“A hard pill to swallow”: Creativity and team spirit suffer as Victorian startups face extended lockdown

Michelle Akhidenor The Peers Project

The Peers Project founder and chief Michelle Akhidenor. Source: supplied.

Sunday’s announcement of an extended stage four lockdown was widely met with disappointment, as businesses in Victoria, and particularly in metropolitan Melbourne, braced for more downtime.

While the focus thus far has (rightly) been on hospitality, retail and beauty businesses, those facing continuing trading restrictions, and in many cases complete closure, things are not easy for anyone. That includes the tech startups that have been operating remotely for some six months already.

The Victorian tech sector is facing a continued period of reduced growth opportunities, disconnected teams and working in solitude. COVID fatigue has long since set in.

We reached out to Victorian startups to see how they’re faring. For the most part, they’re begrudgingly accepting the state of play, understanding the health benefits and that there’s nothing much to be done.

They’re also striving to keep their staff feeling motivated and connected, until we can all get to a beer garden again.

“As business owners and leaders, we know that the extension of the Victorian lockdown will have a devastating impact on our staff, community and our businesses,” Michelle Akhidenor, founder and chief of The Peers Project tells SmartCompany.

“But if these sacrifices mean that it is the best thing to do for our community, it is one that we will have to accept — despite it being a hard pill to swallow.”

Akhidenor says she is reaching out to each of her staff members personally, “to provide necessary emotional support”.

And she’s one of many founders who stresses the importance of Friday night Zoom drinks, “to keep spirits high and positively flowing”.

Preezie co-founder and chief Michael Tutek says the whole pandemic period has been “bittersweet”.

On the one hand, it’s clear so many businesses are hurting, he says, including many of Preezie’s clients.

On the other, his is an e-commerce business operating at a time when online shopping is having a moment in the sun.


Preezie founders Quoc Nguyen, Michael Tutek and Luke Milkovic. Source: supplied.

Tutek also notes that, for a small but fast-growing team, not being able to socialise is becoming a strain.

“To be honest we are also getting over not being able to go out, see each other, have a beer after a hard week and just socialise,” he tells SmartCompany.

Preezie has employees who Tutek and the rest of the team have never met in person, he says. Sunday’s announcement made it clear that will be the case for some time to come.

“We were hoping to have a company lunch or barbecue or similar to see each other face-to-face finally,” he says,

“Looks like that’s off the cards.”

Not-so-happy hour

Many founders SmartCompany spoke to pointed to the lack of social interaction as one of their main COVID-19 bugbears.

Digital Stack chief Peter Harris says this has been the hardest thing for his team.

“[It] would be great if the teams were allowed to meet outside for a one or two-hour session after this 5km restriction is over,” he says.

“It would go a long way to the mental health of the team, our performance and the support we provide to clients.”

Just because a business can work remotely, doesn’t necessarily mean it works best that way. Many startups and fast-paced businesses thrive on teamwork and the bouncing around of ideas.

That’s certainly true for Felicia Coco, co-founder of Melbourne-based startup-focused PR firm LaunchLink.

“We know it’s important to curb the spread, but it’s not hard to see morale and wellbeing levels for many people are low,” Coco says.

“For the LaunchLink team specifically, collaboration and creativity sit at the core of our offering, and while we’ve been digital-first since inception, we are craving some face-to-face time,” she adds.

“Victorians have been holding their breath for easing of restrictions and I think this weekend we all felt disappointed.

“It’s disheartening for us to see that some form of normality won’t be attainable for a few months, despite Victorians really working hard to comply with the Andrews Government’s asks.”

Coco also notes what is perhaps “the most difficult thing” — LaunchLink has team members hailing from all the country and all over the world.

“We’re all looking forward to a time when we can jump on a plane or go for a drive and see our loved ones again,” she says.

NOW READ: “Not a reasonable target”: Cosmetics businesses face months of uncertainty under Melbourne’s reopening roadmap

NOW READ: Business owners “running on empty” as ongoing COVID-19 uncertainty takes a toll on mental health


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