Behind The Scenes of Midwest Tech During COVID-19
By Laura Cowan
Laura K. Cowan is a tech editor and journalist whose work has focused on promoting sustainability initiatives for automotive, green tech, and conscious living media outlets.
An event at 20 Fathoms in Traverse City, Michigan, a growing coworking and incubator space for startups in northern Michigan. Incubator spaces are working on reopening plans with social distancing, enhanced cleaning, staggered schedules, and online networking.
We've spoken with a number of executives in the past 3 months who are responding to COVID-19 for their big tech business or small startup, and we noticed some trends in how businesses are responding to the pandemic. Quite a few people from virtual panel attendees to readers to interviewees have asked Cronicle questions about what we're seeing in our interviews with Midwest Tech. It's the million-dollar question: what's next? How are businesses coping, and how does that impact their workers and public health?
Here are the top trends we've noticed behind the scenes in Midwest tech in our interviews from manufacturers and scientists pivoting to produce PPE to tech startups creating new software for public health initiatives. All of this is based in our limited interview time and virtual networking, not an official survey. Here are, in order that they appeared, the behind the scenes trends we've noticed in Midwest tech businesses responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
It was just before shutdown in Michigan when we took a ride in a self-driving shuttle from May Mobility around downtown Ann Arbor. Since then, almost everything about how businesses operate in Ann Arbor has changed. The city has closed streets to create patio space for restaurants to reopen with social distancing after a long break, city budgets and universities have taken major revenue hits and may operate partially virtually in the fall. Many startups in mobility and engineers from large automakers have worked from home offices on everything from AI to product engineering.
Behind The Scenes Trends in Midwest Tech Businesses
- Every tech company finally has a pandemic response, where initially even the epidemiologists had no comment as they assessed the emergency unfolding. From remote work policies to pivoting to manufacture PPE at short notice, COVID-19 has hit every single business in some way. Tech companies have led the charge creating software to track COVID-19 symptoms or to support local businesses with gift card purchases for use at a later date. Many companies are responding with a lot of community-mindedness and volunteering resources to help with urgent public health needs. The biggest focus right now is on creating policies for managing phased reopening of businesses and networking events, and how to dial that up or down based on virus resurgence.
- Big business is rebranding for COVID-19 initiatives, to help get the word out about how their services are relevant in current times. The COVID response ads are getting a bit overwhelming, so we're looking forward to hearing about how companies are putting their money where their mouth is on social justice initiatives to get off the merry-go-round of "we're all feeling at a loss right now" advertising. Automotive manufacturers led the charge pivoting to emergency ventilator manufacturing. Best trend? Celebrities and companies using their platform to broadcast social justice or public health initiatives that allow the public to participate without donating large amounts of money.
- Big events are cancelled. It takes too much work to organize large conventions to take them virtual and not charge standard fees. Advertisers have a harder time connecting with attendees so the ROI on sponsorships isn't good right now, though in some cases there is a lot less competition for attention out there and some companies are creating new ways to connect with potential clients because of the absence of competing events. It's not safe to gather in large groups, as we've seen from virus numbers tracking upward in 20 states in the last couple of weeks. Most organizations are rescheduling for 6 months to a year out for reconvening. For larger conferences that do go virtual, it's a unique opportunity to attend events across the globe without leaving your couch or to attract name speakers to online events without speakers having to travel.
- Small startups are often hitting pause on projects and launches, and taking events virtual while charging very little, in order to stay in the front of the public's mind. Small businesses scrambled to find financing to cover an unknown gap in operations if the pandemic stretches on for months to years. Unfortunately we expect to see a lot of small companies needing to pause operations or pivot significantly to survive this time. On the up side, smaller companies are also finding rare opportunities to connect with new clients now that everyone is working from home on a different schedule. We've spoken with several startups who had unique chances to connect with new partners to address urgent business needs at this time. Those startups finding connections that will last beyond the pandemic are thriving.
- Funding is being careful for now, but it's still moving forward. VCs we've spoken with say they're still investing and establishing new funds. The evaluation of companies is tricky right now with so much uncertainty, and the process seems a bit more measured, taking into account all the challenges startups will face in the coming months.
- Talent is looking for new opportunities especially in work from home tech jobs. Most people seem grateful for their current job and the opportunity to have some flexibility or safety at this time. Networking has moved to smaller online events specific to subject matter. Many tech companies are now listing new positions with work from home flexibility. Tech jobs haven't been hit nearly as hard as the service sector, and many companies are posting for workers remotely where it isn't possible to convene in person to continue operations right now, a big opportunity for those working remotely or looking for new work.
Gone are the large gatherings, the climate strikes, the summer festivals, the concerts. But behind the scenes, Midwest manufacturers, tech startups, and community organizations have come together to feed the public, fund businesses in trouble, offer emergency childcare to front-line workers, and 3D print or even invent new kinds of PPE for healthcare workers.
What are you seeing in your space? We'd love to hear from you on Twitter and by email, especially if you have a new project going you'd like to share on Cronicle. We hope you're safe and doing as well as possible navigating these times.