In our second instalment of the “Lockdown Lessons” series, we’ve interviewed Melanie Ewan, Co-founder and Managing Partner of Volition, an international advisory firm that works with startups and entrepreneurs. Melanie tells us what she’s learned from leading her company, team and clients throughout the current crisis, as well as things that we should all be doing right now as we move forward. Namely, we need to engage audiences on a human level.

Originally from Canada, Melanie is now based out of Madrid, Spain (although much of her team is still based in Western Canada). She’s also Lead Researcher for Women in Tech World, a Canadian nonprofit dedicated to supporting and advancing women in tech.

How has the lockdown impacted Volition and its clients? 

I own a startup advisory firm that works with entrepreneurs and startups, so essentially, I’m a small business owner supporting other small business owners. As you can imagine, this crisis has definitely impacted the industry in so many ways. Many in our community have lost all or most of their clients and/or have had to pivot; startups who were raising or thinking about raising capital are having to reconsider or adjust their timeline; founders, unable to qualify for government subsidies not built for startups, are losing their teams.

At Volition, we are fortunate that we can work with our clients and partners remotely, so the biggest shift resulting from lockdown, so far, has been our transition to virtual events. Before COVID-19 we were known for hosting high-value, in-person pitch events across four countries. We had hosted 78 of these since 2016, with over 4500 attendees and 500 pitching startups.

As of March 11th, we took these events virtual, using Zoom Webinar, and have since held four virtual pitch events across Canada and “in” Madrid. While we were already hosting virtual masterclasses, we’ve added on weekly Ask Me Anything with our Advisors, as well as Virtual Coworking, and will soon be playing around with IGT – wish me luck! 

This shift has required team training, customer rediscovery, new and creative partnerships, and getting outside of our comfort zone – probably a good thing really, but man is it tiring. 

What trends are you seeing in the way brands are communicating with their audiences during this crisis? 

From what I’ve experienced, the main shift has been around audience focus. Where pre-COVID we may have been investing more in promotional campaigns to drive conversion of those who are on the fence, we’re now placing our energy on those who are already in our community – we’re focusing more on retention and delivering value to those who already know and trust us.

This is not a bad time for building brand awareness either, however, it’s just being done in a slightly different way. If you consider the pending (and in some places already existing) recession – it’s not that people stop spending, it’s just that they are less likely to want to take a risk on a brand that they don’t already trust. So, the aim is to build and instill trust – to demonstrate and deliver your value to potential future customers while nourishing and rediscovering those who are already in your community. 

One key crisis-response shift has been in the “who” delivers the communications. We’re seeing a lot more messages and videos direct from CEO’s and founders rather than “brands”, in an effort to build and instill trust and convey the keep calm message of “I am here” and/or “I am addressing your fears and concerns” (à la Zoom’s response to security issues).

Also, transparency is king – people are calling out brands for being vague, for not stepping up, for profiteering during a crisis, and for a whole host of other things. As the comms person for a brand, it’s a bit nerve wracking – I definitely spend more time measuring my words and stepping into the shoes of my audience (arguable, something we should always be doing!). 

I think it’s a good thing as it keeps us more accountable and forces us to weigh our decisions and the reasons behind them in a different way. It’s also exhausting and I have a pocketful of massive kudos for all those who are working their butts off to be good, solid humans while also trying to keep their brand and their bottom-line alive to see another day. It’s a weird reality where all you can do is your best, and apologize if or when you mess up.

Massive kudos to everyone working their butts off to be good, solid humans while also trying to keep their brand bottom-line alive to see another day.

How has your day-to-day changed since the onset of the crisis?

As mentioned in my Lockdown Diaries article, the biggest change for me has been the addition of my husband working out of our tiny apartment. Now in week four of lockdown in Madrid, we have gotten into a good routine. Some weeks are harder than others, but it seems to vary more based on how my friends and family and teams are doing than on our day-to-day life here in Moncloa. 

That said, March was pretty much the month from hell as a small business owner in crisis management mode. I was completely exhausted and pulling crazy hours to support my team, who are nine hours behind me in time zones. It wasn’t sustainable, and this past weekend I felt like I was detoxing from the experience. This week I’m back into a better routine, getting more sleep and getting my yoga in (three cheers for physical and mental health!). 

I am also proud of my team and how they have reacted and grown, and I think that me and my business partner, Paul Brassard, had already set the groundwork for that success. We work hard to be transparent and to offer and encourage feedback and creative ideation. For instance, since going remote in 2018 and joining the “digital nomad” community I had witnessed the power of virtual offerings, and in October 2019 we launched our own Virtual Pitch Masterclass. COVID-19 has simply been the catalyst to drive our virtual dream to the next level and get more of the team online in new and interesting ways.

How are you preparing your business for what’s to come?

There are three key things that we are doing as a business:

1. Leaning into our existing strengths. What I mean by this is that we have taken time in the past month to assess our strengths as a business and have strategized around these. For instance, we have extensive experience delivering high-value, practical pitch events and we also have a strong global community. So, we have devised ways to lean on and strengthen both of these through offering global and national, virtual pitch events – something that is not yet being done on a large scale.

2. Continuing to deliver value that bolsters long-term sustainability for our company and the ecosystem at large. In times like this, it’s important to continue to deliver value to your community, especially your partners and your customers (past, current, and future) – and to do so in a way that doesn’t undermine your own sustainability. Our approach is to ensure that our community knows that we are here, that we are consistent, and that we will continue to deliver, even when times are difficult. We are doing this through customer rediscovery (talking to our customers), providing consistent, high-value content, and creating new offers – predominantly virtual events and programming–that speak to current market needs.

3. Nourish and build networks and partnerships. At Volition, we truly believe that – now more than ever – partnerships are key. We’re not interested in reinventing the wheel, instead preferring to join forces with those that compliment our own strengths and work together to support the community and grow our network and offerings. An example is the work that we do with a local angel network in Vancouver, who in turn works with the federal government to ensure that we have a pocket of funding to help support early stage entrepreneurs. These are the kinds of relationships and creative partnerships that we are placing more time and energy on at this time.

What are your goals for Volition in the coming months? 

Goals are an interesting thing right now. The reality is that there is no real precedent for what we are going through – we can look to past recessions and patterns of human behavior during a crisis (our Marketing Advisor specializes in this, and it’s fascinating!), but at the end of the day, all that we are doing is making slightly educated guesses. And, if my marketing mentors have taught me one thing, it’s that the best thing we can do is talk to our market, truly listen, and then “test, test, test.”

That said, now that our crisis-response-mode is lessening a bit, we have started to plan for the future. In the short-term, our goal is to continue to build brand trust through providing consistent, high-value content, events, and programming to our community that address gaps in the ecosystem. We are finding creative ways to deliver this content for free/low-cost to our customers, while still ensuring our own long-term sustainability (it’s a fun dance for those in the service sector!).

In the longer-term, we intend to roll out additional virtual programming – something that we had been working on pre-COVID – including both “live” and “on-demand” options, as well as build out our national and international network of partners and sponsors. We’ve been watching where our audience is coming from on our website and channels and strategizing how to better reach those who are not yet in our core community.

What are 3 professional takeaways you’ll take away from all this? 

So, these are all things that I already knew, but I feel like the crisis has been a stark reminder and has magnified them in new ways. 

1. Visibility is key. While many people are tempted to be quiet during this time, I have learned that crisis communications demand that you speak up–not in a reactionary way, but in an intentional one. So, the first week that COVID-19 really impacted our business, I sat down and drew up a “Crisis Response Plan” and immediately got this out to the team to talk about openly. The plan outlined our goals for how we wanted to show up during this time, and how we could be visible in an intentional way that brings value. Being visible in a way that demonstrates your values and in a way that brings people together with purpose, helps build trust in an otherwise scary and uncertain time in our lives. And I don’t just mean as a brand – as a leader and founder, be visible. Show up, even if it’s at 4am, for your team and community. It’s not sustainable, but it’s needed, at least in the short term.

2. When in doubt, come back to your WHY. Knowing my personal mission, but also our company values, helped mold our response plan in March, and continues to help guide us in our decisions around events, content, and how we want to support the community, and our own sustainability, now and in the future. For instance, a core tenet of our business has always been collaboration through partnerships, so that is something we are naturally leaning into even more so – this is a key element of our own recession plan, but also provides creative opportunities to support our community.

3. Mike Tyson said, “everyone has a plan until they’re punched in the face.” I read this two weeks ago and burst out laughing – it’s just so accurate for our entire existence as humans right now! And it’s always an important reminder in business. For us, we made the decision to pivot to virtual events and had to stumble our way through what that meant for our sponsorship plans that had been in place for the year. We had to be agile and ask for help, we had to commit to testing things out, making mistakes, and actively learning. 

“Everyone has a plan until they’re punched in the face.” (Mike Tyson)

What are the top 3 most valuable tools you’re working with right now?

That’s a tough one! If I had to pick three, I would go with:

1. Zoom for remote meetings, events, and webinars. Although I have been using Zoom Meetings ever since I went remote in 2018, these days I spend most of my time on the platform. I use it for virtual coworking, team and client meetings, hosting company events and masterclasses, and even to catch up with friends. I have now added on Zoom Webinar for up to 500 people, for our pitch events and coworking, and this has worked well, despite the zoombombing!

2. Slack. I use this for all team communications, updates, file sharing, behind-the-scenes communications during events, and brainstorming sessions. That said, having the entire company remote has unearthed all of the communication quirks on the team and has led to a combination of slack, voice notes, emails, and video notes (my favorite, which I use Loom for).

3. I’m going to cheat a little bit on my third choice as I have two tools that have been safeguarding my sanity: Spotify and YYOGA at Home. The former is perfect for drowning out the sounds of my partner on his work calls so that I can actually focus, and the latter because it has given me no reason to not get on my mat and chill out when I can. Yoga has helped me focus and abate anxiety for 17 years now, so I’ve been grateful for this addition to my day.

I also created my own list of tools that I love for remote work, check it out!

Melane Ewan talks about why brands need to engage audiences on a human level during the current crisis

What advice do you have for other business leaders to get through these times even stronger?

There are three key things that we should all be doing right now: customer rediscovery, relationship building (and nourishment), and coming back to our why. 

The first is easy enough – reach out to your customers, clients, and partners and ask them how you can help them right now. Use this as an opportunity to reconnect and get to know what their new normal looks like, and if your solution is still the painkiller that they need. As one of my advisors, Sandra Spencer, said at our weekly AMA this week, “no one cares what you [the founder] thinks…it’s the customer that matters.”

Relationship building is another key piece right now. Send out personal notes to check up on your network, get on LinkedIn and start liking, commenting and sharing people’s content that you want to be on the radar of. Regardless of what you need right now to get to your next milestone – or simply to survive – chances are that the answer is in your network or your extended network. Carve out the time and energy to nourish those contacts, ask for and offer help.

Also, as I already mentioned, it’s incredibly valuable to come back to “why” you’re doing what you are doing; why you are building your solution and what it is that you truly want to achieve. This is a good time to assess if where you were headed pre-COVID is still where you want to go. Be real with yourself, challenge yourself, and if need be, course correct.

You can connect with Melanie Ewan on LinkedIn and check out her company Volition’s website, IG: @thisisvolition & Virtual Events.

Also read Volition’s article: Mitigating the Impact of COVID: Community Resources for Startups

For more insights into how to engage audiences on a human level, check out our interviews:

Encourage engagement through social media – Harriet Drudge, social lead at The Athletic UK

Forget the fluff – Sara Lesina, global marketing lead at Lonza