Coping With Uncertainty in the COVID-19 Era

Article By : Colin Barnden

People ask me what the current situation is best likened to: 2008, 2001, 1981, 1973, 1929, or something else? None of those. We are in unknown – and un-forecastable – territory....

Imagine driving along an unfamiliar unlit road, in dense fog, at 100mph, while blindfolded. Crazy, huh? Well, as an industry this is precisely what we find ourselves doing right now as we come face-to-face with the rapidly evolving threat from Covid-19. The question everyone is asking: What does the road ahead look like? The simple answer: No one knows.

In these uncertain times, people are grasping for knowns in an effort to make some sense of the unknowns. This is understandable human behavior, as everyone seeks to reduce their fears in the face of the helplessness created by the Covid-19 crisis. But let’s be honest, helplessness is not an experience many in Silicon Valley C-suites are familiar with, so the learning curve from here will be steep.

People ask me what the current situation is best likened to: 2008, 2001, 1981, 1973, 1929, or something else? I tell them it is none of those. Historical precedents only give us clues, not certainty or answers. With many countries now in lockdown for an indeterminate period, 2020 will be sui generis. We are in unknown – and un-forecastable – territory.

So as an industry, let us face an uncomfortable truth together: The world has changed. From here, the corporate winners will be those with the cojones to accept the new normal. Adaptation is the only business plan in 2020; maintaining the status quo and waiting for everything to return to as it was is the path to extinction.

Let us start by disposing of the alphabet soup of forecasting – all that V, U and L curve claptrap. Burn anything from anyone pretending to know the shape of the recovery. That stuff is a comfort blanket from a bygone age that will lead a C-suite to oblivion. You could have forecast any outcome you liked while parading around the decks of Titanic – the winning strategy was to run to the lifeboats.

Before recovery, first we must find the bottom. You’ll know the bottom because that’s the point at which things stop getting worse. We’ll bump along the bottom for a period of time – perhaps quarters or years, but certainly not a couple of months – and only then will shattered confidence gradually start to return.

For decades we have seen individuals, businesses and nations increase debt at an unsustainable rate, drowning in an almost infinite pool of cheap money provided by central bankers who offered the false reassurances of no new financial crisis in our lifetimes . The outcome? The worst financial crisis of our lifetimes as the Everything Bubble burst on the Covid-19 pin. As the saying goes: Fool me once, shame on thee; fool me twice, shame on me.

The tech industry needs to learn this lesson right now: Entire populations that are scared today will be scarred tomorrow. Scarred from the trauma of Covid-19 deaths; from the shock of 10 million American jobs lost in two weeks; the lost incomes; the lost businesses; the lost retirements; the lost homes. C-suites should prepare now for a journey into the unknown as individuals adapt their spending and savings habits in ways we cannot model or forecast.

Did cheap money just mean more junk?

Has the tech industry just spent the last decade gorging on cheap money to create a ton of junk? Hands up anyone who just lost their job who cares about “self-driving” right now? Or IoT things? How about AI anything? Or Juicero?

What do most countries need a lot more of right now to defeat Covid-19? Face masks. Ventilators. Life-saving useful stuff. Not more social media. Not more venture capitalists. Not more vain CEOs and serial entrepreneurs. Going into the brave new world, the corporate winners in the tech industry will be those with C-suites that understand the need to develop products that are genuinely useful.

Nowhere is it preordained that Apple or Facebook or Waymo or anyone else should exist in perpetuity. Any company can head to the corporate cemetery: Atari, Blockbuster, Kodak, Motorola, Nokia, Polaroid and Sega all teach us that.

Finally, clever tax avoidance strategies belong in the past. No more Double Irish. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) doesn’t fund itself. What were you thinking? Turn the TV on and see the sacrifices being made daily by ordinary citizens on the Covid-19 frontline. These are the real American Heroes, with not a single billionaire or millionaire among them.

Scarred people have long memories. My message to the Silicon Valley C-suites: Adapt or die. Your call.

— Colin Barden, principal analyst at Semicast Research.

Leave a comment