Being an entrepreneur is never easy, but starting a business during a pandemic may seem downright impossible.
In fact, now could be the best time to found a startup, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic has forever altered the business landscape. While some industries like travel and hospitality have suffered immensely, others, like e-commerce, have exploded. During the last recession, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, some of today’s most innovative companies were created. Ever heard of Uber, Airbnb, Glassdoor, or Square?
While the pandemic has had a devastating impact on business, it has also created opportunity. We spoke with founders across the country whose business ideas were in direct response to pandemic-related issues: keeping surfaces clean, avoiding crowds in supermarkets, making remote work more bearable, and more.
1. On the Shelf
On the Shelf is a mobile platform that helps supermarket shoppers track metrics like inventory, crowd sizes, and wait times to make pandemic-era shopping easier and safer. Matt Lim, Co-Founder & CEO of On the Shelf, realized that the pandemic would make grocery shopping more difficult as supply shortages and crowds became issues.
“My co-founder and I had discussed founding a business before, but the pandemic presented a universal problem that we were both passionate about solving. We both felt like we could easily learn more about the problem due to its universal nature; everyone has been struggling with grocery shopping” - Lim
Although funding slowed down during the pandemic, On the Shelf completed a Columbia University startup accelerator program, which secured them the funding they needed to continue their business.
2. Copper Clean
Industry: Materials Science
In the months leading up to the pandemic, Benton Allen, a researcher at West Texas A&M University, worked with his colleagues to develop Copper Clean, which makes a copper-alloy foil with an adhesive backing to protect surfaces from the coronavirus and other pathogens.
“When reports started coming out of Wuhan earlier this year, we immediately started brainstorming ways in which we could leverage our antimicrobial material science background to help combat the spread of the virus should it reach US shores" - Allen
Copper Clean is currently working to partner with grocery stores and other shopping centers to outfit surfaces with their surface patches. The rest of the Copper Clean product line is already in use in some universities, healthcare facilities, and commercial buildings.
Michael Alexis, co-founder and CEO of TeamBuilding, launched the company just as the pandemic began after his previous venture, Museum Hack, went under. Museum Hack offered tours of major museums, but with museums closed for months in the wake of the pandemic, Alexis switched gears.
TeamBuilding runs virtual team building activities for companies like Apple, Amazon and Google. Alexis got the idea for an online team building company via an unconventional route: Google Trends, which tracks popular Google search terms.
“One of the challenges of operating right now is with hiring. There are numerous challenges, like a ton of applicants (nice problem to have, but time intensive to review), bringing on employees that haven't worked from home before, and barriers to hiring due to unemployment subsidies” - Alexis
After launching the company in March, TeamBuilding has grown to a 60-person company, spurred on by plenty of interest from companies.
Aadith Moorthy is the founder and CEO of Radial, a startup that uses psychographics data to personalize branded content for would-be customers. According to Moorthy, the idea was partially pandemic inspired, with online marketing growing as consumers spend more time shopping online.
Despite ease finding VCs to invest in the company, Radial hit bumps in the road that many companies face when hiring remotely.
“The hiring process has been quite hard without being able to spend significant time in person with potential employees/partners. This has also resulted in some turnover” - Moorthy
Remote networking, however, hasn’t been an issue. “I originally thought contacting potential clients would be hard, but people have been surprisingly open to networking through the internet since all in person events have been canceled,” Moorthy said.
5. Hiya Health
Hiya Health is a children’s vitamin maker that emphasizes health — while most children’s vitamins are made with sugar, Hiya’s aren’t. Launched shortly after the pandemic began, Hiya didn’t have much trouble securing investors over Zoom, which ended up being more convenient than in-person meetings.
Hiya CEO Darren Litt told Thinknum that the company was able to ride two trends when it launched: direct-to-consumer e-commerce and consumer interest in health and wellness. The result is what Litt calls an “absolute runaway success.”
“As a result of the pandemic, we’ve run hard at the need to stay safe and healthy, which is important at any time, yet is reinforced during a time of a global pandemic, especially since we’re helping families” - Litt
6. Zelos Team Management
Zelos Team Management is a task management app company focusing on gig workers. Once the pandemic hit, Zelos CEO Johanna-Mai Riismaa told Thinknum, the company changed its mission.
“We pivoted our event-oriented volunteer app into a community-led team solution. With many people needing help, we could help communities to gather volunteer aides faster,” Riismaa said.
With the uptick in gig economy work, Zelos adapted to meet the needs of companies seeking freelancers. So far, the Zelos app has been used in countries like Estonia, Latvia, Canada, and South Africa.