In this blog post, Hugh Farrell (virtually) sits down with our co-founder & CEO of Zoosh Products, Balazs Bakos. We discuss the impact that Covid-19 has had on our digital company as well as leadership through this pandemic.
Hugh: Hello Balazs and welcome to the founders series, how are you doing?
Balazs: Hi Hugh, I’m good thanks.
Hugh: 2020 was a particularly challenging year, especially from a leadership perspective - how has it affected Zoosh and you as a leader of the company?
Balazs: I remember that we started 2020 with an aggressive growth plan, but when Covid stuck, we had to throw our plans out the window as many of the assumptions we made were no longer valid as we moved into a very uncertain environment.
I guess that was one of the most difficult aspects that we had to decide from the very beginning was “what were we, as the leadership in Zoosh, going to do next”. What would be the impact from the health point of view of our staff? How was this going to impact our existing customers as well as new business development? There were a lot of unknowns at that point.
I am personally very happy that we made some good decisions from the start. The first one was that Mervyn, Bert and I agreed that as the Zoosh founders, we would need to meet (online) a lot more often than usual to deal with the growing number of unforeseen consequences of the pandemic. I remember, at the start, it was the case that we’d need to meet several times a week at any given hour. We were consistently exchanging ideas and information to try to analyse the situation so that we could make the best possible decisions for the company.
The very first decision we made was that we didn't want to risk the health of the Zoosh people and at the very start decided on a “stay at home” policy which we have maintained ever since. At the end of the day, we took the view as founders that our first priority was to protect our team.
Another somewhat related decision we made at the start of the pandemic is that we wanted to make sure that we as founders were available at any time to all of our people & internal leaders because there was so much uncertainty and it was becoming more and more evident that this was going to a lot of time to start returning to some sort of normality. We made ourselves as available as possible to the Zoosh team so that they could ask any questions that they had. I believe this was a very important decision and it was genuinely a case of we were all trying to figure this out together - there was no management playbook for pandemics. Whilst we ensured our availability it was also important to highlight that we didn’t have the answer and that there was a certain amount of having to see how things played out.
As with a lot of early-stage companies one of the main metrics we tracked was our own liquidity and cash management. Our premise, like other technology companies, was that it was critical to maintain as strong a cash position as possible to focus on the “here and now” but also to ensure we were in a strong position when things started to normalise.
There was an assumption in 2020 that continues today, that our industry should come out of the Covid era in a much stronger position. In Spring 2020 we didn't know exactly how it would all play out because there were so many macro and micro variables involved. It was very evident that since people couldn’t interact with each other physically that it would be natural for companies to look at digital alternatives as a way of conducting business. We assumed that digitalisation would help companies like Zoosh and I think that this proved to be the case since a company like Zoosh is very much linked with building innovative digital products for our clients and Startups. These digital products are more and more becoming a core element of the business model of these companies.
So in summary the leadership focus was on our team, maintaining a strong cash position, and ensuring we continued to build quality digital products for our customers to help ensure their pathway through the pandemic (and positioning for post pandemic era).
Hugh: Even in a digital company, working from home seems to bring its own challenges. Were there any that you found particularly challenging when trying to manage everything remotely?
Balazs: Yes, it's a very interesting question Hugh, because you would assume we had all the tools we needed to support our team, we had flexible working hours and we had been doing this for the last 6 years or more. However, we were impacted by the inability to hold the physical team & project meetings in our offices. As well as the existing toolkit we had such as Zoom/Teams/Google Meet, we also introduced tools such as Miro which proved very effective in running remote interactive workshops.
Like most organisations, there were different situations where people worked from home and we had to be conscious of these e.g. it was very different for someone living on their own versus a family situation with small children and it was important to recognise these different situations as each had their own specific challenges. We tried to remain conscious of all this and it helped to have a colleague - a student of psychology - guide us through this.
We tried to analyse the impact of remote working, its impact on people and see how/if we could help make life easier. We offered some practical guidance but it was only a guideline because it was equally important not to interfere with a person's daily routine - it was about supporting. We also had some suggestions on how people can stay healthy, not only just from a physical point of view, but also from a mental point of view. These were very different management type roles than we had experienced prior to Covid.
The assumption I mentioned earlier that our sector would perform well during the pandemic was borne out in 2020 where we saw a 2X increase in our revenues and we have had a process of constantly recruiting since Q2 2020 which in itself is a challenge as we conduct interviews over video rather than in person. That being said we take a certain pride in almost doubling our team in the last 12 months.
Hugh: One thing that I've heard on a couple of occasions since starting these interviews with the Zoosh founders is that “true leaders emerge from difficult situations.” Have you found this to be particularly true for yourselves and indeed with your Venture portfolio - especially since Covid?
Balazs: We most definitely have had our challenges since Covid started, but we are not complaining as we’ve been very fortunate in comparison to other sectors. For that reason I genuinely believe in the main point of your question i.e. taking on tougher projects & challenges turn out to be the best ways for you as an individual and indeed as an organisation to continue to improve one's performance. I think customers in particular are more appreciative when they see that there is a tough situation but that you can still solve it. One thing we value in Zoosh is honesty, especially in tough situations. Whilst these struggles can be uncomfortable as you go through them, they prove extremely beneficial in the long run especially in terms of talent development.
Related to this idea of continuous improvement, we started a special programme during 2020 to help our young tech leaders own personnel development by regular mentoring by the founders or members of the leadership team. At the end of the day - Zoosh is a people business.