Apr 10, 2020 - Technology

Spontaneous entrepreneurship amid the coronavirus crisis

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As the coronavirus pandemic quickly upended the U.S. economy and everyday life, it has also prompted entrepreneurs to devise clever solutions to new problems.

What’s happening: Founders have quickly spun up projects like Frontline Foods and StopCovid-19 to tackle urgent needs like generating revenue for restaurants and keeping essential service workers informed of fast-changing health guidelines.

“We attracted probably the best team I’ve ever seen at a startup,” San Francisco-based entrepreneur Frank Barbieri tells Axios of the volunteers helping Frontline Foods, an organization he helped launch less than a month ago.

  • The project was born after his friend, emergency room nurse Sydney Gressler, told him that sending meals to her hospital would make a huge difference to the medical staff as it works under increased pressure.
  • Barbieri’s friend, investor Ryan Sarver, tapped his contacts in the local industry and donations from friends, and a two-for-one solution took off: keeping restaurants paid and employed while feeding local health care workers.
  • Since then, more than 300 volunteers across the country have set up local chapters of the effort, and Frontline Foods has graduated from a set of spreadsheets to a full-fledged website, organized working groups via chat app Slack, and even a national partnership with chef Jose Andres’ nonprofit, World Central Kitchen.

The big picture: Entrepreneurs, seasoned executives and professionals have been jumping at the challenges created by the coronavirus crisis to offer ideas, time and skills to projects like these examples and many others.

  • “I haven't felt this engaged as a human being in a long time,” said Dan Teran, an entrepreneur who recently left WeWork after selling his company, and has been helping with StopCovid-19, a project that sends health and safety information to frontline workers via text messages.
  • Teran had been advising ESL Works, a startup that provides English language training to food service workers, when founder and CEO Rachael Nemeth asked him to help in applying the company’s tech to the current needs of the crisis. The service is now used by delivery drivers for Delivery.com, supply chain workers for Blackstone’s RGIS, and several other companies.
  • Greg Isenberg, another entrepreneur who sold his startup to WeWork, recently created a website that lets users pay for a live video tutorial from a barber. While hair salons and barber shops remain closed, men can get much-needed guidance on cutting their hair while barbers get paid.

Between the lines: While much of these efforts are driven by the immediate problems and needs that the coronavirus pandemic has created, the solutions will likely outlast the current situation.

  • “We think the model has long-term viability,” says Barbieri. “The next California wildfire or earthquake or hurricane… now that the genie is out of the box, it’s never going back.”
  • “It sped up the roadmap undoubtedly,” says Nemeth of her three-person startup’s overnight jump beyond its initial language training focus, adding that she expects the need for training related to the COVID-19 crisis to be needed for a long time.

The bottom line: Creativity often springs out of crisis, and it couldn't be more true for entrepreneurs amid the current pandemic.

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