For the last six months the country has had to worry about the effect of the Covid-19. With a first wave gone and a second wave potentially on the way, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the effect that it’s had on both the engineering start-ups I work with as well as my own consulting work. With a second wave incoming, what can we learn from this?

A bit over six months ago I was in Dorset meeting with clients for early project meetings and to help a company with some quick soldering work. At the time the Coronavirus cases in the UK were still fairly low, but the advice coming in from the medical community was that things would get worse quick. Although nothing on the commercial side changed straight away (with one company I worked with insisting it was overblown and not to worry about it) I was taken aback by how design houses and makerspaces responded to the crisis. Almost immediately various open source directories opened up allowing engineers to correlate hardware and software designs, and it seemed all of the design houses and makerspaces warmed up their 3D printers, sewing machines, and laser cutters to start mass-producing PPE. This was great to see, and was a fantastic early help.

Not long afterwards quarantine officially kicked in. The immediate effect on the companies I worked with varied. Some of the larger design houses were largely unaffected and able to carry on with their ongoing projects, with most of the startups being forced to slow down or pause operations. As far as I can tell the real difference was that a company with a wider portfolio of work was able to more easily weather the storm. Speaking for my own consulting work at least this definitely rings true.

To the governments credit, in these early stages a number of funds and opportunities opened up appealing for help from any company that can. On the software side I know there have been some tele-health companies that were able to benefit from this (as well as the sudden increase in demand) although I don’t know any hardware companies that were able to take advantage in the same way. There were some that are developing ideas that might, such as one working on ventilator components and new air purifier designs, but the longer lead time with hardware development (especially on the medical side where certification is key) means it may take a little longer for them to make a difference. However the Coronavirus hardship loan was a real help to the companies I’ve talked to about it, with one design house using it to purchase development hardware to keep their R&D moving forward.

Now that we’re a couple of months in I’ve started seeing a new effect where partners have been a lot more cautious and delaying the start of new projects. Both for myself and some of the design houses I work with it seems like projects that were expected to start have had to be delayed as the clients have become more risk averse. What’s interesting about this is that new companies are still approaching me and I’m seeing mentoring requests coming in, but it feels like they are waiting to start until things stabilise.

This is backed up by a piece from the L Marks accelerator which echoes the fact that investing and contracting is slowing down, and also that they are seeing some more success among companies that work with B2B firms. In my experience this isn’t universally true and depends entirely on the clients business, but generally I’d expect an established firm to be a more dependable customer at a time like this.

Also an interesting positive side effect is that (at least speaking for myself) I’m seeing a lot more international companies approaching me, something that makes sense when you consider that now everyone is working from remotely, distance isn’t a factor when you’re looking for work.

So what can we learn from this? In my opinion if it wasn’t true before, then it’s definitely true now that diversity is key. Having multiple projects available to work on can help, If given the choice working on multiple small projects instead of relying on single lucrative projects is a smart choice to make during a crisis. If possible, look for stable B2B firms to sell or partner with, and don’t be scared to market internationally as the world working remotely means distance is no object. And don’t forget, companies are still out there looking for the same services that your company offered in a lot of cases, but you may need to adapt to be able to meet their needs.

I’ve spent the last four years working with London’s hardware start-ups and design houses helping them with their embedded R&D development and prototyping. If you’re interested in consultancy work or mentoring for your company, please check out my portfolio and feel free to send me a message.

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