COVID has reshuffled the cards on the table. Scores of startups across Central Asia and the Caucasus took hits in various forms: deep dives in sales, revenues, retention rates, available markets, financial runaways, and distribution capabilities. At times, markets were rendered quasi irrelevant, as is the case for tourism. The attrition list is extensive!
As a result, many startups went dormant, simply died, or changed their raison d'être. The latter point deserves special attention, as founders had to demonstrate a high dose of agility to redirect their business when potentially facing slow or imminent death. We had the chance to speak with a few and would like to narrate a few instances of the road to survival and adaptability.
Tech landscapes as COVID “fades”:
TUZ reviewed 1700+ entities across the two regions linked in various ways to the tech sector. It turns out that 900+ have gone under, 800+ are dormant/surviving and 250+ are operational. We can't attribute all this outlook to covid - it's all too common for startups in each ecosystem to go dormant or die. But, certainly, the covid-related collapse of industries such as hospitality, sports, tourism, and travel directly impacted corresponding startups. But the reality is complex as demonstrated by those that managed to adapt.
Enter the contortionists:
Out of survival, grit, and cold realism, many startups made it through the pandemic, displaying astute prowess and ingenuity. Let's start with Kazakhstan's Kids security where Assat Ashamanov aimed to combine child safety and psychology of relations between parents and children. This was achieved by allowing parents to track the movement of their children without the child feeling overly suffocated. As the pandemic hit, children could no longer physically attend schools or any other activity, rendering the whole tracking process unnecessary. The team at Kids Security had been contemplating launching a new vertical within the startup and COVID proved to be the perfect trigger for it. By creating values for both parents and children, the team developed new features that teach children good manners, academics and sports through quizzes and puzzles. Since children could no longer see their peers in person, this startup allowed them to flaunt their achievements on social media and feel connected. Raising funds amidst the storm of events was the icing on the cake! Truly showing ‘the strongest and fittest don’t survive, but the ones who are most agile’.
He realised the need to adapt to changing times before the pandemic even hit Kyrgyzstan. The team at Irokez, a software development company that works on contractual basis, changed the team alignment and budget structure in a matter of one week to ensure that the firm survives on existing funds for a much longer period of time. Mirlan with his team realised the need to adapt and took it as an opportunity to grow, much before the company even faced the uproar of the pandemic. By capitalising on the uncertainty of the environment, Mirlan multitasked his way through and is now working on building a scoring platform for micro-lending institutions.
Those whose wings spread out:
And then there are those who clearly spotted opportunities and simply took off. So is the case of Kazakhstan's PineMelon, a grocery express delivery platform. After enjoying local success with Arbuz (online supermarket), founder Alexey Lee resolutely decided to relocate the HQ in the UK and prepare its global expansion. The increased need of ordering essentials like groceries online instilled a greater confidence by paving way for a much larger addressable market. This e-commerce startup definitely is one to watch out for!
On the Uzbek side, we spoke with TASS Vision, a startup that uses AI to detect, track and analyze data from cameras, who during COVID managed to readapt its software to win new markets. Founder Shakhzod talks about how they saw Covid as a chance to accelerate the business rather than a hurdle; how they took advantage of the increased availability of talent in the market as covid rendered many jobless and took to expanding their team to a current strength of 22. Founded at the end of 2019, TASS vision reached its break-even point during the rising Covid times and is now generating profits proving that hurdles are only as big as you make them to be.
COVID accelerated death, birth and rebirth of ideas and projects. For readers inside or outside of both regions, this is a sign of resilience, adaptability and ultimately vitality.