3 Essential Tips on Starting a Business during a Pandemic

A startup owner posing with a laptop.
A startup should be nimble and be able to pivot when needed. Photo credit: iStock/ismagilov 

Dayu Dara Permata and Azri Jumat are both entrepreneurs, with their own startups. They have another thing in common—they started their business right about the time the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic hit when more risk-averse entrepreneurs may have shied away from new ventures.

Dara founded Pinhome in Jakarta in 2019 to offer her fellow Indonesians a way to buy property online. She offers a technology-based end-to-end service—from finding a property and negotiating with the seller to settling financial deals for the purchase. Pinhome has grown so much since it launched, it now has some 300 employees. Its property listings have also grown more than 400 times, translating to a sharp growth in both sales and profits.

Azri launched delivery service platform ONZ out of Brunei Darussalam in February to help those stuck at home during the quarantine to get their groceries, food, and other goods safely and conveniently. So far, ONZ has received more than 340,000 service requests from clients, a mean feat, considering the sultanate’s population is only 459,000. It is the country’s first parcel delivery mobile app.

During a recent webinar organized by Brunei Darussalam-based regional policy and business dialogue platform Asia Inc. Forum, Dara and Azri shared some pointers on how to set up a successful business even during a crisis.

Find a pain point and address it

For both, addressing a specific pain point, or a problem that irks customers, is key to setting up a successful business.

Dara set up Pinhome because she wanted to make it easier for people to find and buy a property. As a property owner herself, she is familiar with the frustrations that come with buying a property, having bought 10 properties over the years. “In the process of acquiring those properties, I experienced huge pain points.”

She recalled the hassle of finding the right investment whether online or offline, dealing with less-than-professional real estate agents, going through the mortgage process, and even managing or maintaining the property, and at times the high cost of renovations. “I've gone through that process 10 times,” she said, noting it is a problem experienced by 180 million of Indonesia’s working-age population.

Dara saw opportunity in the segment as only 20% of the country’s 270 million population own a property compared with 95% in Singapore and 70% to 80% in the United States or the People’s Republic of China.

Pinhome addresses potential property owners’ pain points by shepherding them in negotiating the fair market price for the property, helping them through the mortgage process, and assisting them in dealing with deed transfer and other administrative requirements.

Similarly, Azri set up ONZ to address a specific problem—how to buy essential goods during the government-imposed lockdown. At the onset, ONZ received delivery orders through messaging app WhatsApp, but eventually they developed their own app, now available on both the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store.

Azri said setting up an app for the service makes it convenient for customers to request a pickup or delivery. ONZ also provides insurance for the parcels being delivered to give customers peace of mind and protect them against any losses.

ONZ is developing a second version of the app, with improved features, to better serve customers.

Be ready to pivot

For both Dara and Azri, pivoting is key to building a successful startup. Pivoting entails overhauling, or changing the business model altogether, if the product or the service does not deliver the targeted results, whether due to changes in the industry or customer behavior, or any other factor that can affect the startup’s bottom line.

Dara said she spent the first 8 to 9 months of 2019 bootstrapping and validating the business model for Pinhome to make sure it addresses the pain points they want to solve. They also needed to make sure they will be able to take advantage of the most opportunities in the market, while at the same time implement the business plan the most feasible way possible.

She said coming up with the right business model was the biggest challenge so far for Pinhome.

Azri agreed on the need to pivot, noting the challenges of basing some assumptions about the Brunei market, which may have unexpected outcomes.

Asia Inc. Forum founder Timothy Ong, who moderated the webinar, recalled his failure to pivot when he was a young entrepreneur had cost him a lot of money. “I could have saved myself a lot of money if I did the pivoting earlier. In my case I went through a phase of pivoting generally too late because I was so convinced that I knew all the answers. Good entrepreneurs are open-minded. They have conviction, but they must be prepared to pivot if the results are not what is expected.”

Be ready to fail

Another thing both Dara and Azri agreed on is that failure is inevitable.

“Failure is a common thing for startups,” said Azri, noting that entrepreneurs should expect to fail as they operate based on assumptions on how they want their business to perform.

Dara said in bootstrapping Pinhome, they failed three times before they landed on the current business model for the platform. “Between each attempt it, it was just like a 6- to 8-week siege.”

She cautioned other entrepreneurs not to exhaust all their resources in their first attempt to start the business, noting starting a venture is like a marathon. “Just be patient. Start small and fail small. Fail fast, learn fast, and improve fast.”

The article wast first published by BIMP-EAGA on 15 June 2021.