I won't say that Covid put all companies on equal footing last year. It'll take more than a seemingly endless global pandemic to level behemoths like Apple or Google. But rather that 2021 presented all companies, from Series A startups to household brands, with the same brand-new set of challenges.
Even for those with differences in scale, product and audience, similar operational strategies lead to greater success. Overall, the startup mindset—ambitious, agile, open to change—shifted from buzzy talking point to genuine strategy.
Here are four hindsight observations from my perspective that also mix in a few predictions for the coming year.
1. Given the chance, professionals acted professionally.
Remote work has been a hallmark of startup culture for years, but over the last year we've seen that even the most diehard "office culture" companies can thrive with a remote workforce. In some shape or form, the practice is here to stay.
Thankfully, countless major studies have found that when companies give employees greater autonomy and independence, productivity remains consistent. This transaction yields a fantastic payoff for everyone involved. Given the rise of hyper-infectious Omicron, many companies are doubling down on remote work in meaningful ways. For example, in mid-December, after delaying its proposed return to office date, Apple doled out $1,000 bonuses to every single employee, "intended to help" with home office workspaces.
We've collectively started to trust employees to act like employees even when they're not sitting in a row of cubicles, so how else can we fundamentally change workplace dynamics in their favor?
2. Flexibility required a strong foundation.
The smartest companies pivoted to alternate workplace dynamics or business models as a means of survival, then capitalized on them. At the same time, they leveraged these changes to attract and retain talent.
The pivot was key. But keep in mind that pivotability (yes, I made up that word) stems from a solid foundation of company standards, such as equity, growth mindset, profitability, etc. Assets like work/life balance and healthy workplace culture are built on the processes you have in place to ensure each employee, whether number 10 or 10,000, is committed to those standards. Consensus begins with clear vision-setting when bringing people on board, so don't mince words.
In 2021, companies of all sizes balanced employee autonomy, creative attraction/retention programs and sustainable growth. Going into '22, those that continue to offer innovative benefits, such as mParticle’s “pawternity” leave for adopting strays and Loka's own “5/4 Fridays” that grants employees every other Friday off, will remain in the sweet spot.
3. In the virtual economy, authenticity ruled.
For young companies, showing up authentically has rarely been an issue; sawdust and exposed wires—not to mention constant reiteration of the product—are obvious, even charming parts of the startup process. But CEOs from major companies appearing on camera while barefoot in their living rooms is new. If managed properly, these sorts of gestures toward transparency can disarm skeptics and connect with customers.
That said, we saw some epic fails in this area this year (mass Zoom firings, phony responses to corporate crises, etc.) and the FleishmanHillard Authenticity Gap study, released in June, reinforced the fact that most customers' expectations aren't met by what companies actually deliver. But maybe we didn't celebrate the effort enough. Better to try, fail and try again with better insight than not try at all.
The Covid factor catalyzed plenty of failed experiments in authenticity, and many companies adopted a fail-faster mentality, testing rather than talking. That's to their credit, as a key tenet of the startup world is that wins aren't necessarily the best teacher. Instead the data gained from failure often points in the direction to head next time.
This is an age-old lesson that C-suite leaders should tattoo on the back of their hand in 2022.
4. VC money flowed—but mostly to closers.
Despite the chaotic nature of the past couple years, 2021 saw a record-breaking dollar amount of VC investments: more than $582 billion, twice that of 2020! The number is simply mind-boggling. (It's almost as if with smart investment, we can grow our way to a better world, which I believe is 100% true.)
There's a catch, however. The majority of that money went to companies that went public. According to a year-end report in Barron's, "as of Dec. 23, 1,006 initial public offerings have raised about $315.6 billion, the most since Dealogic began tracking the sector in 1995."
The moral of the story is that this game we're playing is based on results. The startup mindset is essential for crashing out the gate and running the race, but ultimately the winners are the companies that reach the finish line.
What did you have to show at the end of 2021? Can you get comfortable being uncomfortable in 2022?
The new year is a good time to take stock of your strengths. It's also a time to recognize that new opportunities can and will come without warning, so stay limber.
Mutual trust is an incredible asset. We're on the cusp of a new type of employee/employer relationship, one built on greater reciprocity and openness and healthy work-life balance. No matter what position we're in, sharing power is a sign of strength. Let's see more of it in the coming year.
Be creative with benefits and you'll attract creative employees. Remote work is not a hassle or hurdle for CEOs: It's a benefit to offer, and one not to offer lightly. We've only begun to zero in on these new types of working arrangements and lifestyle benefits. What exactly do your employees need to be happy at work? How can you negotiate for a common goal?
You can't fake being real. Apologies to Yoda, but when it comes to authenticity, there is no try, there is only do. Authenticity and transparency require some effort but even more self-awareness, which is a whole other ballgame.
Failure is fine, but don't let it define you. We all know the story: About 90% of startups die before birth. But death is a part of life just like failure is a part of success. The winners are all of us that keep playing the game.