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Here's how COVID-19 has affected Houston startups — and what they need to know moving forward

Houston's startups and small businesses have a ways to go to truly survive the pandemic, and they should move forward with these things in mind. Emilija Manevska/Getty Images

The effect of COVID-19 on Houston's economy has been unprecedented. While evidence on this impact is only beginning to emerge, it is clear that the economic damage has been particularly severe for startups and small and growing businesses in emerging markets.

Given the importance of startups and small businesses to economic growth and job creation, the survival of these businesses must be a critical part of the global recovery. For example, there are many companies that have seen this pandemic as an opportunity and started providing COVID-19-related services.

Startups are facing financial challenges on multiple fronts

According to a study from Houston Exponential's:

  • Thirty percent of startups reported a loss of revenue due to client uncertainty or delayed contracts. With almost 85 percent of startups identifying as B2B or B2C, many companies are seeing previously guaranteed revenues shrink as enterprise clients cut costs.
  • Twenty-one percent of startups reported paying talent as their biggest talent/hiring challenge. The main concern isn't with finding qualified candidates, it's being able to pay for them. Founders stated that the talent exists, but they can't afford them, or candidates aren't willing to accept a lower salary for equity.
  • Nineteen percent of startups reported a 10 to 20 percent decrease in fundraising valuations. This statistic only includes startups that were raising before and during COVID-19. And 71 percent reported no change in valuations.
  • Fourteen percent of startups reported moving to remote work as their biggest operational challenge. This includes both internal challenges as well as working with clients and prospective customers remotely.

How startups have been using funding amid COVID-19

Post $1 million in funding, the hiring focus shifts to product development.

  • Companies that have raised less than $1 million are looking to drive growth, find sources of revenue and improve their top-line metrics through biz dev, marketing, and sales.
  • Companies that have raised more than $1 million are focusing more on building out and improving their product by hiring engineers and product managers

Note: The median seed round for Houston startups over the past 3 years was $1.9 million and the median angel deal was $610,000, according to Pitchbook.

Tips for surviving the pandemic

The Small Business Continuity Checklist is a diagnostic tool to navigate times of disruption, covering two key areas of management — financial and strategic.

Financial Management Tasks

  • Address future cash shortages, for example, what expenses could be reduced, such as travel and marketing, which operations can be temporarily paused.
  • Consider steps to increase cash coming into the business such as focusing more on product lines/ services that continue to sell well.
  • Explore what grants, subsidies, or loans are available and the eligibility requirements. For example, The Cannon's CERT Program. Here's a list of resources for Houston startups and SMBs.
  • Recycle, re-purpose, or dispose of old or slow-moving stock or inventory. Explore the possibility of sales under special conditions, in order to reduce the projected losses on inventories. Review purchasing policies to prevent overspending on stock/inventory.

Strategic Management Tasks

  • Since user retention is crucial for your future growth, you can provide free subscriptions, contactless delivery, and waive fees to address a larger user base and enhance customer experience. For example, many online learning sites are providing free access to their live and video classes. Similarly, in the healthcare and fitness space, companies can provide for free virtual classes and shift to providing online consultations. Cure.Fit, fitness startup has provided free access to their live classes for 90 days. All hyperlocal delivery companies have rolled out 'contactless delivery' to minimize any contact between the customer and the delivery executive. They have also urged customers to adopt 'digital payments' to again minimize any human contact.
  • Nowadays, most startups and SMBs rely on different kinds of software, web apps, and/or mobile apps. Furthermore, many businesses are dependent on such digital platforms. If you are developing any digital solution then you should consider outsourcing some part of development/design work to app development in Houston to reduce the cost. You can find more local options from sites like Clutch or Upcity.
  • Ensure productivity while working remotely. While fostering collaboration has long been a defined way of working in most modern businesses, proximity is a variable that has always been taken for granted. Don't just limit to video conferencing, also invest in project management tools, time tracking tools, communication tools etc.
  • Build trust, support staff, and understand emotional concerns and the importance of personal well being.

Startups are the engines of progress. Small businesses are the backbone of America. Stay safe. Stay healthy. And keep persevering. No matter how severe and disruptive this crisis is, one thing is for sure, the war on this pandemic will be won.

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Colin Simpson is project manager at BlueKite Apps, which recently started its software development services in Houston.

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Building Houston

 
 

A Houston founder and small-space expert founded TAXA Outdoors to create better campers than what was in the market. Now, amid the pandemic, he's seen sales skyrocket. Photo courtesy of TAXA Outdoors

In 2014 Garrett Finney, a former senior architect at the Habitability Design Center at NASA, brought his expertise in what he describes as "advocating for human presence living in a machine" to the outdoors market.

After being less-than enchanted by the current RV and camper offerings, the Houstonian developed a new series of adventure vehicles that could safely and effectively get its users off-grid — even if still Earth-bound — under the company he dubbed TAXA Outdoors.

The vehicles would follow much of the same standards that Finney worked under at NASA, in which every scenario and square inch would be closely considered in the smartly designed spaces. And rather that designing the habitats for style alone, function and storage space for essential gear took precedence. According to Finney, the habitat was to be considered a form of useful adventure equipment in its own right.

"Ceilings should be useful. They're not just for putting lights on," he says. "Even when there's gravity that's true."

Today TAXA offers four models of what they call "mobile human habitats" that can be towed behind a vehicle and sleep three to four adults, ranging from about $11,000 to $50,000 in price.

TAXA's mobile human habitats range in size and price. Photo courtesy of TAXA Outdoors

And amid the pandemic — where people were looking for a safe way to escape their homes and get outside — the TAXA habitats were flying off the shelves, attracting buyers in Texas, but mainly those in Colorado, California, and other nature-filled areas.

"January, was looking really good — like the break out year. And then the pandemic was a huge red flag all around the world," Finney says. "[But] we and all our potential customers realized that going camping was the bet. They were with their family, they were getting outside, they were achieving sanity having fun and creating memories."

According to TAXA President Divya Brown, the company produced a record 430 habitats in 2020. But it still wasn't enough to match the number of orders coming in.

"We had we had almost a year and a half worth of backlog at the old facility, which we've never experienced before," Brown says.

To keep up with demand, the company moved into a 70,000-square-foot space off of U.S. 290 that now allows multiple operations lines, as well as a showroom for their vehicles and enough room for their staff, which tripled in size from 25 to 75 employees since the onset of the pandemic.

The first priority at the new facility is to make up the backlog they took on in 2020. Next they hope to produce more than 1,000 habitats by the end of 2021 and 3,000 in the coming years.

"It's a pretty significant jump for us," Brown says. "We really believe there's a huge market for this."

With the new facility, the TAXA team hopes to catch up with the explosive sales growth. Photo courtesy of TAXA Outdoors

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