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The ‘right’ way to downsize

What years of working with startups taught me about laying people off

A little over a year into launching StrongLoop, an enterprise API startup eventually acquired by IBM, we were out over our skis. It was my doing — having built a vast top of funnel, we expected our product to have a specific sell-through rate and I’d optimistically hired in engineering, customer support, marketing and sales. However, the sales cycles were long, burn rate was too high and we had too many highly skilled people who were a little bored. It was time to orchestrate a reduction in force.

I’d been laid off a few times myself, once from a pivoting startup and again during the downturn of 2001, so I knew what it felt like. I’d also been a manager at a larger company that laid off employees, so I’d seen the corporate playbook. But as the CEO, I had personally sold these people on our vision, cramming into a small substandard office with them for months or years — it felt very personal. Back then, the job market was robust: I didn’t worry about team members finding new jobs. Today is more uncertain.

With many startups under the pressure of a pandemic-fueled economic crisis, I interviewed several CEOs who have had to orchestrate COVID-19-related layoffs to capture (what I believe) are some best practices to downsize correctly and compassionately.

Put people before projects

One company had a pending product launch, yet a few renewals were pushed due to COVID-19-based uncertainty. Meanwhile, the board had decided to extend runway to have more options. The question was: Should the company complete the product launch and let employees know they’re losing their jobs after? Or should they tell employees ahead of time, risking a loss in focus while some members of the team (correctly) start looking for jobs?

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Andela CEO confirms staff cuts as layoffs hit African tech

Africa-focused tech talent accelerator Andela has let go 135 employees, CEO Jeremy Johnson confirmed to TechCrunch.

Senior staff at the company — with offices in New York and five African countries — will also take salary cuts of 10% to 30%.

The compensation and staff reductions are a result of the economic impact of the COVID-19 and bring Andela’s headcount down to 1199 employees. None of Andela’s engineers were included in the layoffs.

Backed by $181 million in VC from investors that include the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the startup’s client-base is comprised of more than 200 companies around the world that pay for the African developers Andela selects and trains to work on projects.

There’s been a drop in the demand for Andela’s services, according to its CEO.

“The vast majority of our customers have stayed with us. But new business has slowed down dramatically,” Johnson told TechCrunch on a call.

“Like any venture backed startup we’re built for growth. And so if growth is gonna slow dramatically, your [cost] burden has to come down.”

Andela’s Nigeria office; Image Credits: Andela

The company is also preparing for the possibility of hard economic times moving forward.

“We already know this is going to have a material impact on pace of growth. And as a result of that, we’ve got to make sure we’re prepared to weather the storm,” Johnson said.

The American CEO noted the latest measures weren’t entirely due to external factors. They also connect to a strategic direction change for the company, the details of which will follow, according to Johnson.

Andela’s staff cuts mark the first notable round of layoffs in African tech coming from one of the the continent’s best funded and most visible startups (by press volume).

The company launched in 2014 with co-founders who included Nigerian entrepreneur Iyinoluwa Aboyeji and American Christine Sass. Aboyeji has since departed and Sass stepped down as Andela president in 2019, but maintains an advisory role.

In Africa, Andela has offices in Nigeria, Kenya,  Rwanda, Uganda and Egypt. The company cut 400 junior engineers in September, but that announcement came with news it had attained a $50 million run-rate as a Series D startup.

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Tech for good during COVID-19: Sky-high gifts, extra help, and chips

When Roger Lee, the co-founder of Human Interest, heard that San Francisco imposed shelter-in-place orders, he started blogging about layoff news and posting crowdsourced lists of employees who were laid off. His goal was to increase awareness about layoffs and give recruiters a place to search for candidates.

However, one week and 40 startup layoffs later, Lee saw his blog was not going to be able to keep up with the massive number of cuts happening across the country. So, Layoffs.fyi tracker was born and currently receives tens of thousands of visitors every day.

As for how he’s balancing the tracker and Human Interest? Lee noted that he has transitioned to work at the company from a board-level capacity.

Lee’s work is one example of many inspiring initiatives we’re going to showcase this week. Let’s get into the list.

  1. Plan your future adventures. A number of sites have popped up to encourage people to buy gift cards and support their local restaurants. But what about their local tourism industries? Adam Faris, a student at the University of Oregon, launched a coronavirus initiative with a team of folks to support businesses in the action sports and adventure experience space. Faris has aggregated a number of businesses offering discounts on skiing, surfing, whitewater rafting and more to encourage people to support small businesses.
  2. Extra help for developers. YouTeam, a Y Combinator-backed marketplace for building remote development teams, is launching a volunteer developers group. Any startups working on COVID-19-related issues can turn to the group to find technical support to aid them, and apply for free development hours of front-end, back-end or UX support. 
  3. Tiny steps, big impact. Tiny Organics, a child nutrition company, is pledging $10,000 annually to Partnership for Healthier America, which works to make sure kids have access to health food. Tiny Organics also created a special edition plant-based meal, Michelle My Broccoli Belle, and will donate 100% of the proceeds to the Food Bank for New York City. 
  4. Help from above. Skydio is donating dozens of self-flying drones to first responders across the country, as part of its Emergency Response program. The drones do not have speakers and will not be used as a communication mechanism, but instead as a way for fire and police units to see potential issues close up. Skydio will provide training and support at no cost. Additionally, the company is teaming up with Frontline Support, a nonprofit, to source and deliver more than a million units of PPE equipment to the University of Washington Hospital System through its logistical and supply chain systems. 
  5. A safe space. Equal space (=SPACE), co-working space for multicultural, LGBTQ, and women-owned startups, has opened up its doors virtually. =Space is offering resources online for freelancers and small business owners that includes training, workshops, productivity sessions, and wellness talks all free of charge.
  6. Aid for healthcare workers. Work & Co partnered with employees at Adobe, Dropbox, and a number of medical students to create a tool to connect healthcare workers with access to grocery delivery, discounted childcare, and free mental health services. The tool was made with input from doctors, nurses, and medical school faculty to help workers meet their basic needs, beyond PPE. It is currently available in New York.
  7. Bandcamp waives fees. Bandcamp, a music company that lets users directly support artists, announced that it will be waiving fees for artists for a number of select days. Last time the platform waived fees, sales for music and merchandise pulled in $4.3 million for artists. It’s a refreshing way to support artists in a world where concerts are no longer a reality. Read more here
  8. A pro bono portal. The American Bar Association and a justice tech company, Paladin, teamed up to create a portal to connect those impacted by COVID-19 to lawyers working pro bono. LegalZoom and Clio are also connected to the project. Read more here.
  9. Hiring help. Binc, a recruitment company that works with companies like Tiktok, Stripe, Nest, Groupon, and more, has launched a free program to help tech workers find jobs. The company is placing employees in engineering, product, design, market, and recruitment professionals in jobs for no charge until the end of the month.
  10.  Chipping in for COVID. Morning Brew is holding an online poker tournament-turned-fundraiser to raise money for Frontline Foods, which supports restaurants and feeds frontline workers. A donation of $100 is required to play.

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