A Founder's Three-Step Guide for Thriving in the Face of Adversity

Check out what three recent founders in the Boston startup ecosystem say were necessary to their success in overcoming the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As if the host of obstacles in starting a company wasn’t already enough to tackle, founders in 2020 were forced to simultaneously navigate the ever-changing headwinds of a generational global pandemic. As more people get vaccinated and the economy begins to open up, a number of recently-founded startups now find themselves stronger than ever before. The question remains: how?


I had the opportunity to speak with three savvy founders in the Boston startup ecosystem about the experience of leading a company through the turbulence of the past year:


  • Vanessa Bruce of Dough - a marketplace to discover, support, and shop from women-owned businesses

  • Jason Ray of Paperless Parts - the leading secure, ITAR compliant cloud-based sales and quoting platform revolutionizing manufacturing

  • And Brian Swartz of NeighborSchools - a software helping experienced educators and caretakers open licensed Family Child Care programs

Despite their companies’ inherent differences, the three founders pointed unanimously to three driving factors attributable to their success through the COVID-19 pandemic. We hope that these guiding principles can help other startups to thrive in spite of challenging circumstances, regardless of what they may be.


#1: Dedicate your attention to the customer.


Customer success has always been a key focus for founders. Yet, the pain points invoked specifically from COVID demonstrated that the deepest level of personal and professional understanding with your client is essential. Dough's original business model was focused on promoting women-owned brands through wholesale, which at the time offered the best avenue to reaching consumers.


As the country shut down and consumers shifted to purchasing largely via online marketplaces, Vanessa Bruce, Founder of Dough, was hit with a harsh reality: it would be impossible to support other women founders by putting their products on physical store shelves.


“The entire wholesale business model was wiped away just like that,” she explained. “We quickly pivoted and spent the summer [of 2020] hard at work building a direct-to-consumer platform to launch by the fall. It was imperative to ensure we could continue to support women in their endeavors.” Vanessa also implemented biweekly Zoom coffee chats for five or six founders who sell products on Dough to meet with the rest of the Dough team. Prioritizing customer relationships has proved to be instrumental for the company in weathering the COVID storm.


Customer is king over at Paperless Parts HQ as well. The company has played a pivotal role in supporting manufacturers through the pandemic by streamlining operations, amplifying their digital presence, and managing customer communication. For CEO and Founder, Jason Ray, providing the right customized solution for their customers is dependent on a 360 degree understanding of how COVID impacted each one individually.


“Every single customer has my cell phone number. We make it clear that our relationship with them is a partnership from the very beginning, so if something goes wrong, there are over 1000 people that could call me. And I want them to.”


Jason’s level of personal and professional commitment to the company’s customer base has contributed to 10x customer growth in the past year alone.


“It's a matter of keeping the client at the center. Our NeighborSchools team is always thinking about our customers and how we can best help them,” CEO and Co-Founder of NeighborSchools, Brian Swartz explained. After COVID shutdown child care in Massachusetts for over four months during 2020, Brian and his team remained dedicated to their mission, establishing partnerships to make sure daycare providers were receiving the PPE they needed.


“As a founder, the importance is not focusing on the solution you hope to provide, but rather being completely obsessed with the problem you hope to solve.” Dedication to customer relationships proved to be fundamental for all three startups, allowing them to offer the most well-tailored solution even in the face of enormous challenges.


That brings us to #2: Be intentional.


The importance of doing the little things right cannot be understated; yet it so frequently is. To instill the significance of details throughout the company, Paperless Parts has baked it into its DNA.


“Intentionality is one of the three key pillars for us,” Jason explained. “Being intentional from the perspective of a company means that you really need to get the gears lined up before you step on the gas.” Despite COVID forcing the workforce of Paperless Parts to go fully remote for part of 2020, Jason noted that having the right training and repeatable processes in place beforehand was critical to a smooth virtual transition.


Brian and Vanessa both echoed the same sentiment toward intentionality as well, detailing how the virtual work environment quickly educated them to be disciplined down to the smallest details—including lunch.


“What we learned early on was that team lunches with eight to ten people on zoom can be pretty flat without a topic,” said Brian. “As a result, we’ve been very deliberate about bringing in a kernel of an idea (be it a NYT crossword puzzle, Geoguesser, last vacation photos, etc.) to make for lively conversation.”

The Neighborschools team’s implementation of these weekly “Team Lunch Tuesdays” have turned what previously felt like a chore into something everyone looks forward to.


Similarly, Vanessa highlighted the intentionality around setting digital and business boundaries for employees at Dough. “Bucketing meetings has been key for us as a team. The earliest we’ll schedule meetings is 11 am so that everyone can work around each others’ schedules. In the first ten minutes, we also make sure to give time for watercooler talk, sharing personal updates and providing a casual space for communicating. Little things, like this, along the way make a huge difference.” Something as simple as an organized lunch break or a helpful training module may seem insignificant when a plethora of seemingly larger difficulties loom overhead. Nailing down these details, though, has proved invaluable in improving operational efficiency, boosting energy, and helping these three startup teams remain productive and focused on solving the problem at hand.


And finally, #3: Build the right team with the right people.


Getting good people involved in your company really early on matters. Brian and his two co-founders (Bridget Garsh and Cedric McDougal) have worked together for a long time and have known each other for over a decade. “Having a strong foundation in terms of relationships with people you work with is enormously important, especially in times of uncertainty.” Both hellbent on change and incredibly supportive of one another, the tight-knit members of NeighborSchools have constructed a well-oiled machine ready to take down “big child care.”


Though Jason’s relationship with his Paperless Parts coworkers does not date back a decade, the same message rings true—the right people make the difference.


“Really good people are a force multiplier,” he noted. “Look at the PayPal mafia for example. Why is there even a term to describe this group of people? What do the successful companies they all started have in common? If you take a look, so much of it boils down to hiring a team of the right people early in the process.” Jason attributes much of the success of Paperless Parts to the key hires they were able to bring in early on. In a market like Boston which tends to be challenging in terms of competing for the best hires, spending the funds and resources to bring on people with the necessary expertise can put your company’s growth trajectory onto a whole different level.


For Vanessa, having the right people also boils down to authenticity. While creating the best product or service and meeting financial benchmarks are important for a business to measure success, the simple and often overlooked fact is that we work with other human beings. Filling your team with people who will foster a culture of space and understanding while still building and accelerating momentum is most important in times of struggle.


COVID has somehow made our lives even more digital and people often try to present the most perfect, curated view of themselves. “Founders and teams shouldn’t feel pressure to put a piece of themselves out there that doesn’t feel like them,” Vanessa noted. As a founder, paying particular attention to hiring and surrounding yourself with authentic people fosters a powerful culture essential for withstanding tumultuous times.


The Final Word


As uncertainty looms and COVID-related challenges linger, staying dedicated to the customer, being intentional, and surrounding yourself with the right people matters. It sure has been the key for Vanessa, Jason, and Brian.


Learn More About These Startups


Dough is a marketplace to discover, support, and shop from women-owned businesses. If every woman in the US spent $20 a month at a woman owned business we’d drive over two billion dollars towards female led companies, every month. By directing our dollars to lady bosses, we create opportunity and change. That’s what we call wallet power.


NeighborSchools helps experienced educators and caretakers open licensed Family Child Care programs. We create better career opportunities for child care professionals, and create awesome child care programs for kids, right in our neighborhoods. We're on a mission to fix child care in America - come join us.


Paperless Parts is the secure, ITAR registered and compliant cloud-based platform that is revolutionizing manufacturing. Paperless Parts drives manufacturing operations for a wide range of industries, including aerospace, national defense, technology and the private sector. And they’re hiring! For more information visit: https://www.paperlessparts.com/careers/


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