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Lessons in setting up a tech business during a pandemic

Lessons in setting up a tech business during a pandemic
(Image credit: Pixabay)

It was a tough decision to leave the beautiful beaches of Sydney and relocate to the UK to launch Zip over here. In Australia the Buy Now Pay Later firm is a household name so this new venture would mean becoming an unknown and building the business from scratch. Daunting enough, but little did I know this would be the least of my worries.

About the author

Anthony Drury is Managing Director at Zip UK.

When I relocated my family and set up home here in the UK, I had no idea I would scarcely be able to leave it for the majority of the next 12 months. During the period I agonized over the move, Corona was simply a beer brand...

Setting up what is effectively a startup within a scale up during a pandemic is not what I’d signed up for. Forget forging big brand partnerships, an insatiable focus on growth and building company recognition, how was I meant to even recruit anyone? Prising top talent from safe and secure jobs to come to an unknown startup is tough at the best of times but during the midst of a pandemic you have a real job on your hands - especially when most of the recruitment had to be done via video call and there was no office to meet at.

Virtual recruitment

Like every other business, we had to pivot and learn fast what worked and quite quickly ditch what didn’t. An unexpected side effect of asking candidates to prep and deliver presentations virtually meant they were able to rehearse, critique and polish their sales pitches, which helped them build confidence and stellar salesmanship skills. While not in the flesh, we’ve refined these virtual meetings so they give us a good indication of a candidate's suitability to both the role they are applying for and our culture. So much so, we intend to continue recruiting virtually for now.

Thanks to largely enforced home working, we soon came to learn that location was irrelevant, which enabled us to widen our net to a bigger pool of talent and helped us overcome the challenge of access to talent in such uncertain times. In a short space of time we grew to a team of 50, and it’s fair to say I’ve yet to meet half of them!

The normalization of remote working means that our team is made up of colleagues from all over the UK, from Belfast to London, and Scotland to Manchester - increasing diversity, breaking up groupthink and enriching our culture with a variety of experience, perspectives and lived experience - and from the very start.

Cultivating company culture

Our merchants, ecommerce platform partners and our customers are all nationwide – so it’s significant that our team is too. We hire internationally too – sponsoring people from the EU, Australia, New Zealand and Russia. Combined with the UK being one of the world’s biggest and most significant fintech hubs, we think it sets us apart and gives us a competitive advantage.

Of course, it isn’t without its challenges as it takes more effort and willingness to create familiarity, the sense of belonging to a team and cultivating company culture as well as good old camaraderie. We also don’t have the option to speed this along with a drinks trolley or regular “real life” socials.

It will also take some work to maintain this momentum beyond Covid-19 now that we've chosen this path. To tackle these challenges, we’ve had to be quite creative and come up with solutions that will help achieve this without bombarding colleagues with death by Zoom or forced fun.

It was trial and error but we now have monthly “coffee with the founders'' Q&A sessions to give everyone a forum to connect, ask questions and feel seen and heard. We also have weekly team catch-ups and informative seminars with guest speakers that helps team cohesion while giving us a window into the inner workings of other companies so we don’t fall into the trap of being inward facing.

Company culture is best brought to life through socializing - an aspect many companies overlook or dismiss but it pays dividends! We knew we would have to try harder than most to recreate this given the location of our colleagues, numerous lockdowns and the fact most of us have never met. We introduced Thirsty Thursdays with virtual gin and wine tasting and quizzes to mix it up and give it a bit of structure rather than an awkward free for all. We held a virtual Christmas party complete with hampers sent to all colleagues to try and maintain as much normality as possible. However, drink related activities won’t appeal to everyone so companies need to be mindful of that. We also host virtual yoga sessions which have been incredibly popular.

Flexibility

At the same time, we, like all businesses emerging from lockdown, have to recognize the need to build in flexibility when it comes to working practices. For example, we know some of our younger colleagues - many of whom live in shared accommodation - prefer to work in an office environment where they are better set up to work and can more easily distinguish work and home. They also benefit from the social interaction both in the office and after hours.

The early days in our careers are where we learn the most and figure out our path by being around good managers and bosses, talented teams and having access to unofficial mentors to absorb knowledge from.

On the other hand, some team members will need flexibility to work around external commitments such as childcare, caring for a relative or studying. Or they may simply work better at home - while saving the time and hassle of a lengthy commute.

To accommodate the needs of all our colleagues, we put in place a number of safety measures to allow a maximum of 30% of our workforce to come into our office in London once it was safe and legal to do so. The set up is hygienic and safely spaced and gives people the freedom to escape the house if they want to.

Think globally while operating locally

The key thing for any startup setting up - whether remotely or not - is to hire people from the very outset that share the company’s ethos and ambition. Our plan was always to grow the business at pace and across a number of markets - so we made sure from the very beginning that candidates were on board with this and were able to think globally while operating locally.

For candidates, it’s about showing them what you have to offer, what sets you apart and where you’re heading. If they share that drive and can see the opportunity for both themselves and the company then you’re on the right line. We know a lot of our colleagues have ambitions to travel too so it’s an opportunity for them and breaks down a barrier for us. Our colleagues interact across different markets all day every day and there’s no sense of distance or borders - everyone is tight knit.

One of the most underrated but important aspects I’d advise companies to do is standardize their tech so it’s the same no matter which office you step foot in - when that will be a possibility again of course! All of our tools and systems are the same - it makes life easier and cements us as one team.

If nothing else, this last year has proved that colleagues and teams can be miles apart but still feel connected with the right business approach, investment and dedication to company culture.

And to think I could have done it from a sunny beach...

Anthony Drury is Managing Director for UK at Zip.