The 5 ways founding a startup prepared me for the pandemic

To survive this period of crisis, keep erecting goal posts for achievement and chasing after the rush of success, says the founder of Behance.

The 5 ways founding a startup prepared me for the pandemic
[Photo: Drew Beamer/Unsplash]

As a result of the pandemic, we’re all on an unprecedented emotional and economic rollercoaster, and there’s no telling when the ride will end. The only thing that is consistent about managing a business in the midst of this pandemic is the volatility.


Today’s ups and downs are bigger, but the curving shape—peaks of hope, followed by valleys of despair—is familiar to anyone who has worked at a startup or participated in any bold venture, where one day’s breakthrough seems almost destined to be followed by a demoralizing setback.

Startup founders and leaders of big new projects must find ways to lead through those peaks and valleys. Before becoming chief product officer at Adobe, I founded and steered the ship at Behance, a bootstrapped startup that went through numerous ups and downs before becoming the network of more than 21 million creatives it is now. I’ve also interviewed dozens of startup founders and other leaders about the challenges of leading through uncertainty. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned that can help us lead teams and products amid the pandemic’s volatility.

Accept uncertainty

We all desire some level of predictability, a general sense of what tomorrow, next week, or next month will bring. That certainty is one of the main things the pandemic has taken from us.

But trying to manufacture certainty can lead us to bad decisions, points out Emre Soyer, a behavioral scientist at Ozyegin University in Istanbul. It can cause us to put too much faith in one study, or one expert, just to have an illusion of control. “We need to be skeptical about claims made with certainty and strive to have a clear and objective understanding of inherent uncertainties,” Soyer says. “Wisdom doesn’t emerge from knowing with certainty, but from being aware of your level of uncertainty.”

As a leader, it’s tempting to claim more certainty than you have to reassure your team. But in times like these, you’re not fooling anyone. It’s better to focus on the things you can control and acknowledge the things you can’t predict. Talk about it openly with your team. Be willing to let time add resolution to the pending decisions that still feel unsteady (as someone who deeply values and favors decisiveness, this is a constant struggle for me). By tolerating uncertainty, we open up to creative experiments and ideas. We let our minds bake better solutions.


Avoid decisions based from fear

“Will I make payroll?” “Will my company’s market ever rebound?” The drumbeat of scary questions like these can prompt radical and sometimes ill-considered decisions.

During the early days of Behance, we had periods of fear and doubt when competitors launched new features or the market seemed to shift. Sometimes, the fear caused us to scramble and churn our roadmap to follow our competitors.

But in almost all cases, these reactions based in fear proved to be shortsighted. Sooner or later (often after a few months), we would return to our convictions, informed by our mission and unique perspective.

Before you decide to pivot your company, copy a competitor’s feature, or chase a new market, revisit your core convictions and assertions.

Do you still believe that what you’re building will improve your industry? Do you still accept the core assumptions that have informed the decisions you’ve made and the people you’ve hired?


Your mission—and these core beliefs—are your compass. If you no longer believe your compass is pointing you in the right direction, by all means make changes. But if you believe your mission and your core convictions are fundamentally valid, don’t let fear push you off course.

Use this time to become more efficient

Startups, by definition, don’t have much of a status quo. They’re starting from scratch, which makes it simpler for them to try new tools and processes and discover what works. This an experimental phased that larger companies typically struggle with. They may pilot new technologies or ways of working, but the rewards are limited by two factors: holdouts, people resistant to change, and organizational debt, a failure to fully commit to new technologies and workflows.

The pandemic, though, means that no one can retreat into the comfort of the status quo. Nothing works as it did in January; nearly everything we do has had to change. That gives companies of all sizes the opportunity to realize all the potential productivity gains they’ve been stockpiling but not taking full advantage of. Companies like Alibaba and Google are expanding the use of drones to make the ultimate in contactless deliveries. Nike is producing online exercise classes to boost demand for its workout gear. In less than a week, Sysco, the big food-distribution firm, built an entirely new supply chain and billing system to serve grocery stores.

It’s a great time to bring the holdouts on board, eliminate the organizational debt, and fully adopt the new tools and processes that will make your company more efficient.

Hack the reward system

In many businesses, the pandemic has disrupted the usual ways we measure success. But as human beings, we still need the high we get from achievement. So it’s important to set ourselves and our teams up to score wins.


Establish milestones and find creative ways to celebrate when you achieve them. So long as the milestones you establish are pushing you in the right direction, they help provide the short-term rewards humans require.

In the early years of Behance, before we had much by way of customers, revenue, or traffic, we had fun setting directional goals and making games to keep us engaged. We would set goals, like getting to our first 100,000 members, and the team would make bets and agreements for what would happen at each of these milestones. Memorably, I even broke my stream as a life-long vegetarian when we hit the 100,000 mark. The display I put on for my team wasn’t a reward in a traditional sense, but it motivated my team.

Through your difficult times have some fun “hacking” your team’s reward system. Success releases dopamine that helps your brain remember that feeling of achievement and continue to strive for more. And games keep us engaged, and one of a team’s greatest competitive advantages is simply sticking together long enough to figure things out.

Tell your unique story

The pandemic has us all on a journey through uncharted territory. Our typical landmarks are gone, and we’re not even sure where we’re going. The process drains morale.

As a leader, your job is to provide a compelling and realistic narrative that merchandises progress. What does last week’s achievement set us up to do in the future? What are we learning from our challenges and how is the struggle benefiting us? A great example comes from Anne Wojcicki, CEO of personal genome analysis company 23AndMe.


In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration ordered the company to stop marketing its service. It took two years for 23AndMe to address the FDA’s concerns, but during that time, the company lost very few employees. “I would go around the company and remind people, ‘We’re on the right side of history,'” Wojcicki told me. “It was a matter of our first path being wrong, never our mission being wrong.”

As a leader, you have to figure out the story of what your team is going through and where that story leads, then you have to tell the story over and over so that your team can tell it to themselves and honestly feel like they are making progress.

The pandemic’s extreme volatility has unsettled even the most established companies and no one’s success is guaranteed. But finding ways to optimize the peaks and endure the valleys will give you and your team the best chance to not just survive but thrive.

Scott Belsky is the chief product officer of Adobe. He founded Behance and wrote The Messy Middle: Finding Your Way Through the Hardest and Most Crucial Part of Any Bold Venture.