Like every year, 2020 was brought in with lots of expectations and fanfare. It was the dawn of a new decade and one that promised a paradigm shift on the technology front. 5G was getting rolled out in certain geographies, mobile phones were getting smarter across the band, AI was showing what it could do, AR/VR was steadily catching up. Old, legacy technologies were slowly moving towards more modern and efficient tech stacks. Global economy was on an extended bull run, with no signs of slowing down.
At Appiness, we, a Digital Marketing Company in Bangalore, were on a pretty fast growth trajectory. We had increased the team size by around 50% in the year before, and we were all set to repeat the feat, at the very least. Big projects were underway, and the team was raring to go.
In January, there was news of a certain new virus, which was spreading from a wet market somewhere in China. And by February, the virus had started globetrotting, spreading from China to the rest of the world. We were not worried, after all what could something in China do to us? :-)
So we had our most key hire ever - We got our tech maven to accelerate our growth trajectory. Kamal Venugopal joined us in late February from Nokia where he was part of the Cloud and 5G group in the Network Management division, he took the mantle of our technology team as the new CTO. For him to move from such a behemoth to a startup was not a small feat, we being friends for more than a decade helped, though. With Kamal on board, we started ramping up our tech focus.
Early in March, there were talks of a global pandemic, and the need to have a lockdown to control the spread of the virus. On 6th March, we had an internal meeting, to discuss the way forward, and we started testing out a few tools to make WFH easier, the well being of our Employees was our primary focus. From 9th March, we were using those tools and setting up a system to streamline working from home, all the while working from the office. And on 13th March we announced to the team that we would be working from home for the next 2 weeks, or until further communication. We were not sure if we were taking decisions in haste, but we were sure about not putting our team at risk.
After exactly a week, India was put on lockdown, for a period of 3 weeks. Thankfully most of our team members from out of state had already travelled to their hometowns, and were spared from getting locked in without basic necessities. And thankfully, our preparations were helping, the tools we used were actually useful, ensuring that the team could work as efficiently from their homes as they had when they were in office. We had daily meetings with the team, and regular town halls to ensure that the team was alright.
The only unfortunate thing was that our popular Appiness Premier League - a multi-event sports and cultural competition had to be put on hold.
The New Normal
The problem with the Covid-19 pandemic was not about the lockdown, it was the uncertainty. Nobody, neither the government, the organisations nor the public knew what was in store. Everyone turned extremely cautious; capital expenses were put on hold, discretionary spending was stopped, and altogether the confidence of businesses were shaken. We also saw the effect of it on our cash flow. Even when the business was not slowing down, payments were taking longer to come, and a few already confirmed projects were kept on hold. There is nothing worse than uncertainty to kill the confidence of businesses.
The outlook was not very bright, but thankfully we were actually seeing pretty good outcomes on the other side of the table - on the delivery side. By early May, the extended lockdown was lifted, and by then the whole team was so accustomed to working from home, that we actually did not worry anymore about deliveries. Every one of our team members was putting their heart and soul to ensure that deliveries were taken care of. And by June we were seeing that clients were coming back, restarting the projects which were put on hold and even starting new projects.
In my earlier life as an investment banker if I had learned something it was that change was the only constant in the markets. Markets were determined by uncertainty and human emotions. There is money to be made from each and every mishap. I had read and heard about the Black Monday of '87, the Asian Crisis of '98, the Dot Com Bubble of the '00s, and I was right at the middle of it in the subprime crisis of '08. 2020 proved to be one more of those learnings. It was not the "new normal" but it was the normal. Every decade or so, there WILL be events that change life as we know it, overtly or covertly. Even the liberalization drive of the Narasimha Rao government in 92 did change life in India as we knew it.
During the pandemic, with people cooped up in their homes the technology and the internet turned out to be the enablers. WFH mandated that tech products were a must to do any kind of business. And we were right there, capable of building it for them. And the 2-week advantage we had in the beginning, planning for an office lock down and preparing to work from home, gave us precious time to prepare for what was in store for us.
The Way Forward
The pandemic and the uncertainties that came with it taught us a few things. First and foremost, it reiterated our belief that the organisation is nothing but the team. Since the beginning, the team had stood behind us with heart and soul to ensure us success. Any worries we had about the inefficacy of working from home were thrown away after the first few weeks, we stopped using the WFH tools we had initially used. The team was working as a well oiled machine, with outstanding coordination and efficiency that we are contemplating extending WFH for the team members who would want it, although in the last 2 organisation-wide surveys, more than 60% of the team had expressed their desire to come back and work from office. Must be a good change of scene.
Another huge learning was the importance of the startup culture. It was the agility and efficiency that was derived from our early days that helped us manoeuvre quickly and effectively as we did. In less than a week, the team had set up the WFH tools, guidelines and processes that by the time we actually got into the sudden nationwide lockdown, we were prepared.
With people and processes backing us up, it was up to the business team to ensure that we cruised smoothly during and post the pandemic. And the biggest change we implemented was our focused growth in certain technologies in our quiver and slowly getting out of a few. We created a trident-approach for our future business strategy. Our business was to focus on 3 main pillars, and each pillar to act as its own growth centers. The first pillar is the Customer Experience Practice, which included CX, UX and UI arms. The second pillar was the Hot Tech Practice where we decided to focus primarily on the up and coming technologies - Web technologies like Angular, React, VueJS and NodeJS. Also, a renewed emphasis was given to mobile technologies - Native iOS(Swift) and Android(Kotlin), React Native and Flutter. And the third pillar was the Digital Excellence wing which included the web security practice, and the digital marketing arm.
The objective was to focus on a few core areas and grow there, instead of spreading ourselves too thin. And during the pandemic, the approach helped us, helping us in landing some cream clients - the who's who of technology and telecom industries currently work with us along with promising startups on various tech domains. And we started working on a few very exciting products with clients from the US, Singapore, the middle east and India, at the peak of the pandemic and lock down. We also added around 70 new team members in the calendar year of 2020.
All in all, we are extremely grateful for the year, even one as chaotic as 2020. And we must first thank our team for that, for standing by us, with us and pushing us all the way. And our clients who had the confidence in us, even in a year as crazy as this. And the future looks bright, it always has, and we hope it always will; after all what is life without a little (h)appiness.
Welcome 2021, be good please.