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Eric Engelmann: Being a founder/ceo during coronavirus

Guest post by Eric Engelmann.

The current situation in Iowa (and globally) is a bit unprecedented. Many startups are at risk and need to take decisive action to survive or reduce the risk of failure. But it might also be an opportunity!

For startup founders and CEOs: Dealing with a crisis like this is a true test of leadership. If you’ve never been through anything like this (and really, none of us have been through exactly this), it will be extremely challenging for you. You might need to make hard and painful decisions right now to protect your business, your employees, customers and investors. You will need to be clear, transparent, honest, and aggressive with every one of them. *No one else in your company can lead the business through something like this except you.* It is your role and your responsibility as the CEO.

I encourage founders to seek ways to mitigate the damage while searching for ways to actually get stronger through this trial. Your competitors are off-balance. They’ve never dealt with anything like this either. Your customers might be scared, too, looking for trusted partners/vendors they can rely on to go the extra mile and help *them* through this time. How can you lead your business through this to maximum effect, if those are true?

I started brainstorming this starting point list; feel free to add more in comments or ideas.

Examples of things CEO’s should be thinking about right now:

  • Can hires can be deferred?
  • Can you cut pay across the board (or in some other way) for a while?
  • Do you need to let any team members go, temporarily or permanently?
  • Can you as a founder go without pay for a while, or reduced pay?
  • Can you borrow money to reduce the strain on the business?
  • How has your supply chain been affected and are there any mitigating steps you can take?
  • What cash outlays can be delayed (or stopped?) to conserve?
  • How can you offer services for your customers to *build their loyalty now* while your competitors are probably reeling?
  • Have you communicated positively and aggressively to customers to build their trust in you? (Not just a generic message about Coronavirus but why you’ll emerge *stronger*?)
  • Have you setup work from home plans for your teams? Do you have a no-tolerance for coming in to work while sick approach?
  • How have you communicated with your team? Are you expressing a plan that comes with the confidence they need from you? They’re probably scared and know that working at a young company carries some risks. It is your responsibility to give them the arc of the path forward, even if you need them to fill in many of the details.
  • Can employees cross train to provide more flexibility in the business, as some need to deal with childcare or other things during the workday? (You could intentionally prioritize this in sprint planning!)
  • Have you communicated with investors, board members, or other stakeholders to give them an update in these weird times? Can you give them confidence – enough to possibly back you with temporary financing if needed?
  • How is your family going to be affected by this stress? Are there things you can do to strengthen your relationship with your spouse or kids to ensure that I don’t sacrifice them while you protect the business?

Eric Engelmann is the founder of the Cedar Rapids-based companies NewBoCo and Geonetric and is a familiar face in the Iowa startup ecosystem. This post was initially published on the Startup Iowa Facebook Group.

Eric Engelmann: Being a founder/ceo during coronavirus | Clay & Milk
A central Iowa ag-tech accelerator has secured more backers and finally has a name. The Greater Des Moines Partnership first announced the accelerator last year, naming four initial investors. On Monday, the Partnership said the program will be called the "Iowa AgriTech Accelerator" and named three new investors. The new investors include Grinnell Mutual, Kent Corp. and Sukup Manufacturing, all Iowa companies. They join investors Deere & Co., Peoples Co., Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance Co. and DuPont Pioneer. Each investor has agreed to put up $100,000 for the first year of the accelerator. Startups entering the program will receive $40,000 in seed funding in exchange for 6 percent equity. Tej Dhawan, an angel investor and local startup mentor, is serving as interim director until the AgriTech Accelerator names a permanent leader. Dhawan held a similar role with the GIA before Brian Hemesath was named as managing director. As interim director, Dhawan said his main job includes hiring the accelerator's executive director, establishing a business structure and initial recruiting for the first cohort. The accelerator will place few filters, such as location and product, on the applicant pool, Dhawan said. "When you’re seeking innovation, innovation can come from every corner of the world so why restrict ourselves," he said. One area the the AgriTech Accelerator won't recruit from is biotech. For its first cohort, the AgriTech Accelerator will work out of the GIA's space in Des Moines' East Village, Dhawan said. A future, permanent home is still to be decided. The accelerator's program will host startups from mid-July through mid-October, ending with an event connected to the annual World Food Prize. The GIA, which the AgriTech Accelerator is based on, also ends with presentations at an industry event. The accelerator has also started lining up a mentor pool. The Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Pork Producers Association have agreed to provide mentors, as has Iowa State University. While the AgriTech Accelerator is loosely based off of the GIA, it will differ in its business structure, Dhawan said. The GIA runs through a for-profit model for both operations and its investment fund. The AgriTech Accelerator will have a nonprofit model for its operations and a for-profit setup for its fund. Dhawan said the nonprofit model is being used so the accelerator can better work with other nonprofit partners, such as trade associations. "These are all organizations that are nonprofits and can be amazing stakeholders without ever having to be investors in the accelerator," he said. "It becomes easier to work with trade associations in their nonprofit role when we are also a nonprofit." When it's up and running, the AgriTech Accelerator would be one of a handful of ag-focused startup development programs in Iowa. Others include the Ag Startup Engine out of Iowa State University and the Rural Ventures Alliance from Iowa MicroLoan. Matthew Patane is the managing editor and co-founder of Clay & Milk. Send him an email at
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