What it’s like running a family startup during lockdown

How coronavirus is impacting young businesses

Unstable internet connections. Uncomfortable makeshifts desks at kitchen tables. Zoom fatigue. The endless temptation to peer inside the fridge for a snack (for the twentieth time that day). For individual employees, the shift to remote working has not been without its challenges.

For young businesses in general, the challenge has been to continue functioning normally when staff are dispersed far and wide. And, moreover, how to adapt one’s products or services to the utterly bizarre conditions we are living in during lockdown.

At WhatWeWant, all of these challenges have merged together. That is because we are a family startup – and a mere eight months old at that. Our business is run by four people, all of whom are part of the same immediate family unit, and all of whom live in the same house.

I think it is fair to say that as far as businesses go, ours is in a unique position. And in truth, it is a position that presents as many positives as it does problems, some of which I shall share here.

The pros of running a family business

The most obvious benefit of having all four decision-makers under the same roof during the lockdown is that communication becomes far more straightforward. Logistically, at least.

Zoom calls do not need to be planned days in advance, and awkward camera angles or juddering audio can be avoided. Conversations take place in far more comfortable conditions; namely with everyone sat around the same table.

At the start of 2020, we would not have considered face-to-face meetings to be a form of competitive advantage, but it is not something to be scoffed at. Open and honest discussions about what each person thinks is right for the business are far easier to carry out when people are in the same room. This is a luxury that has been afforded to us by being a family startup whose founders live together.

However, we have also learnt that these discussions must still be structured. Meetings should, where possible, have a start and end time; this ensures there is a clear focus to the conversation and people have adequate warning to prepare their thoughts.

Fast decision-making

A by-product of being able to pull people together for face-to-face meetings at short notice is that action can be taken quickly. Indeed, this remains true for startups in general – being run by a smaller team of decision-makers ensure the business can move from ideation to execution in hours.

I have a great example of this. Having initially launched in October 2019, for the first six months of its existence the WhatWeWant crowdfunding app was used for gifts. People would create a campaign for a present - either for themselves or someone else - and friends, family or colleagues would then contribute towards this gift, ensuring the individual got the one item or experience that they really want, rather than lots of smaller (and often less sought after) presents.

However, the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown dramatically changed the way our app was being used. For one, people were less concerned by or interested in gift-giving; as there were much bigger issues at play. Instead, the app was increasingly being used by individuals, businesses or local communities to raise money for a good cause – buying care packages for elderly relatives, donating towards hot meals for NHS staff, or helping to support local businesses.

The change in how WhatWeWant was being used forced us to rethink our pricing model. In short, we did not feel it appropriate to charge fees to people donating money through the app for good causes – so we decided to redirect all of our fees to charity (the National Emergencies Trust). Within the space of just 24 hours, this decision was made, the tech was updated, the charity was informed, and our users were notified.

If we had not been in the same room, taking these multiple steps to complete a much-needed pivot for our family startup would have taken days or even weeks.

Of course, this is reflective of why we so often hear the line that “startups are more agile than big businesses”; yet here this example has concentrated this idea down to quite an extreme. But it has benefited us significantly over the past two months.

The cons of running a family business

If being able to pivot quickly and often is one of the great benefits of being a family startup that is run out of one house, then one of the great challenges is striking a healthy work-life balance.

For many people working remotely during the lockdown, separating one’s work time and free time has likely been a challenge. The spaces where we relax and enjoy ourselves are, more often than not, the very same spaces where we now sit at our laptop and perform our jobs as gainfully as possible. As such, it becomes very difficult to “switch off”.

However, when everyone in the house is involved in running the same startup, the lines between work and play become even more blurred. Whereas many people can enjoy breakfast, lunch and dinner with whoever they live with and not feel any need to discuss work (should they not want to), this becomes more difficult at WhatWeWant HQ.

We have created a highly competitive hotdesking set-up – the desk in the garage and the kitchen table are highly sought after, with the armchair in the living room and the bathtub both considered less desirable spots.

Furthermore, we also endeavour to keep our work – and discussions about WhatWeWant – limited to working hours, albeit these working hours extend outside of the traditional 9-5, as is the way with most startups.

Embracing the ups and the downs

Ultimately, we have embraced both the challenges and opportunities presented by the lockdown in equal measure. I feel that WhatWeWant has benefitted immeasurably from having all of its founders in the same place, although it is not a solution I would favour in the long-term.

Like all businesses, we are striving to make the most of the current conditions. And as the crisis evolves and affects our lives in different ways, we accept that we must evolve as well. In that sense, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a tremendous learning experience for us as a family startup, and I am confident that WhatWeWant will emerge stronger from the other side of this challenging period.

Yiannis Faf is co-founder of the crowdfunding app, WhatWeWant. The app allows users to upload what they want for an upcoming event for themselves, or someone else. Users can contribute to what their friends and family want as well as notifying them to contribute to whatever you have uploaded. Once enough has been raised, users can simply spend the money. During the Coronavirus pandemic WhatWeWant is donating all fees, including payment provider fees, to the National Emergencies Trust. Here are three examples of great campaigns on the WhatWeWant app that require people’s support: The Mission to Seafarers – Chat to a Chaplain; Protect the NHS – 5000 Face Shield Masks for the NHS; COOK-19 – Providing meals for the NHS.