The challenges of the past year are changing the way early-stage entrepreneurs do business. VentureWell’s experts are seeing shifts that may prove long-lasting.
Faced with a global pandemic, increasingly unreliable supply chains, an ongoing reckoning on social justice issues, and an unresolved climate crisis, fledgling ventures were forced to navigate an unmapped and rapidly evolving business environment in 2021.
Early-stage entrepreneurs have responded with creative work-arounds and promising new strategies. See top trends predicted for 2022 at a recent round-table discussion with VentureWell thought leaders who work with early-stage entrepreneurs:
- Camillo Archuleta, senior program officer
- Cara Barnes, senior program officer
- Tricia Compas-Markman, senior program officer
- Khandle Hedrick, program officer
- Christina Tamer, director, program — early-stage innovators & venture development
The virtual environment has opened new doors.
Restricted access to labs and university campuses presented significant challenges for ventures, but the shift to the virtual environment has also provided new advantages.
- Teams have been able to more easily make important business connections, for example, bypassing gatekeepers. “CEOs actually have more free time to take a 15-minute phone call with a student working on a project,” Archuleta says.
- Video and chats on webinars have become another gateway to contacts, notes Tamer. Resourceful innovators take note of attendees and use the Zoom direct message feature to expand their contact lists.
- Teams have become more creative in their use of video to virtually demonstrate their innovations to potential customers or other stakeholders.
- As trade shows go virtual, innovators are seeing the benefits of participating remotely. “They’ve been able to get to a potential partner or a customer more easily, and save some of their monetary resources for prototyping,” says Compas-Markman.
Teams are relocating, meeting, or podding to stay engaged and build culture.
For a new startup, maintaining team engagement is crucial. But in today’s remote work environment, new team members face challenges onboarding and getting to know colleagues. In response:
- Teams have moved across the country to be physically closer to each other and to their customers, notes Barnes, or have arranged to meet at conferences or other events.
- Other teams have formed live-in pandemic pods, or have been holding informal social Zoom calls, says Hedrick, “just to build those relationships, and build strength in the business moving forward.”
Supply-chain issues are encouraging ventures to revisit fundamentals.
Disruptions to the supply chain have sent shipping prices skyrocketing and limited access to key materials, but VentureWell leaders see opportunities for startups.
- Teams have more time and opportunities to revisit basic questions: What is our unique value to our customers? Can we adjust our pricing strategy? Should we be diversifying our vendors so we are not reliant on a single source?
- Ventures that relied on decentralized logistics are avoiding issues by turning to local suppliers, notes Compas-Markman. “They’re seeing a real advantage in being close.”
- Other ventures are working to minimize their dependence on the supply chain. A team with an indoor-air–quality technology initially planned to build their own sensors, but “pivoted their software to be able to use off-the-shelf sensors that are already available here in the U.S.,” Archuleta reports.
Diversity awareness is helping companies rethink their mission and how they can respond authentically.
As innovators recognize the advantages that diverse viewpoints can bring to a venture, VentureWell leaders are helping teams bring in new voices and engage historically underrepresented groups.
- Teams are considering how best to authentically align diversity with the business’s mission. “There’s no one size fits all,” notes Tamer. “It has to be coming from the founding team, and be connected to the mission and the work that they’re doing.”
- Furthering the goal of diversity can mean addressing problems of concern to a range of populations. An example would be maternal morbidity, which disproportionately impacts Black mothers.
- Diversity within a team also matters. Hedrick worked with a team of minority innovators who recognized that they too may have challenges reaching beyond their demographic.
Race and gender are just two diversity considerations. Ventures are recognizing the needs of other groups in their customer base, such as people with disabilities, and building their teams and products accordingly.
Teams want to bring sustainability to a venture, but actions need to be right-sized.
Innovators are eager to bring green design and principles of environmental sustainability into their ventures. The question is how best to do that, and when.
- Today’s generation of entrepreneurs cares deeply about social and environmental causes, notes Archuleta. Innovation and entrepreneurship educators and mentors “are being given the opportunity to help them figure out how to build that into their organization.”
- Teams are recognizing that there can be a business argument for sustainable design. A venture in the healthcare industry, for example, can have a pronounced environmental impact by designing products that can be recycled rather than sent to the landfill. One E-Team developing a synthetic heart to train surgeons recognized that a recyclable or nontoxic material would save money, both for the team and for customers.
Early-stage innovators have always had to adapt to changing circumstances, but today’s volatile environment is proving to be an extraordinary crucible for creativity. As ventures respond to the new realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, and use their platforms to address issues around social equity and environmental sustainability, VentureWell’s thought leaders see opportunities for positive shifts in the entrepreneurship culture.