Startups rethink what it means to be high-touch during a pandemic

Glossier NYC, in normal times, is typically visited by more than 2,000 people every day, with lines of people from all over the world curling out the door. And when you enter, it’s tempting to touch, well, everything.

The walls are adorned with flowers, mirrors and giant versions of the makeup company’s flagship product: Boy Brow. Makeup is sold on communal tables, where customers are encouraged to try products. Emily Weiss, the founder of the unicorn startup, calls customer meetups as she sees them: community events.

And, of course, in the store, there are also a few sinks to wash off your makeup (and your hands).

The challenge of running a startup that has a high physical component has become one of the big themes in the world of tech in the last several weeks. Indeed, as companies like Google, Facebook and Zoom do their parts to help people stay connected during the novel coronavirus pandemic, and research for cures, another story has taken shape in a different area of the tech world: startups and larger tech companies with “high touch” models — not just based on customer relationships but literally business models with strong physical components — are facing a world of challenges at a time when people are being asked to stay indoors, and stay away from each other.

To stave off cash shortages and closures, businesses are taking a variety of approaches, and rethinking how they run their businesses, to keep going. In some countries, governments are stepping in to keep businesses from collapsing, while some startups are hoping that their investors will continue to support them as the pandemic continues to spread.

In other cases, startups are quietly coming together to compare notes on how best to tackle legal and other hurdles in an unprecedented environment. (So quietly, in fact, that they didn’t want to talk about this on the record.) When is the right time to talk to insurance companies? How do you negotiate with them and will you ever get anything out of those discussions? What recourse does a company have for forfeiting some payments that are coming due? How do you handle headcount if you lack the liquidity to survive a big dip in your business? What are the best practices for running a business in a reduced or altered form?

“This has been the most difficult five continuous days in all of my team’s careers,” Vibhu Norby, the CEO and founder of b8ta — a chain of retail stores that act as a marketplace between consumers and lots of different hardware and other companies, letting potential buyers try out products before buying — said in an interview. “We don’t have any other business other than our physical one, that’s all we do. But we have an amazing team and there are things that we’re doing that are useful, but there is no playbook for this.”

It’s not all doom and gloom. With people home-bound and spending a significantly higher amount of time online, tech companies that innately support social distancing are getting a huge boost in purchasing. Think in particular e-commerce delivery services such as online grocers, and Amazon. Some are finding that they’ve had to curtail services to be able to meet demand. Others like streaming services are seeing giant spikes in their traffic.

(Haven’t) been there, (haven’t) done that

The trajectory of impact on startups has been a wide one, starting earliest with major events. Conferences and expositions have become something of a cornerstone of how startups come together and do business in a global economy. While we clearly have tech hubs where face-to-face contact is as easy as grabbing a coffee, events become a place where you can catch people from many other corners, or even those who don’t regularly come out of the woodwork.

All of that has changed this year, with just about every major confab this year (so far) getting cancelled. CES, at the beginning of January, just made it through; RSA surprisingly went ahead last month. But many events have been taken off the table: MWC in Barcelona, SXSW in Austin, events from Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon, E3, GDC and so many more.

People love to complain about how conferences and expositions are a noisy mess, but the fact of the matter remains that they have no rival when it comes to meeting people and doing deals at scale.

The events themselves are tech businesses in their own right, marketplaces that generate billions of dollars in revenues, and connecting hundreds of thousands people for potential B2B sales. “This is going to impact our business for sure,” one exec at a startup (who didn’t want to be named) told TechCrunch when the huge mobile confab in Barcelona was cancelled over coronavirus fears. “MWC is a major event for us…the largest source of qualified sales leads on our calendar. No other event comes close.”

If events businesses were the first wave of “high touch” tech outfits to be impacted by coronavirus, following closely behind has been the transportation and tourism industries — connected to the events business but also far exceeding it in scope.

People have chosen, been requested and sometimes been forced, to stop moving around in an attempt to mitigate the spread of the virus — creating a significant knock-on effect not just for transportation companies, but also the wider tourism industry, “The biggest nuclear winter in online travel,” as one founder put it last week. As people increasingly stay put, Airbnb this week extended its own extenuating circumstances refund policy so that people can rebook already reserved stays that were supposed to happen in the next month.

Transportation, of course, hasn’t only seen restriction for long-distance travel, or even for the carriage of just humans. Uber and Lyft have both cut back on rides, specifically shared, carpool-style services, in an attempt to “flatten the curve” to reduce the frequency of new cases brought on by too much contact, and food delivery services have introduced “contactless” delivery to minimise contact with customers, especially with those who might be infected and are quarantining at home.

“The health and wellbeing of our couriers and customers is our top priority and we think these practices will help give some peace-of-mind to our fleet, while also decreasing the interaction and contact between both parties,” a spokesman for Glovo, a European delivery startup, said last week when the measures were introduced.

But the impact extends beyond obvious sectors like transportation and tourism. Take makeup, for instance.

While Glossier does a majority of its sales online, it temporarily closed its retail locations last week to limit customer interactions. In some ways makeup is innately an industry that requires you (or someone else) to touch your face. Glossier is brainstorming ways to stay in contact with customers, such as FaceTime consultations and Slack groups.

Per Glossier, it hasn’t yet received questions from customers on how to handle the aspect of makeup application in a time when we are told to not touch our faces. It is, however, telling people to wash their hands.

There’s also Revel, which is a marketplace for women over 50 to host and attend small gatherings and stay connected. Given the age group and social aspect of the company, Revel has cancelled all in-person Revel events through at least the end of March.

“The decision to cancel in-person events has an immediate business impact for us,” the co-founders wrote in an email to TechCrunch.

Revel is working on a speaker series over Zoom, virtual walks where members can be connected via FaceTime or audio to go on walks together, and happy hours. The list goes on with book clubs and writing groups.

Similarly, London startup Jolt built a business around a concept of “pay-monthly” business classes that had a strong in-person component: not only was the idea to learn in a physical classroom, but those involved got opportunities to network with other students before and after courses, participate in breakout sessions, work in partner groups with other students and access presentations.

Now with those in-person classes on hold, Jolt has moved up the launch of “Jolt Remote,” an online version that it had previously planned to ship in 2021, which aims to preserve all the dynamics of the startup’s previous, offline efforts. “The company felt it necessary to expedite its rollout in order to keep their students safe, and to reduce the need for their education to be disrupted in the wake of COVID-19,” a spokesperson said.

Jolt‘s teachers will continue to work as they always did, she continued. But instead of their students meeting up in Jolt campuses, they’ll now be able to access the courses virtually.

While Revel’s shifts are likely to have an impact on its bottom line, they said, it was the right decision. Few startups and investors have even started to point at the new innovation that will come out of this pandemic as a bittersweet externality.

Revel, while it only operates in the Bay Area, has more than 200 members from geographies as far as South Africa. They’re planning to join the upcoming virtual gatherings.

The founders say it is helping Revel to build virtual capabilities that they will be able to use in the future when geographic distance, illness or other factors isolate members who need connection.

It’s helping an in-person company think what it means to be in-person.