What does your working day look like?
Jöhnk: The first week felt a bit strange even for me – someone who regularly works from home anyway. There were hardly any emails, because isolation measures were beginning in Germany as well. But now everything is pretty much back to normal. Every morning I have my regular meetings with existing NGIO partners and with my colleague Kristin Asmussen. At the moment I’m visiting virtual pitching events nearly every day. The venture capital scene is focusing primarily on the health care and retail sectors. At NGIO we are currently trying to find the most suitable formats to allow people in Germany to access these events. Fortunately we already have a well-developed infrastructure, since many local companies tend to work virtually even in normal times. So now all the appointments I have in my calendar are online ones.
How can you (still) support companies?
Jöhnk: Companies and employees around the world have been forced to digitalise their internal processes pretty much overnight. At the moment, the main aim of most companies is to keep their core business going, of course. But as soon as we’ve come through the current crisis we can help them in a more targeted search for technologies that support businesses, e.g. by optimising their processes and making them more efficient.
For example, most companies will have heard of Slack, Asana and Zoom by now. During the initial reaction, these applications are playing a decisive role in bringing teams that normally work together in an office into the virtual world. I believe that now is the ideal time to take the next step as well. For instance, there are simple AI applications (or even simple bots) that use communication in Slack and other messenger applications to accumulate certain data, process it, sort it into specific categories or perform specific actions. They can simplify the work of virtual teams.
Assessment: What are we all, and Silicon Valley in particular, going to learn from this crisis?
Jöhnk: One answer is that innovation must go on! I don’t mean that we can solve every problem with technology. But I do believe that companies that already had an active (digital) transformation strategy before the pandemic are better able to adjust to rapidly changing situations. Many local firms are using their own platforms to make a contribution. For example, Zoom is offering all schools in the US, South Korea and Italy unlimited free licences. Employees who normally deal with acquisition and customer success are now helping school districts to adapt lesson plans and to add extra functionality to their own platforms.
Other AI companies have realised that their algorithms can help to identify districts that need assistance and then send help or resources (e.g. food deliveries). Many are reinventing themselves overnight. But of course that doesn’t apply to all of them. Coronavirus will change Silicon Valley and the venture capital scene. In recent years, corporate venture capital funds have poured billions of US dollars into the Valley . All of these funds are now leaving or are no longer investing. That will have a lasting negative impact on the level of trust in those funds.
In social terms, Silicon Valley MUST learn from this experience. Unemployment is rising rapidly. Many people have lost their jobs overnight. There is hardly any protection against dismissal, and some firms even try to get around the statutory unemployment insurance. As in the rest of the US, many people here tend to struggle from one month to the next and are living on credits cards. So this situation is a devastating blow for thousands of people, especially for those working in the gig economy (e.g. for Uber, Lyft or Doordash), who are the worst affected. Fortunately, within a very short time there were numerous privately organised Google Sheets offering help (such as cash, food or accommodation) shared by thousands of people. In many districts the community has been coming together to compensate for the unwillingness or inability of politicians to help out. But I do worry about regions of the US (and at home) where there aren’t many people who can help out at the moment.
And finally – do you have specific enquiries relating to the crisis?
Jöhnk: Not enquiries, but ideas. At the NGIO, we are particularly well placed to introduce small and medium-sized businesses to technologies that enable them to optimise and expand the digital structures they’ve been forced to develop. This could be showing retailers simple options for building their own community and engaging with customers through new formats; or making the manufacturing industry’s logistic processes visible and then optimising them; or simply improving any company’s internal use of technology.
Thank you for talking to us, Tim.