(Photo credit: AP / Ee Ming Toh)

By now, there is no question that COVID-19 is having a material impact on societies and economies worldwide. The S&P 500 has recorded the quickest bear market in history surpassing the 1929 depression and credit markets are sustaining the greatest stress since the 2008 global financial crisis.

Yet this time it’s different, simply because of the uncertainty of the pathogen. We can point to two vastly different scenarios, one where the world falls into depression and economic collapse, and another where it turns out that it was an overreaction and the actions of society and government quickly turn the tide. The fact is, we just don’t know. And its this uncertainty which is causing the greatest impact.


Today, entrepreneurs can’t plan their futures. Investors can’t commit to investing into illiquid private companies, because they can’t even stem the losses from their short-term liquid positions. There seems to be no other way out of this quagmire right now.

I will refrain from writing the articles you have seen so far, the ones that provide advice on how to cut costs, or to manage out of the crisis. There are far too many out there and I’m sure you are reading them all. Instead, I will just give you our perspective on the situation and what we are doing as a firm.

Firstly, this is not the first time Shane and I have gone through trying times. Attempting to raise an IPO at the tail end of the dot-com crisis, or holding on to a fixed asset broadcasting business in 2008 when advertising revenues dropped by 60%, we’ve been there. In each situation, when you are in the thick of the storm, it looks bleak. It just does. There is no other view. Yet somehow the world navigates out of it and recovery comes. This time we believe is no different.

What makes the difference is the attitude you take towards this adversity. At the end of the day, surely this virus should be no different than any other challenge that startup founders face? After all, think of the number of times you’ve faced extinction-level events for your startup. We as the startup community should be the most battle-hardened folks with the experience to fight this black swan.

Put another way, think of this as one huge product market fit failure. If you are in the travel or F&B industry, your customers have just decided at this time to not partake in your business model. How many times have we tried to experiment on our products but found failure instead?

Now is the time to pivot. Think creatively and challenge all assumptions. We are finding pockets of interesting demand. Chope has found restaurants very willing to work with them on vouchers and deals. Sweet Escape, our travel photography business, is changing their product to take family portraits at home, and grow B2B photography. The list goes on.

And of course some of our portfolio companies are aggressively leveraging capabilities to meet new demand. Biofourmis, which develops software-based therapeutics, deployed its AI-based remote-monitoring system to pick up early signs of disease among quarantined people in Hong Kong. Halodoc and Gojek have just launched “Check COVID-19” providing a platform for millions of Indonesians to conduct initial checks for COVID-19. Communications workflow platform Whispir is benefitting from increased attention to business continuity plans and crisis communications. Web-based platforms like Kumu and Topica are seeing the effect of behavioural shifts as entertainment and learning migrate online. Where we can, we help these “winners” capitalize on trends to drive customer acquisition and retention.

At Openspace, we triage the situation and then go to work. Our efforts extend beyond our immediate portfolio to the larger ecosystem of startups. We know that all startups are at risk, and we need to try to protect them all. So Openspace, together with 500 Startups and Cocoon Capital, is launching a #supportstartups initiative to support our community in Southeast Asia. We will collate and host promotions from startups on a combined site, and encourage traffic through press and advertising partners, harnessing the power of consumer spending to buoy the companies that need it most.

I’m reminded of my darkest days when I was running Asian Food Channel. Many days I felt that there was no way out and we were going to shut down. Yet we pulled through. All I can say is that I have extreme conviction that if you keep calm and carry on, refuse to give up and think creatively and make the hard choices to keep going, you will get through this. We’re 100% in this together.

– Hian Goh