What do WhatsApp, Dropbox and Kickstarter have in common? Why times of crisis breed invention

crisis innovation startups

VentureCrowd executive director and Maarbani Consulting managing director. Source: supplied.

In the middle of the global financial crisis, a young Ukranian immigrant named Jan found himself out of work in California. Many people at that time did. It was, after all, a crisis.

Jan had grown up in a small village in Ukraine in a house with no hot water. His mother was a housewife and his father a construction worker. By the time the global financial crisis hit, he had become an orphan. His father never made it across to the US in the midst of severe political turmoil in Ukraine, and his mother died of cancer. 

And then, the global financial crisis hit and the world went into freefall. Well, most of it did. But we’ll get to that shortly.

In the early months of 2009, in the midst of what economists considered to be the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression, Jan started a company.

In October of that year, five friends invested $250,000 in seed funding into his company. Two years later Sequoia invested $8 million, and then a further $50 million in 2013. By 2015, the company owned the world’s most popular messaging application, and by February of this year, it had over two billion users worldwide. 

The company, WhatsApp, was ultimately acquired by Facebook for $19 billion. (Ironically, Jan had previously applied for a job at Facebook and was rejected.)

There are many learnings from this story, but there are three core ones.

  1. A good idea is a good idea, no matter the climate.
  2. Entrepreneur grit and tenacity make things happen, even in a crisis.
  3. When the right crowd supports a project, anything is possible.

So while most of the world was in freefall, an entrepreneur and those who backed him were getting on with business.

This is not an isolated example.

In fact, some of the world’s most valuable companies today were founded during the global financial crisis, including Uber, Airbnb, Pinterest, Dropbox, Slack, Kickstarter, Stripe, LendingClub, AngelList, and venture capital firm Andreessen Horwitz.

That was also the period when collaborative consumption took off and the now ubiquitous businesses that make up the sharing economy were born. 

You know the saying ‘a crisis brings out the best and the worst in people’?

That’s true, of course, but it’s not completely accurate. It generally doesn’t bring out the best and the worst in the same type of person.

There are some people who will tend toward negativity, always. Uncertainty sends them into a tailspin, causes them to panic and default to blame mode. They’re the ones saying things like ‘the government should be doing more!’ while secretly stockpiling toilet paper.

But if you want humanity’s inspiring best-in-a-crisis, go and find an entrepreneur. 

Good entrepreneurs thrive in crises and uncertainty. They revel in the depths of the most complex global challenges. Creativity is in their DNA. It’s how they’re wired.

During periods of great social noise and meaningless political bullshit, good entrepreneurs have the unique capacity for silent clarity and unwavering determination. In fact — stay with me now — this is exactly when entrepreneurs do their best work.

And so to COVID19. It’s a crisis, of course. There is no certainty about when a treatment will be available or what the financial impact of the border closures and social isolation policies may be. 

In the meantime, the way we do many everyday things will have to change and those changes will require new and creative solutions.

We will need new approaches to the delivery of health and education services, new manufacturing processes for basic items, new supply chain and logistic solutions, new remote-working and collaboration tools, and a treatment for the friggin’ thing. Complex, global challenges.

So, here’s my prediction.

As most of the world goes into freefall over the coming months, global entrepreneurship will shift into overdrive as those who are wired to solve complex global problems — such as COVID-19 — lean right in to deliver solutions that create positive change. As a result, we will see more purpose-driven businesses emerging in particular sectors. Those will be the sectors that directly address immediate concerns of consumers, including in foodtech, healthtech, medtech and edtech (among others).

Future-focused investors will back those opportunities, as they always have, and the base of people rallying behind these worthwhile projects will expand to include everyday investors via equity crowdfunding. This will be particularly helpful for B2C companies, allowing them to raise capital and engage their consumers simultaneously.

Forced isolation will require new operating behaviours, and at the end of this period, productivity will be higher, driven by the technologies that have enabled these new behaviours. Years from now, many of those new technologies will have become ubiquitous, just as many of those that emerged during the GFC have become.

Individuals, forced to be socially distant, will form new online communities to follow and support those that truly lead them toward a shared vision of the future, toward those that are solving the world’s biggest problems. The Kardashians don’t matter in this environment, purpose does.

Each of us has a role to play in this unfolding story.

So when this period passes, and it will, you will have been either (a) part of the problem, or (b) part of the solution. There is no third option.

Think about that for a moment and ask yourself, what story do you want to tell?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve decided, and I welcome you to join me.

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