Startups And Scaleups: Speeding Up Innovation During Times of Crisis

Sam Martin-Ross

The coronavirus pandemic has brought about huge changes to the ways in which many of us work, and necessitated unprecedented levels of flexibility on the part of businesses. 

Over the past year we’ve seen a marked shift towards working from home, largely as a result of government guidance. New challenges have been presented, from strict social distancing requirements keeping colleagues apart, to the urgent need for collaborative remote working tools. Supply chains have been disrupted, buyer behaviour has shifted and small businesses have faced plummeting footfall and a rapid rise in demand for online services. 

A huge proportion of companies have of course risen to the challenge, swiftly embracing innovation to sail through this global crisis. Top success stories have invariably been led by startups, many of which are uniquely positioned to be able to respond to changing demand quickly, and adapt their business models to prosper from every new opportunity. 

Let’s take a closer look at how lockdown restrictions and economic challenges have changed prospects for startups and small businesses, and examine the part that innovation has played in facilitating their success – despite a turbulent economic outlook. 

Support shifts from big name brands to independents 

Small businesses faced enormous challenges as a result of lockdown measures and the shift to home working. Many shops and cafes were forced to close their doors for months on end, and smaller brands that were classed as non-essential had to quickly adjust their services to survive the crisis. But this had an unexpected effect, as consumer behaviour quickly changed, softening towards struggling smaller companies and independents. 

Customers who had previously always opted for large brands and chains soon began to spend their cash with small businesses in greater numbers than ever before. Campaigns ran throughout the pandemic persuading buyers to try out local companies, and customers were encouraged to share recommendations of local businesses. As a result, many failing brands began to flourish. 

Local grocers, plant stalls, clothing retailers, cafes and takeaway food businesses were particularly successful during lockdowns, with customers taking full advantage of the speedy, reliable delivery services that such companies were able to offer. Customers were also supportive of independents that began to offer online shopping for the first time, adjusting their expectations when it came to delivery times and tracking options, and embracing the opportunity to support a local business. 

Escape to the country 

London has long been seen as the go-to place to launch a new startup, and while attitudes towards this idea have been changing over the past few years, nothing has shifted the perception quite like the pandemic. 

With many businesses now operating entirely remotely, a London base is no longer seen as the necessity it once was. Many companies are now being run by teams who are spread all over the country, working remotely from newly set up home offices. 

Research published by found that experts are predicting a post-pandemic startup boom – but it won’t be coming from London. The study found that the largest increases in startups have been spotted in Yorkshire, where startup contributions to regional turnover are the highest in the country. 

We’ve embraced this trend in our own team at Digital Uncut. Several of our colleagues have chosen to make the most of the flexibility that remote working gives them, moving away from the capital but staying very much connected through our collaborative working tools. Beth has chosen to move to Bristol, and Josh is now working with us all the way from South Africa. We’ve also been able to hire top talent outside of London, welcoming Bristol-based Beka to our team. 

Innovation accelerates as brands embrace new ideas  

A global crisis is never welcomed by any business, but with any period of significant crisis comes an element of new opportunity. The Covid-19 pandemic is no exception. As we emerge from some of the darkest points of the pandemic we’re starting to see how companies have used the changes that it’s brought about to pave the way for success in the future. 

A global crisis will always speed up innovation, because companies can’t hope to make it through such periods if they aren’t prepared to think differently. With Covid-19, we’ve seen companies change the way they work, and move their focus to new goals like resilience. We’ve also seen brands start to make use of all kinds of new technology, from project management software to video conferencing tools. 

In the near future, we can expect to see more exciting advancements in this field, as the likes of artificial intelligence and blockchain become commonplace. It’s also likely that brands will be quicker to take up these innovations, now that they’ve seen first-hand how far technological innovation boosts productivity. 

But it hasn’t all been plain sailing… 

This has been a difficult year for many companies, with an overwhelming number of startups and small businesses forced to make some incredibly difficult decisions. While there have been some brilliant success stories, there have also been enormous challenges. Some companies have been unable to survive the changes in buyer behaviour and the restrictions placed upon them. 

Companies that relied on high street sales saw plummeting profits as a result of reduced footfall, and 44% of small businesses were forced to cut jobs. Two thirds of small businesses faced a decrease in revenues, with a considerable number sadly falling into administration during the pandemic.

The brands that we’ve seen struggle over the past 12 months have been those that were unable to adapt quickly enough, and those that lacked the resources to respond proactively to the coronavirus crisis. 

Flexibility has been important for all brands, proving essential for startups in particular. Companies hoping to prosper during the current climate need to be able to adapt to changes at a moment’s notice, and respond to fluctuations in buyer demand almost instantaneously.  But for small businesses that are able to do so, there are still huge opportunities to be grasped. 

The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t solely been a crisis in terms of public health. It’s also been enormously challenging for businesses, bringing about a period of significant economic downturn that has been difficult for many companies to navigate. However, there are two sides to every coin, and of course many new opportunities have arisen solely as a result of the pandemic and its economic effects. 

Innovation has, without a doubt, accelerated during the crisis, and this shift is one that we can expect to see continue long into the recovery period. Small businesses and startups have transformed their business models over the past year, responding quickly to customer demand and positioning themselves as a go brand for many customers. 

As lockdown restrictions are lifted and we emerge from what has been a hugely difficult period for startups, we’ll be on the lookout for more inspiring stories of companies making the most of innovation to scale up and succeed – no matter what.