Source: Marathon Des Sables

Whether we were in training or not; whether we were fit or not; whether we wanted to or not… sometime in early Spring 2020, every business owner in the country (world?) was entered into the Marathon des Sables — the world’s toughest race comprising 6 back-to-back marathons.

As we come to what feels like the end of the first marathon — with another 5 ahead — it makes sense to take stock of what on earth has just happened. This is a brutal fight for survival. Which means learning on the go is critical to our chances of crossing the finishing line with our businesses still in tact (if barely recognisable).

Here are 5 lessons we’ve learned so far at OLIO — the food sharing app — as we’ve attempted to navigate this unwelcome race:

  1. SPEED OF ADAPTATION IS KEY

It’s widely believed Charles Darwin said: “It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.” And never has this been truer than in a crisis. From the macro level — where countries that responded fastest have seen the lowest death tolls — to the micro level where businesses such as OLIO have sprung into action, we’ve seen that speed of response has been key. We learned this when our first initiative — to equip our Community Heroes (volunteers) with printed flyers offering help to neighbours — took far too long to execute and so had limited impact. Whereas when the school closures were announced it took just 26 hours to go from an idea in my kitchen — that we should galvanise our community to #Cook4Kids to help ensure the 1.3 million school children who rely upon school meals don’t go hungry — to a fully fledged multi-media campaign with the backing of celebrity chefs including Melissa Hemsley, James Martin, Thomasina Miers and more. Critical to enabling us to respond so quickly was our daily COVID-19 meeting, attended by the head of each function. This enabled us to agree the strategy, take decisions and remove bottlenecks at lightening speed. As a remote-first business, daily stand-ups is in our DNA, however even we were amazed at just how powerful this mechanic is when managing through a crisis, and speed of action can be the difference between life and death.

2. RESILIENCY ISN’T WASTEFUL, IT’S ESSENTIAL

Every single day of this crisis I’ve been beyond thankful that we closed a round of financing in January. At the time we were asked why on earth we were fundraising when we had plenty of money in the bank. The answer is that is was a combination of fear (surely the 11 year bull market had to break sometime soon?!) and greed (we knew 2020 was going to be the year the world finally wanted to take action on the climate crisis). We certainly didn’t have the foresight to predict a global pandemic, but what we *have* learned is that our prudent approach to financial management has been the difference between life and death for the company. And we’ve continued to apply this approach by taking fast, decisive action during this crisis to manage our cost base so we can have 24 months runway — which is what the crowd-sourced wisdom from our investors suggested was optimal. Having resiliency in your finances, or supply chain, or team has historically been seen as wasteful in a highly levered world; for the rest of this marathon and beyond it will be recognised as critical to business success.

3. “WHERE WERE YOU DURING THE WAR?”

How we show up during this time of crisis will determine how we’ll be remembered in the years to come, and will either be a source of pride (and competitive advantage) or shame. In addition to the actions your business takes in the fight against COVID-19, you will also need to ensure that you treat your customers, suppliers, partners and employees with transparency, empathy and respect. What this means is honoring pre-existing commitments where possible (we paid our media planner for work done on our cancelled marketing campaign), going above and beyond to support any employees that you’re letting go (we gave an extended notice period), and at all times being as honest as you can with your communications, despite the uncertainty of the circumstances (the team know pay cuts may still come into play). Now more than ever, is when you show your true colours and demonstrate what your company values really are; and this will be far more powerful than any posters on the wall or mugs in the office kitchen.

4. CRISIS IS AN AMPLIFIER, NOT A LEVELLER

In the early days it was often touted that this crisis was a “great leveller”, given that a virus doesn’t care who’s rich or poor. And once lock-down was announced there was plenty of talk of the “blitz spirit” and everybody “being in it together”. Whilst such statements seemed appealing, we’ve learned this is an *enormous* fallacy, on every level — whilst we’re all in the same storm, we’re most certainly not all in the same boat. Very quickly members of our community reached out, desperate to access food as they were forced into isolation, or had lost their jobs, or were working long shifts and confronted with empty shelves at the end of the day. When research emerged that 1.5 million Brits are going hungry every day, it merely served to reinforce what we instinctively knew — that this crisis is not in fact a leveller, it’s in fact an amplifier of unconscionable levels of inequality. We’ve also realised that even amongst our team, the crisis has had a very unequal effect — team members who are homeschooling kids whilst trying to work full time, or who are living alone, or who have health concerns, or who don’t have a garden are having a remarkably different experience than others. What this means is that now more than ever, it’s essential to spend as much time reflecting to our differences, and discussing them, as it is embracing our similarities.

5. CRISIS IS AN ACCELERANT TO THE FUTURE

As well as being a great amplifier, we’ve also learned that this crisis is a great accelerant too. Trends that would have taken years, or even decades to unfold are taking place in just weeks and months — tele-medicine, digital learning, e-commerce and remote working being perhaps the most obvious examples. However we’ve also spotted some other interesting trends that are emerging. In the area of food for example, research shows that roughly half of all people have changed their attitudes towards the value of food, whilst the amount of food they’re wasting has also significantly decreased. With great swathes of people now volunteering, and an incredible number of community initiatives popping up all over the country, we’re hopeful that this new dawn will usher in a much more purposeful and human decade. An undeniable benefit of corona virus is that it’s shown us what we *can* do in a crisis. Now it’s up to us to seize this momentum, and ensure we use our renewed sense of agency to build a future that’s much more sustainable, and equitable, than our past.

Do you think we will?

Co-Founder & CEO of OLIO, the food sharing app. Getting my head around the climate crisis. Passionate about sustainability, startups & diversity.