The COVID-19 pandemic turned our lives upside down. In 2020, scientists and governments around the world scrambled to keep people safe. What did that period look like for entrepreneurs? How do you found a non-profit start-up during a global health crisis?

For the first episode of the EWOR podcast, Eleonore Poli sat down with Berna Epik. Berna is a board member of Novid20, an infection tracking app to slow down the spread of the Coronavirus. She has been working on Novid20 since 2020, bringing her skills in economics, entrepreneurship, and innovation to the project.

In this article, we’ll share Berna’s non-profit experience and the lessons she learned about entrepreneurship. For more insights from experienced entrepreneurs, sign up to our EWOR Platform and gain access to over 17 courses and a plethora of resources.

Non-Profits to Manage a Worldwide Crisis

Governments, scientists, and entrepreneurs felt the urgency to create sustainable solutions to a global problem in 2020. Novid20 is one of the results of that desperate need for innovation.

The Novid20 founders had a simple mission: to end the pandemic. Berna described the project as unlike any other due to its urgency. With the main goal in mind, there was no time for long product development stages or business planning. Instead, the team operated as fast as possible on a trial and error basis. Berna emphasised how all start-ups are demanding, but Novid20 developed at a faster than normal pace.

The pitching process is easy when the entire world has the same problem to solve. Interrupting the chain of infection to save lives was a top priority for governments. This circumstance was one of their biggest advantages from an entrepreneurial perspective.

The team’s mindset was as simple as it was powerful: “If we save one life this way, it will all have been worth it.”

The Reality of a Fast-Paced Work Environment

Given the urgency of their mission, how did Novid20’s day-to-day operations work? Berna shared some insights on what a fast-paced start-up environment looks like.

Initially, the high demands of the non-profit left little room for structure. Berna described one work day at Novid20 as equal to two weeks of work at a normal start-up. The jarring comparison meant that they took each day as it came. Whatever the day brought was what they worked on.

How to Grow a Non-Profit During a Crisis

After the initial fast conception of Novid20, the workload never lessened but evolved. This “very crazy time” demanded fast recruitment and an organisational structure for the non-profit start-up.

Novid20 experienced natural growth. If someone was interested in helping the project, the founding team would ask them how they would like to contribute. Strengths and preferences dictated the recruitment process. Berna compared this strategy to solving a puzzle. Wherever someone fit, they would assign them that task.

With an ever-changing team came challenges. Managing a fast-growing team meant adapting to new strengths and weaknesses. It’s why Berna admitted that distributing tasks wasn’t always an easy feat.

At its peak, 120 people worked at the non-profit. As they hadn’t anticipated that many people, the need for an organisational structure became clear after two months. The challenges of international meetings, calls with governments, and the demands of other external factors made that step inevitable. At that point, the Novid20 team established departments to create a more efficient work process.

Money’s Power Over Team Dynamics in Non-Profits

Since Novid20 is a non-profit association based on volunteer work, the growing team benefited from honest feedback and collaboration. Berna spoke of high motivation from every member to deliver the highest quality work.

“We did not really have an ego in there,” Berna said of the team mindset. Since it’s “not the normal way” to establish a business, she credited that special circumstance as an early advantage.

When the team sold Novid20 to the Georgian government and generated their first revenue, they were able to pay some of their employees. Berna explained that they prioritised IT personnel when it came to financial rewards. Since Novid20 demands software expertise, it only seemed fair to focus on IT workers. Transparency was important to the Novid20 team, as they valued every member. 

This honesty has advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, being able to pay people for their hard work is rewarding. It fuels employees’ drive to deliver high-quality work. The opposite is true for those who don’t get paid and continue to work voluntarily.

Money has power over team dynamics and motivation. Uneven payment distribution can “kill the spirit.” The risk of losing motivation increases in such instances. Additionally, some people couldn’t afford to work for free for a longer period. Managing the needs of the team members presented a challenge that they overcame through their common goal: ending the pandemic. 

Mental Health vs. Start-Up Culture

It wasn’t hard to keep up the pace of Novid20. It was difficult to slow down and rest. Berna shared her thoughts on a good work-life balance despite the high demands of a non-profit.

There wasn’t one designated mental health officer. Instead, the entire Novid20 team supported each other. They all experienced the same stress and lack of sleep, so checking on each other became a natural habit.

Despite the lack of one designated person, the Novid20 team found other ways to conduct mental health checks. One of the founding members called team members to make sure they were okay. They also sent out questionnaires and adjusted the work process. In addition, they would send goodies and other small gestures to help with the workload and motivation. They made an effort to ensure “everyone is sane and healthy.”

Berna thinks a designated well-being person isn’t always possible, but the managing team “should do that by default.” Every manager should care about the team’s mental and physical health, according to her.

Main Success Factors for Non-Profit Start-Ups

While she deemed it impossible to recreate the “special” circumstances of Novid20, Berna still shared two main lessons for successful non-profits and start-ups in general.

Factor 1: The Team

“You need an incredible team,” Berna explained. Team members with high motivation and a willingness to put in the work are the key to success. As a founding board member, she knows the importance of working well with others to make the project reach its full potential.

Factor 2: The Vision

On top of a good team, make sure to have a clear mission for your start-up. Berna shared that “I would not start any company just for the sake of starting it.” With the challenges of founding a start-up, “the only way to survive is to have a drive and passion for what you’re doing.” If you and your team don’t have that vision, rethink starting a business – particularly a non-profit.

Common Entrepreneurial Mistake

Berna’s experience with a non-profit association has taught her new lessons about mistakes that entrepreneurs make. One of them sticks out: honesty.

The first challenge of entrepreneurship that Berna encountered at Novid20 was letting people leave the project. As it’s volunteer work, people came and went at a high frequency. Being transparent about goals and preferences creates a relationship based on honesty.

“Have the tough conversations,” Berna said. If you or your employees aren’t honest with each other, it can cause issues within the team and workflow. Knowing when to let someone go is one of the biggest lessons Berna learned during this experience.

Avoid this common mistake to ensure a smooth working process and maintain your integrity.

Final Advice to Young Entrepreneurs

As an experienced entrepreneur and non-profit founding board member, Berna left the episode with encouragement for aspiring entrepreneurs. “We consider failures as lessons,” she said. In other words, trial and error is a good strategy and necessary for growth.

Anyone with the right mindset can start a non-profit start-up and succeed. If you’re passionate, have the right team, and the willingness to fail – you can achieve anything you want. Be proud of yourself because you tried to make a change.

About the author

EWOR is a school conceived by Europe’s top professors, entrepreneurs, and industry leaders. We educate and mentor young innovators to launch successful businesses.

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