The challenges and opportunities of launching a business during a global pandemic

Maryam Meddin is CEO of The Soke, a private clinic integrating mental healthcare, wellbeing, support and performance coaching.

“Your business is going to be booming at the end of all this” – a sentence I hear pretty much every time I speak to anyone about The Soke, a mental health concept scheduled for launch in October 2020. Of course, this was never the plan. When I set out to create a modern solution for private outpatient behavioural healthcare, I didn’t envision that the lead up to our opening would coincide with a global pandemic that would cause an unprecedented rise in demand for such services.


Whilst it may seem to the casual observer that this is good news for a start-up like ours, the reality is that it plays very little into our model beyond the considerations that are currently relevant to any business: what steps can we take to minimise any risks to our staff and clients; what measures can we put in place to mitigate disruption in a future lockdown? Of course, the increase in conversations about depression, anxiety and other common obstacles to psychological wellbeing is helpful to any organisation whose focal point is a message of normalisation, but this in itself is not enough. As well as seeming relevant today, organisations must have a strategy for viability tomorrow or they will suffer the same fate as the millions of well-intentioned start-ups who fail to sustainably realise the visions of their founders.


So what of the challenges and opportunities of launching a business during a global pandemic?


Periods of adversity are always going to present an opportunity for those inclined to think quickly and creatively in responding to needs that have been created by the circumstances. The risk, however, is that at some point the outlook will improve and, unless those individuals have adopted a long-term view and created a model that is resilient beyond the crisis, then socio-economic recovery will not be good news for their business. Sustainability demands forward thinking, so the vigilant approach would be to build a durable identity around a reliable business and entrust colleagues to look after its operations today, whilst founders use their natural and acquired skillsets to prepare for what’s on the horizon tomorrow.


Another opening that often presents in a decline is the availability of good people. Some may have lost their positions through redundancies and lay-offs, others may find themselves with a window of clarity through which to reassess their careers and ambitions. With the latter group in particular, if an individual is even entertaining the idea of turning their back on a secure position to join a start-up in a downturn, then she or he should be deemed as showing a propensity towards “vision” – a good quality for any founder looking to build their dream team. Top tip: you can’t do it alone. Many people with good ideas think that by working hard they can succeed single-handedly (albeit with the occasional help of ‘dispensable’ staff). Unfortunately, working hard is not a differentiator: anyone can do it – including your competition. The smart alternative, therefore, is to find those who believe in your idea and to be prepared to empower and subsequently share the venture’s success with them – however that success manifests.


Following on from the topic of “good people”: the recent pandemic, for all the tragedy it has created, has also been instrumental in forcing many of us to stop and consider what matters to us personally, professionally and collectively. At The Soke, this has made the process of identifying our organisational values and creating the outline for our corporate culture all the more meaningful. We have been able to evaluate a set of principles and authentically relate to what each means in the context of what matters to us not just as individuals but as literal contributors to the health of the society in which we live.


Having set up The Soke Foundation (our non-profit arm focused on community mental health initiatives) in conjunction with The Soke itself, the new and recent rise in the level of interest it is generating in prospective stakeholders (whatever their capacity) is something that we attribute largely to the pandemic: an unexpected but welcome by-product.


A less welcome by-product of Covid-19, in so far as the business world is concerned is, of course, the uncertainty it has created. Bringing a truly new product to market always presents challenges as generally investors expect you to point to existing players so that they can understand what you’re doing, and to identify the competition in order to distinguish your USPs. What happens when there are no existing terrains and no footsteps to follow? Moreover, how do you produce a clear, reliable forecast when the short-term economic landscape looks so opaque?


In The Soke’s case a major step we took to overcome these obstacles was to limit our investor search to individuals, rather than corporations. It seemed obvious from the outset that we would be more likely to find backers among high net worth women and men who may have once walked in our shoes themselves and were willing to bypass the rigid criteria of institutional investors. Significantly, such backers would not be looking for a quick buck at any cost and were prepared to wait longer for their return on a genuine impact investment.


Taking this approach gave us access to a committed network who continue to have an interest in our success but who, beyond the financial gain, have recognised our vision and genuinely want to see it come to fruition. They have given us their time, their guidance and occasionally their contacts and are happy to be our companions on this journey.


Ultimately I hope that we will one day be the sort of company that attributes its success first and foremost to its people and secondly to its commitment to quality and innovation. Beyond that, we will not deny the role played by the 2020 lockdown which forced so many to acknowledge the importance of mental health in our overall wellbeing.