any startup or small business you have to be asking yourself, “What’s Plan B? And what’s in my lifeboat?”

Here are a few thoughts about operating in uncertainty in a pandemic.

The short- and long-term impact

Social distancing and a declared national emergency have had an immediate impact on industries that cluster people — things like conferences, trade shows, airlines, cruise lines, all types of travel, the hospitality industry, sporting events, theaters and movies, restaurants, and education. Large companies are sending employees to work at home. Large retail chains are shutting down their stores.

Shutting down the economy for a pandemic has never happened.

While the impact on small businesses and workers in the gig economy hasn’t yet made the news, it will be worse for them. They have fewer cash reserves and less margin of error for managing sudden downturns. The ripple and feedback effect of all these closures will have a major impact on our economy, as each affected industry puts people out of work, and those laid-off workers won’t buy as many products and services.

It’s no longer business as usual for the rest of the economy. In fact, shutting down the economy for a pandemic has never happened. Millions of jobs may be lost in the next few months as entire industries become devastated — something not seen since the Great Depression. I hope that I’m wrong, but the coronavirus’ social and economic effects are likely to be profound and will change how we shop, travel, and work for years.

If you’re running a startup or small business, your first priority (after your family) is keeping your employees and customers safe. But next the question is, “What’s going to happen to my business?”

Every startup or small business CEO needs to ask themselves now:

  • What’s my burn rate and runway?
  • What does your new business model look like?
  • Is this a three-month, one-year, or three-year problem?
  • What will my investors do?

Burn rate and runway

To answer the first question, take stock of your current gross burn rate — i.e., how much cash are you spending each month. How many of these expenses are fixed expenses (those you can’t change, like rent)? And how many are variable expenses (salaries, consultants, commissions, travel, supplies, etc.)?

Next, take a look at your actual revenue each month — not your forecast, but your real revenue coming in each month. If you’re an early stage company, that number may be zero.

Subtract your monthly gross burn rate from your monthly revenue to get your net burn rate. If you’re making more money than you’re spending, you have positive cash flow. If you’re a startup and have less revenue than your expenses, that number is negative and represents the amount of money your company loses (“burns”) each month. Now take a look at your bank account. See how many months your company can survive burning that amount of cash each month. This is your runway — the amount of time your company has before it runs out of money.

The world turned upside down

This kind of math by itself generally works in a normal market. Unfortunately, we’re no longer in a normal market.

All your assumptions about customers, sales cycles, and, most importantly, revenue, burn rate, and runway are no longer true. If you’re a startup, you’ve likely calculated your runway to last until you raise your next round of funding under the assumption there was going to be a next round. That may no longer be true.

If your business model today looks the same as it did at the beginning of the month, you’re in denial.

Since the world today is no longer the same as it was a month ago, and likely will be worse a month from now, if your business model today looks the same as it did at the beginning of the month, you’re in denial. It’s the nature of startup CEOs to be optimistic — however, you’ll need to quickly test these optimistic assumptions about customers and revenue. If you are selling to businesses, have your customers’ sales dropped? Are your customers closing for the next few weeks? Are they laying off people? If so, whatever revenue forecast and sales cycle estimates you had are no longer valid. If you’re selling directly to consumers, were you in a multi-sided market where consumers use the product but others may pay you for their eyeballs or data? Are your assumptions about payers still correct? How do you know?

What are the new financial metrics? Get on top of your receivables and figure out your actual burn rate and runway in this new environment now.

The scope of the problem

Next, you need to take a deep breath and ask, “Is this a three-month problem, a one-year problem, or a three-year problem? Are the shutdowns of businesses going to be a temporary blip in the economy or will they drive the United States and Europe into a long recession?”

If it’s just three months (which is looking more unlikely by the day), then an immediate freeze on variable spending (hires, marketing, travel, etc.) is in order. But if the effects are going to reverberate in the economy longer, you need to start reconfiguring your business. You need a lifeboat strategy. That’s a fancy phrase for figuring out the minimum of what’s needed to keep your company alive — and what needs to be left behind.

A one-year problem means taking a knife to your burn rate (layoffs and eliminations of perks and programs to reduce your variable expenses), renegotiating what previously seemed liked fixed expenses (rent, equipment lease payments, etc.), and putting only the essential elements for survival in the lifeboat. If you were selling online versus in-person, you may have an advantage (assuming your customers are still there). Or you’ll need to change your sales strategy.

Having lived through the last three financial crashes, I’ve observed that the biggest mistake CEOs made was not making draconian cuts to expenses quickly enough.

Whatever your product/market fit was last month, it’s likely no longer true and needs to change to meet the new normal. Does this open new value propositions or kill others? Does it alter the product?

And if it’s a three-year problem? Then not only do you need to jettison everything that isn’t essential for survival, but you’ll also probably need to create a new business model. In the short term, explore if some part of your business model can be oriented around the new rules of social isolation. Can your product be sold, delivered, or produced online? Does it have some benefits if it’s delivered that way? If not, can your product or service be positioned as a lifeboat for others to ride out the downturn?

Plan, communicate, and act with compassion

Revise your sales revenue goals and product timelines and create a new business model and operating plan — and then communicate them clearly to your investors and your employees. Keep people focused on an achievable plan that they clearly understand. Having lived through the last three financial crashes, I’ve observed that the biggest mistake CEOs made was not making draconian cuts to expenses quickly enough. They dripped out layoffs and cuts, holding on to favored projects with magical thinking that somehow this was just something that would pass. Don’t do this — you need to act now.

If you’re in a large company considering layoffs, the first option should be to cut the salaries of the higher paid executives and employees to try to keep the people who can least afford layoffs employed. (Good things will come to CEOs who first try to save everyone on the ship before they jump in the lifeboat.) If and when people need to be laid off, do it with compassion. Offer extra compensation. If in the worst-case scenarios you see you’re running out of cash, under no circumstances run it down to zero. Do the right thing and have enough cash on hand to offer everyone at least two weeks or more of pay.

Your investors

One of the key elements of survival is access to capital. As a startup or small business leader, you should realize your investors are also asking themselves how this pandemic will affect their business model. The cold hard truth is that in a crash, VCs are running their own “What do I save in the lifeboat?” exercise. They triage their deals, worrying first about the liquidity of their late-stage deals that have the highest valuations. These startups typically have high burn rates and funding for those could fall off a cliff. You and the survival of your startup may no longer be their priority and your interests are no longer aligned. (VCs who tell you otherwise are either naïve, lying through their teeth, or not serving the interests of their investors.) In every major downturn, inflated valuations disappear and the few VCs still writing new checks find it’s a buyer’s market (hence the term “vulture capitalists”).

In every major downturn, inflated valuations disappear and the few VCs still writing new checks find it’s a buyer’s market.

Some investors have only ever lived during a booming market when valuations only went up and investment capital was plentiful. But investors with gray hair can remember the nuclear winter after the past recessions of 2000 and 2008 and can offer some historical patterns of crashes and recovery to CEOs running early stage startups. Keep in mind that today’s circumstances are different. This isn’t a bear stock market; this is a conscious shutdown of most of our economy — trading jobs for saving hundreds of thousands of lives — that’s causing a bear market and a likely recession.

Data from the last large crash in 2008 had seed rounds recovering early, but later stage funding cratered and took years to recover. See the figure below showing quarterly VC investments before and after this crash (originally part of this post by Tomasz Tunguz):

Credit: Tomasz Tunguz

This time around, the health of the venture business may depend on what hedge funds, investment banks, private equity firms, sovereign wealth funds, and large secondary market groups do. If they pull back, there will be a liquidity crunch for later-stage startups (Series B, C, etc.). For all startups in the short term, the deal terms and valuations will get worse, and there will be fewer investors looking at your deal.

As a startup CEO, you need to know if your board is going to be screaming at you for not radically cutting burn rate and coming up with a new business model — or they’ll be yelling at you to stop being distracted and stay the course. If it’s the latter, I’d want to know what skin in the game they have if they end up being wrong. It’s pretty easy for VCs to tell you that they’ll be right behind you when you’ll need a next round—until they’re not. Unless your investors are matching their orders for “full speed ahead” with a deposit into your bank, now is not the time to be railroaded into a burn rate that is unrecoverable.

Prepare for a long cold winter. But remember no winter lasts forever, and in this moment, smart founders and VCs will be planting the seeds for the next generation of startups.

The bottom line

This is a conscious shutdown of our economy, trading jobs for saving hundreds of thousands of lives. It’s likely going to cause a recession. Covid-19 will change how we shop, travel, and work for at least a year and likely more. It’s inconceivable that you can have the same business model today as you did 30 days ago. Put in place lifeboat plans for a downturn of three month, one year, and three years. Recognize that your investors will act in their interests, which may no longer be yours.

Take action now, but act with compassion.