Starting up in a recession? Here’s why you haven’t got the moron-a-virus

“Do you recall, not long ago

You set out to build a start-up of your own,

Innocent, remember?

Then the pan-demic hit…”

If Major Lazer was from Silicon Valley and decided to re-write his hit song for 2020, this is probably how it would go. With the world struggling to emerge from a lock-down, the only thing predictable in your life these days could be a daily dose of ‘in vain you left that job putha” and a serving of side-eye from the annoying uncle next door.

World.exe and Economy.exe may not be working as they used to, but that doesn’t mean that it is the end of the road for your fledgling startup. Just like your ancient school van that sometimes refused to sputter to life but somehow got you to school every day, the world will go back to some semblance of normalcy and the hypothesis that underpins your startup will become relevant again. There may be a temporary glitch in the Matrix right now, but we think a reboot of the simulation is coming and preparing for it is the sensible thing to do. Because sometimes, when life gives you coconuts, you can always choose to tap that toddy, bro.

That is the kind of thinking that once helped two roomies short on rent eventually become rich. VERY RICH. In August 2008, they rented out an air mattress in their living room to strangers attending a local conference. You might think that charging money from people to sleep on a mattress in a random stranger’s house sounds like “the worst idea ever”, but it actually led to the founding of Airbnb, according to co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky. Airbnb has gone on to upend the entire hotel industry, but the rug has been pulled out from under them as well. Chesky was most recently quoted as saying COVID19 may have undone 12 years of work in 6 weeks, so if you are feeling the heat, you’re not alone.

Data coming out of the US of A suggest that unemployment and business closures are on the rise, particularly because of a certain un-fireable apprentice in the White House. On the other hand, the World Economic Forum has said that COVID-19 has actually contributed towards an uptick in entrepreneurial activity, so perhaps optimism is not in short supply.

COVID19 has caused the sharpest spike in the unemployment rate within the last two decades
COVID19 has caused the sharpest spike in the unemployment rate within the last two decades

Unlike that one friend in your circle who is always over-dressed, people and businesses learn to do away with the unnecessary during a recession. Sometimes, this paves the way for entirely new businesses to be born. Take Uber for instance, which launched in 2009 when the economy was in free-fall. Travis Kalanick realized that too many cars were underutilized, and in a time of high unemployment, so are too many people. With the help of technology he figured out a way to put people back to work. When capital and labour become cheap (as they often do during a recession), great things tend to happen.

Startups founded during recessions get to take advantage of changing consumer behaviours, which often tend to stick around long after the recession has been flushed down the toilet. Square was founded because small businesses weren’t able to accept card payments, and GroupOn became successful after its launch in 2009, because consumers who were trying to stretch every dollar became habitual seekers of discounts. Of course, brown parents were bargaining hard with every shopkeeper long before that.

In the same way how Mr. Miyagi taught Daniel-san karate by asking him to wax cars, recessions are also great teachers of discipline. That’s a fact, and not #FakeNews. Just ask Dane Strangler, a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Centre, in Washington DC. “There’s this trial by fire idea, if you get started in a recession, you really have to scrape and scrimp to make that company successful. You are trying to make it when you can’t get financing, and trying to get customers when there isn’t any demand” he says.

Some of today’s most well-known companies and unicorns were founded during recessions

Source: Business Insider

COVID-19 has also made it way cheaper to get a business up and running. It’s part #ColomboGossip, but you may have already heard from a friend of your uncle’s wife’s sister’s nephew that rents have reduced. With everyone forced to get used to remote work, you now have the chance to employ people from anywhere in the country while shelling out less cash on overheads. Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, but when companies like John Keells and MAS are considering a permanent shift to remote working, you can definitely shake, shake, shake, shake, shake and shake it off.


Some new challenges are also going to come up, in a very Whack-A-Mole kind of way.

For instance, how do you foster a sense of togetherness when people don’t get to say ‘Ah Machang’ in-person anymore? How will innovation and collaboration happen, when so many great ideas are the result of casual conversations that happen over maalu-paan and plain tea? Most importantly, how do you make sure that people develop the skills they need to make their way up the career ladder, without starting to feel like they are “slaves with white collars, chasing cars and clothes …”.

The lockdown has not dissuaded people from learning new skills, and businesses from up skilling
and training their staff

The answer is simple, yet complex at the same time.

eLearning — the obvious answer, will have an important role to play in making sure that employees are always equipped with the skills necessary to do their job well. Similar to how Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana stormed the ’96 Cricket World Cup and changed how we think about opening batsmen, the way eLearning works will also have to change. Courses and curricula will have to evolve from being simplistic and instructor-led to being more accommodative of different needs, languages, and intellectual capabilities. Lessons must be developed so that learners are encouraged to participate and don’t feel like they are being made to sit in front of a screen and suffer through a recording of the T-800 Terminator literally reading off a PowerPoint presentation. Now that remote work is here to stay, data on how employees are performing on courses would also be nice, as it would help companies understand how to build and modify courses so that high engagement rates are maintained throughout. Back benchers matter too, you know.

Sanath Jayasuriya (left) and Romesh Kaluwitharana — Source : Yahoo!Cricket

Making eLearning work as a sustainable alternative to in-person training is going to be a significant challenge through the rest of this decade. Someone will eventually figure this out, but not overnight. One thing is for sure though.

eLearning is here to stay.

Layup is a cloud based learning platform with social features and game dynamics to improve employee engagement, based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. By incorporating game theories, social features and user experience best practices, Layup ensures high levels of learning engagement across all levels of learners. To find out how you can deploy LayUp in your company, send us an email at

Layup makes learning fun. Layup uses a social media approach, fused with game dynamics, to create a learning platform that employees love.