A Pakistani travel startup's empathetic approach to surviving the pandemic

The pandemic has left a terrain of unemployed people in its wake. According to Gallup Pakistan and Dun & Bradstreet (D&B) Pakistan, more than 54% Pakistanis have either been laid off by their employers or are working with mandatory salary reduction as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a young company, BookMe.pk has survived an unwelcoming socio-economic environment in the early days, an office fire when we just took off, and the ruthless pandemic right when we were soaring high. Now we would like to share our learnings and few key insights with the broader industry, we hope you can learn from our experiences and join us in our journey to set Pakistan as a rising economic star.

Discover more than 15 Pakistan-based Travel startups on MAGNiTT

Digging deeper into the startup canvas, we found out that: 68% are experiencing reduced demand, 50% have halted operations, 42% are seeing a reduced valuation, 35% have reduced employee salaries, 21% surveyed startups have shut down, 20% of those surveyed have laid-off employees.

Following the economic narrative, a lot of companies took extreme measures to “survive”. With the accelerating rise in cases, economic shutdowns, together we had all entered unchartered territory. Primarily falling in the transportation ticketing category, BookMe’s core focus was travel, and as we know, the transport sector took one of the worst hits globally during the early days of the pandemic. These were unprecedented times, and like others, our team at BookMe was uncertain about the future and survival.

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Putting the people first

Where almost 90% of the companies in this sector either laid off their staff or completely closed off the operations, we took a completely different approach to tackle the situation, we went with a people-first approach, this was always our motto from the start and we weren’t going to deter from it now. 

We were able to weather the storm due to two primary reasons, one being our culture that promotes real ownership, and second, we made sure that from day one our cash burn is controlled and monitored. With a minimum cash burn of $150k over 14 months, we were able to derive a 23% growth per month. This allowed us to preserve cash while operating with a minimal expense mindset.

We believe it’s extremely important for companies to keep a good grip on their expenses, we often hear news of incredible investments ranging from $1M to even $20M, but I believe a smart company will continue to chase systematic growth rather than exponential growth. We are fortunate to have many local case studies to help us understand that a chase for exponential growth can often lead to an unreasonable and detrimental cash burn.

However, even with the cash reserves, the pandemic had reduced our revenues to zero. We knew that we had to survive, but we also knew that we did not want to let go of anyone especially during these testing times. A meeting was called where we discussed the current uncertainty regarding the future of the company and how we could keep it running. I as CEO announced that I would take a voluntary pay cut to help the company minimize expenses and get through these turbulent times.

What followed after the meeting was truly extraordinary, almost all of the team members volunteered a salary cut, some even volunteered on behalf of others (those who were unable to afford it). This extended the company’s runway by 40%. When we asked the team members their reasons they attributed it to the family-like bond that they had with each other and their immense sense of ownership.  There was no pressure on anyone to volunteer a pay cut and no one was judged on how much they contributed, it was a family issue and was dealt in that manner. The salary cuts were kept anonymous and the company managed to survive the worst of the pandemic. The team had vowed to get out of this together without a single lay off. And now as things are looking brighter with the transportation sector slowly opening again, we are back in business.

Practice what you preach

There is an important lesson that our team taught us. We must practice what we preach, many companies talk about being exceptional and empathetic towards team members, however with the recent tsunami of an unemployment surge we now know, it can be hard to stick to and follow that promise.

We all know how hard it is to find talented individuals who build your company, therefore it’s imperative to ensure that your company is able to retain this talent by extending care and empathy in your management style. True ownership is only built when you feel at home at work. Let your teammates do what they are truly passionate about, extend your trust in them, nurture their growth, and watch them do wonders for your company. Therefore, we believe it’s time we change the popular notion from “company first” to “people first”. After all, what is your company without the hard work and dedication of your team? Make sure you equip yourself with policies and cash reserves that help you to retain your star performers and survive any storm.

Building loyalty 

During our discussion with ex-employees and current employees of companies that went through covert and overt layoffs, we recognized that when exceptional talent is laid off without justification, companies end up breaking a chain of loyalty. Loyalty is a trait that is built between an employer and an employee over years of dedication and reciprocal behaviour. When this chain is broken, it hampers the team members' trust in not just the existing organization but even others. There is a psychological element that comes into play, the feeling of sudden dissociation and discredit can make it extremely difficult for individuals to trust other companies.

Layoffs don’t only impact the team members that leave, it also hampers the growth and trust of the team that survived the decision. We understand circumstances where there is no other option, but if a company like BookMe can survive with revenues dropping to zero and without major funding injections - we believe that major players in our industry must hold themselves accountable to more humane and sustainable standards. There is always a people-first alternative and the result is a team that is driven to help the company grow.

However, should you ever be out of options, please ensure you lay off someone with respect and kindness, be humane, and do not take the action over an email or a communal zoom call. In every action that you take, make sure that you put the people who build your brand, and your company, first!

As a developing country, Pakistan must learn how to retain and harness talent. Go the extra mile, put the individual first, and watch your company survive even the worst of storms.

August 2020 saw a 48% drop in the number of deals, while total funding on the other hand increased by 93% when compared to the same month last year. Discover more trends and insights in our August 2020 Dashboard.