I think it is safe to say that 2020 has not been a great year. From the pandemic and subsequent lock-downs to the racial equality riots in the US that is resonating with countries in the region, this has not lived up to our expectations.

So how did we get from the best phase of startup growth in Southeast Asia’s history to a recession and investment slow-down. Well, the answer is obvious – COVID-19 – but the reality is that the pandemic does not care about country, race or any other factor, it has hit us all.

The need to survive has passed, and while it has taken some great companies along with it, the remaining are not out of the woods yet. Now it is the time to think about ‘What’s next?’ and what you need to do for your SME or startup to restart the next phase of their growth.

Communicate with your customers, team and investors

person using both laptop and smartphone

One thing businesses made a mistake with is their almost immediate reaction of reducing marketing budget during this pandemic. Removing the front-line communication capabilities of your brand to save money does not solve the problem, it potentially makes a short-term or medium-term problem a long-term one.

We have covered how to communicate during a pandemic before and to highlight some of the key factors, we have compiled a short list here:

  • Use your owned channels well – as consumers stay at home, they look through social or media channels for entertainment and news. Having a presence and being proactive is a great way to connect with them.
  • Be responsible – the spread of fake news is rampant and the need for brands to vet or ensure accuracy with their statements is critical. Having a team or person who can ensure accuracy during these times is critical.
  • Show compassion – enough with the ‘thoughts and prayers’ and the ‘we stand with you in this unprecedented times’, and focus on putting your dollars into things that matter. Support your staff and customers who need it during this period.
  • Be communicative – none of these matter unless you put in the effort to communicate. Make sure you keep your customers, staff and stakeholders regularly updated so that they know that it is business as usual for you.

Now is the time to recruit

The tech talent shortage is a global issue, and Southeast Asia is as badly affected, if not even more so, than the rest of the world. While this may sound alarming, what comes next can be the solution.

The unfortunate retrenchments and hiring freezes means that for the first time, there might be supply to match the demand for quality technology talent.

It might be worth the risk to invest into hiring quality tech talent to fill the gaps in your business and to kick start your growth. This does not make your opportunistic in a negative manner, but it is a way to ensure your business has the opportunity to leverage on the talent not normally available to you.

Remote work might be the best choice for you

We never quite understood businesses’ reluctance to adopt remote teams as a way to cost effectively expand a team and skill set. The pandemic and subsequent work-from-home orders has meant that companies need to go remote whether they wanted to or not.

What it proved to most companies is that it is possible to move remote and even larger companies like Facebook, Twitter and more have embraced the remote working trend.

Execution is the greatest challenge, but should not be a blocker to the ‘new normal’ remote way of working:

  • Create a flexible management style, so allow people to work from where it is comfortable and does not impact productivity.
  • Make your employees happy by focusing not on time spent, but rather on output. Also, do not reduce benefits for those who work remote, but provide them with a way to utilise benefits fairly.
  • Give them options, so working remote is not compulsory, but is optional. The choice shows employees that you want to work with them on this new change.

This also applied to hiring offshore teams as well, giving you the flexibility to scale your team without the constraints of the local market.

person in blue jacket sitting on brown wooden chair near brown wooden table during daytime

We also really dislike the commute in Southeast Asia, where traffic is a killer. So please companies, adopt remote working as a must.

Companies need to adopt balance when it comes to growth

We may have realised a bit too late that growth needs to be sustainable rather than explosive and all encompassing. Investors may demand that, but in the light of the pandemic, it has show the fallacy of that model.

Startups in particular, sacrificed infrastructure, business sense and basic economic principles to chase growth, and are now paying for that in the form of lost equity and slowed growth due to a business model that was too reliant on investor money to grow. For some, this has meant the end of their journey as well.

SMEs may not have the same problems, but face issues around poor cash reserves and lack of digital capabilities that are a detriment to growth during the pandemic.

Having a strong infrastructure, solid economics and a sustainable growth plan might be the new future for startups and SMEs. This however, begs the question, why it wasn’t the case before.