Over the past seven years, our venture funds have invested in more than 60 early- and growth-stage startups in emerging markets (ex. China).
Many are thriving, some are challenged but still growing, and some are just hanging on. None have Softbank-level funding, yet.
That means that the impending shock to the business climate of emerging economies caused by COVID-19 is going to put some of our startups, and perhaps tens of thousands of others around the world, into severe distress.
This week, we noted that there is a wide variance in what we were seeing in the planning activities and actions of our portfolio CEOs. We sent guidance on COVID Readiness Planning to all of them.
It’s been fascinating, and concerning, to see the different reactions across our portfolio. Some CEOs realize the risks and are rapidly making plans, evaluating contingencies, and thinking things through carefully. A few are cutting expenses and taking other immediate and preventive actions. Others are peering around corners as they determine if/when to take any actions, with a wait-and-see attitude.
Still others appear to have their head fully in the sand.
Having managed both small startups and large global businesses both directly and in governance roles through multiple downturns (1991, 2000, 2008), I’ve learned that business leaders must continually evaluate an adverse situation and make decisions early and often. Waiting leads to disaster.
For several weeks now, shrewd business leaders have understood that COVID-19 is not just a China and Italy and Washington State problem. It’s going to impact everyone.
More obstinate leaders have denied the issue outright. Others have said “It’s their problem. It’s not coming here.” Science tells us otherwise. The Harvard professor of epidemiology Marc Lipsitch predicts that some 40 to 70 percent of all people around the entire world will be infected with the COVID-19 virus. Some will be asymptomatic and not even notice; others will be deathly ill. If you look into the comparisons of COVID-19 with other infectious viral diseases, you can see why the infection rate will be so high.
My advice to all who have business interests, friends, and family in emerging markets is this: COVID-19 is there already, whether visible or not. The cascading effects of it are starting to be seen. On March 5, Delhi closed schools for two million students for the rest of March. That’s a serious disruption to those kids and their families. This is only the beginning.
Now is the time to take in the information available, make clear plans, and execute on them. Here are the high level recommendations we sent to our global CEOs:
Get members of your team focused now. There are preventative measures you can take against *any* virus, especially an ultra-contagious one like COVID-19. There are plenty of websites offering specifics. Here’s one that we liked. Send this or any similar article to your team and ensure everyone reads it.
Build a COVID Readiness Plan for your business. Ensure that your critical business partners have the same.
Those who move their companies rapidly into a defensive posture and take decisive action will have a good chance of coming out OK.
Those with their heads in the sand, or who delay, may not make it.
Will Poole is co-founder and managing partner of Capria Ventures.