Over 3,000 people dialled into TechTO Together — a free, virtual event held in an effort to bring together the Toronto tech community during a period of great uncertainty.
While the last TechTO event was less than a month ago (March 9th) co-founders Jason Goldlist and Alex Norman felt they couldn’t wait another two weeks for a gathering — albeit an online one. The event featured motivational and practical talks, creating a feeling of solidarity throughout the Toronto tech community.
Featuring a virtual “meet your neighbour” segment, networking opportunities, presentations from tech leaders, a visit from Mayor John Tory, and break-out sessions, TechTO Together provided much-needed connection and direction for the community.
How Toronto Tech Leaders Are Making a Difference
Individuals and businesses are facing challenges as projects are being put on hold, cash flow is tight and getting tighter, and the feeling of job uncertainty grows. Thankfully, there are many people and organizations pulling together to help.
- Needslist is a Toronto-based start-up that provides real-time crisis response and matching tools. Schools, hospitals and others can post their needs and get matched with those who can fulfill them.
- BlueDot is a home grown company that tracks infectious diseases — in fact, they were the first ones to identify the outbreak in Wuhan and anticipate the impact. They are now hiring data engineers, software engineers and user interface designers as they do incredible things in the face of difficult times.
- Knix founder Joanna Griffiths launched a GoFundMe campaign to collect donations so that they can quickly order and distribute PPE items (surgical masks and gloves) to hospitals and front-line workers as they need them most.
- Prospect founder Marianne Bulger joined with others to form “Talent Help List” — a grassroots, community-powered hiring platform designed to help out-of-work talent in Canada’s start-up sector find remote work during the COVID-19 crisis.
How to Adapt Your Business Plan to the Current Situation
Brice Scheschuk, Managing Partner at Globalive Capital was the first to present his thoughts and insights about how to right-size your business in the face of this crisis. Indicating he has been through every crisis since 1987, Scheschuk reminded founders that, “You don’t have to do this alone.”
He advised to focus on survivability, liquidity and runway in these ways:
- Control what you can control and measure what matters.
- Forecast your cash flow for the next six months.
- Communicate closely with shareholders, creditors and your board. Work closely with your funding partners and monitor programs closely, particularly if you anticipate your cash flow going negative over the next 12 months.
- Figure out cash coming in and understand how long it will take to collect.
- Create different scenarios and plan for each of them.
- Be honest about where you sit in your customer’s priority list.
When it comes to costs, Scheschuk advised to manage them downward using a triage approach. He broke it down into three categories:
- Discretionary Non-Headcount. These are costs to stop spending on right now (advertising, training, R&D). Everything is negotiable here.
- Non-Discretionary Non-Headcount. In a normal world, these costs — such as rent, insurance premiums, debt and taxes — would not be on the table. However, for the first time, they are becoming negotiable as landlords are deferring rent, the government is deferring tax payments and some lenders are allowing for principal and interest deferrals.
- Headcount. “This is complicated, but there is a spectrum that one has to look at,” Scheshuk said. From outright termination, to layoffs with the intention of calling back, to hour reductions, headcount should be addressed in coordination with government programs.
He ended his talk on a positive note saying, “Despite all of this, there is new customer discovery out there. Put 10 per cent of your brain space towards discovery.”
How to Optimize for Survival
Industry veteran Jamie McDonald spoke next. McDonald was founder and CEO of Spark Room, which sold software to mortgage companies during the 2008 financial crisis. “We had a lot of customers in the mortgage space, and they all stopped paying us,” he said of his time at Spark Room. He encouraged businesses to ask themselves: What if no one pays me for the next six or 12 months?
“I encourage people to imagine the worst case scenario, and imagine it worse than that. My counsel is: speed matters. Go to wartime mode and optimize for survival,” he said.
He offered these tips:
- Call your accountant today, and “whenever Prime Minister Trudeau announces the financial relief plan, get that cash in your account.”
- Talk to your existing customers. Your pipeline will go to zero in 30 days unless you’re selling into healthcare. Ask: “What can I do to help you.” Try to make a difference.
- Sell into something else – especially if you’re selling into travel or restaurants.
- Approach your workforce in humane way. Do right by people — if you need to lay off, do it in a way that’s authentic.
- You’ll need to make decisions based on incomplete information — just do your best every day.
- Focus on your top 10 customers and your top two priorities.
- Think about how business behaviours may change forever as a result of this and consider opportunities (a lot of great businesses were born out of the dot com crisis).
Words of Wisdom and Comfort from the City’s Leadership
Mayor John Tory, who has been in self-isolation joined next, was very thankful for technology as it enables him to conduct meetings, teleconferences and news conferences via Skype.
When asked what people could do to help out the city right now, he was unequivocal: “Follow the social distancing rules yourself. Convince your friends to do it. History has shown us that when you can shut a city down, you can bring the city back.”
He added, “If you’re worried about your job and employment, this has a direct correlation of how quickly businesses will recover.”
He also encouraged the tech talent on the line to support each other. “Take the tech you know about and find ways to help us fight this.” His stated that information and data are key, so share the data you have. “You may not think it is useful, but it could help identify a need or a solution.”
“This is not just about business, it’s about people,” he said, asking business owners who are able to keep people employed in an effort to shorten up any period of economic trauma. “Please, protect this goose that has been laying the golden egg.”
Finally, the Mayor had words of positivity for the attendees. “We are going to come out of this. We will come out stronger if we do what we are told now, if we help each other in the community and in business. We will be in as good as shape as ever, after a relatively short period of time.”
How to Maintain a Positive Culture, Remotely
Michele Romanow and Andrew D’Souza, co-founders of Clearbanc joined next about building and maintaining culture in a remote work world. The pair admitted they previously had little faith in a work-from-home culture.
The company had a lot of face-to-face communications, ad hoc meetings, and organic ideation. Seeing what was going on in Italy, they required their team to work from home, even before the NBA shut down. The message to their team was: “Our customers need us more than ever. People need us, so we need to test our mettle and shape what our company is.”
They offered these insights for leaders managing a remote team:
- Try to be honest. Every day, think about what went well, what’s bothering you and how you can respond to it.
- Don’t set expectations that this is going to be easy.
- Understand that it’s OK to not have all the answers today.
They also encouraged all team members to recognize that when talking over Slack and through other written communications, to be human. “Understand that there is another human on the other side of the conversation. Go that extra mile — we all need each other more than ever, even if you can’t see each other.”
In one of the 30-minute breakout sessions, Valerie Fox (co-founder of the DMZ and currently CIO of The Pivotal Point), Mike Katchen (co-founder and CEO of Wealthsimple), Maggie Greyson (co-founder of Futures Present) and Patrick Farrar (CEO of Startup Zone PEI) shared further thoughts about keeping your company culture.
The group had important thoughts for leaders during this time:
- Ensure your culture preserves dignity for your people.
- Think about culture as much more than drinks in the office or an event you host. Culture represents the behaviours and virtues of your company.
- Get in front of your team as much as you can. There is no such thing as over-communication at a time like this.
- Try to make moments super human — Katchen relayed a move where staff introduced their kids on one of their team calls, adding a layer of intimacy and humanity to the business call.
- Try to introduce a bit of positivity. Ask for a nice anecdote, or an awesome story from the weekend during your team call.
- Acknowledge that this is a marathon, not a sprint. You and your teams will therefore have to find the right rhythms.
- Ask your team to be honest about how they are doing. Some may be having a hard time with their transition — some may be in a single bedroom apartment with a spouse, dog, kids, etc. Ask people to put their hand up if they are struggling, and get resources to them.
- Thank people for being adaptable and being flexible through a period like this.
- Show more of your own humanity at a time like this. Showing your concern or vulnerability demonstrates you value and trust your team.
- Get creative. If you usually have people gather for pizza, have people to get their own pizza at home then gather on a video call for a meal.
The Toronto tech community has pulled together and supported each other for years. If you’re looking to make a difference, check out the organizations who are looking for talents like yours. If you’re struggling, tap into the resources mentioned here — there are many people committed to helping through this.
The next TechTO event is happening as scheduled on April 6th. Visit the TechTO website for more information about how the event will be held, and how you can join.
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