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Surviving 2020: How the young and restless dealt with the Covid-19 standstill

Chefs, sportspersons, musicians saw their year snatched away from them—with plans, practice, tours put on hold amid the coronavirus wreaking havoc—here's how they dealt with it

Kathakali Chanda
Published: Feb 11, 2021 11:36:26 AM IST

Surviving 2020: How the young and restless dealt with the Covid-19 standstill
Sumit Nagal playing at the 2020 US Open. Nagal used the lockdown months to work on his serve, backhand and his left side. Al Bell/Getty Images/AFP 

Chef Saransh Goila started 2020 on the high of a pop-up at London restaurant Carousel in February, and with grand plans of scaling up his brand Goila Butter Chicken (GBC) across India. Talks were on with partners in Pune and Bengaluru and two outlets were slated to open in Pune in March. Goila was also prepping for a digital show, Sadakchef, to be streamed between June and September. But days after he returned from his two-week culinary residency in the UK, the Covid-19 pandemic spread like wildfire and most countries, including India, went into complete lockdown. 

“In no time, we were out of business for three months, till May. Not only did we have to stall plans of scaling up, our brand of non-vegetarian food suffered the most over rumours of the virus jumping from domesticated animals to humans and of travelling through cooked food,” says the 33-year-old. Food delivery as an essential service was allowed to stay open, but orders plummeted despite busting Covid myths on his popular social media handles and pushing pleas to salvage the livelihoods of his 40-odd staff members. “We tried everything, but nothing worked,” he adds. 

The itch to build and create is synonymous with the young and—as the cliche goes—the restless. Youth, after all, is when we learn and unlearn, fall and rise. Until you face a seismic year like 2020 that upends the ways of the world. How did emergent stars deal with a Black Swan event like Covid-19, which brings their ascent to a screeching halt? With chaos, to begin with, and disappointment. 

Surviving 2020: How the young and restless dealt with the Covid-19 standstill
Rapper Divine was scheduled to go on a world tour, starting with the US. But instead he spent months at home composing music, which he had not been able to do before. Credit: Glitch 

Rapper Divine aka Vivian Fernandes, 30, of Gully Boy fame was all set to embark on a world tour, beginning in the US, the birthplace of hip-hop, while tennis player Sumit Nagal (23) was building a CV that would qualify him for the Olympics, scheduled for July. Divine’s tour was cancelled as international borders closed, and Delhi boy Nagal, who headlined in end-2019 for taking a set off Roger Federer at the US Open, was told after landing in California for the Indian Wells Masters that the event had been called off. 

“Nobody knew what the hell was happening. Initially, everyone thought this would be for a week or two, or at best another month or so. No one expected in their wildest dreams that this will go on for a year,” says Nagal. “It was disappointing, but when I saw how fast the virus was spreading, I reconciled—you can’t fight a situation that’s not in your control.”

Making the best of a situation is often easier said than done, especially when a crisis has set in for the long haul. Ask Ajinkya Dhariya (25), who founded PadCare Labs in 2018 to provide sanitary napkin disposal and recycling systems to businesses. In January 2020, PadCare Labs had finalised the design and had started to run pilots. The plan was to optimise the technology and enter the market at scale. In March, Dhariya began work on a superior version that could recycle 1,500 sanitary napkins per day and turn them into items like flower pots. But manufacturing units shut down from March to June, and over half of his eight-member team had to work from home, scuppering his plans.   

With his venture at crossroads, Dhariya decided to improvise while sticking to his core. “Central to the process of recycling sanitary napkins was the UV technology that would first disinfect biomedical waste like pads and diapers. We decided to repurpose the technology to disinfect N95 masks for doctors and frontline workers,” he says. Within a few weeks, PadCare Labs supplied these machines to five to six hospitals in Pune and helped them decontaminate about 10,000 N95 masks when they were short in supply. In May, the company tied up with Kinetic Engineering, an automotive company, and transferred the knowhow to help them manufacture the machines at scale. 

Young entrepreneurs like Dhariya believe it’s essential to have one’s ears to the ground and feel the pulse of the market to tide over crises like these. In 2018, Srijan Raj (25), a DTU graduate and founder-CEO of EazyPG, a property management service, was running 200 PG beds with an annual revenue of `2 crore. In June 2019, he launched an app to digitise operations for greater transparency and efficiency. Next January, he raised a round of funding and by February, had around 30,000 tenants on the platform. When Covid-19 hit, most of the tenants were left without so much as a job, the landlords without a large share of their earnings, and Raj with anapology of a business. 

“At that time, we turned our sales team into personal rent collection agents for the property owners, while also convincing them to disburse discounts on rents for tenants struggling to earn,” says Raj. He also sniffed in physical distancing an opportunity to increase tech adoption, thus turning the paid EazyPG app into a free one. “Going where the business is going is a key learning for me through this period.” 

The proof of the pudding lies in the numbers that Raj claims to have ratcheted up post-Covid—from 1,200 registered users to 1,600 now. “And with people coming back and PGs registering 40 to 50 percent occupancy now, we expect the numbers to go up soon,” he adds.

“If you listen to the customer, they will honour you back,” says Ajai Thandi, founder of Sleepy Owl Coffee, who received incredible understanding from his buyers when the company ran out of packaging in the middle of the lockdown (as manufacturing units were shut), delaying deliveries. Thandi’s B2B business that brought about 40 to 50 percent of revenue plummeted to zero as the lockdown was announced, but its online-first model saved it from caving in. 

Surviving 2020: How the young and restless dealt with the Covid-19 standstill

“When a crisis like this drops on you, it brings with it the fear of the unknown. And that’s scary. But then you sit down and start planning, project the worst-case scenarios and it becomes a known devil,” he says. The 30-year-old decided to target customers now cooped up at home and craving good coffee. Being in the essential services sector, the company went back to work by end-April and began shipping, albeit slowly. Result? Sleepy Owl turned Ebidta-positive by June, a quarter they had mentally earmarked as dead. “By the end of the year, we were serving 1.5 to 2 lakh cups of coffee, about 25 percent more than what we were doing in the early months of the lockdown. This year, we have registered a 100 percent increase in bottomline as well,” says Thandi.   

Finding an opportunity in a crisis, though, is a phrase often used loosely. Sometimes, there are none. Kartik Sharma and Divyansh Shourie, 19-year-old co-founders of Seguara, a luggage storage company launched in November 2019, learnt it the hard way when they had to shut down their venture. Between January and March, Seguara was earning about `1 lakh a month and managing 17 stores that would double as storage facilities for theatre-goers, examinees etc, who weren’t allowed to carry bags inside. 

One of Segura’s big plans in 2020 was to tie up with ticketing platform BookMyShow for a chargeable luggage-storage option, just like it offered for F&B outlets. But when stepping outdoors was curtailed, exams went online and theatres and other discretionary visits were banned, the business went kaput. In end-May, Segura folded up, but its still-teen founders aren’t despondent. “When one venture shuts, there is always an opportunity to open another, to address another problem,” says Sharma, who is now interning with EazyPG. “I’ve built a network in the VC community and learnt that you need a solid hand in tech for a start-up. Now, onward to more learnings and the next goal.”     

Giving up is something Goila’s father advised against when the chef was toying with the idea of closing down a few outlets. Pramod reminded his son of a time in 2001 when he lost money as one of his suppliers went bankrupt and couldn’t pay him his dues. “Dad was in depression for three years and the situation at home wasn’t happy. But he soldiered on. He told me people go through a lot more than what I was going through. His and chef Ranveer Brar’s, who underlined how I built a credible brand at such a young age, were the words of motivation that I needed,” says Goila. 

Surviving 2020: How the young and restless dealt with the Covid-19 standstill
Chef Saransh Goila at the opening of his Pune outlet 

During their downtime, Goila and co-founder Vivek Sahni crunched numbers and spotted an upward trend in premium deliveries—diners who would earlier go out every week were now ordering in frequently. With GBC positioned as a delivery business, Goila and Sahni identified a growth avenue. In May, Goila took a bank loan of around `25 lakh to cover losses. In June, he resumed work and was surprised to see an uptick in business, to nearly 70 percent of pre-Covid levels. “It was a gamble and it worked,” he says. Before Covid, GBC had four outlets and 45 employees; it went down to 25 staff members in June and is now back to 40. Meanwhile, it has added an outlet in Mumbai, two in Pune, one in Bengaluru and given out a franchise to Carousel in London. 

Like Goila, rapper Divine also used the lockdown months to shore up his music playbook at home, something he had put on the backburner due to his frequent tours. “I’ve written a whole album and done a bunch of singles, including one for the Netflix film The White Tiger,” he says. “It’s the most music I’ve made in five years. It also made me realise that touring is a bonus and that I should focus more on making music.” 

Nagal used the time to work on his serve and backhand and his left side, a weakness for right-dominant tennis players, at the Nensel Tennis Academy in Germany. In the US Open held in August-September, he became the first Indian in seven years to make it to the second round of the singles of a Grand Slam, before bowing out to eventual winner Dominic Thiem. When fatigue did hit, Nagal afforded himself a break, returning to his Delhi home for a month in November. “I literally did nothing for days. There were days when I would wake up at 11 or 12, eat parathas, game a bit, have lunch. For a week, I didn’t step out of my apartment,” he says. 

Chasing goals every day can be sapping, agrees Raj of EazyPG. “Sometimes you need to give time to businesses, processes, people. You can’t achieve something every day,” he says. Similarly, the rat race for revenues can be misleading and short-term. Disasters such as 2020 may set one back by several months, but only a sustainable business can ride out the crisis. For Sleepy Owl’s Thandi, that means shifting gears from a hyper-growth startup to one in pursuit of longevity. “You should always conserve cash for contingency, and look at the bottomline when doing business,” he says.  

2020 could be a year wasted or a lesson learnt, depending on whether you see a glass as half-full or half-empty. Despite his menstrual waste dispenser failing to take off the way he had envisaged it, the year has moulded Dhariya of PadCare Labs into a leader, convincing him to step out of the confines of his lab and engage in dialogue with his stakeholders, if he is to build a lasting business. “2020 pulled us back like an arrow, but also primed us for release. In 2021, we’ll use the lessons learnt to meet our target: Of serving more than 10 million women,” says Dhariya.  

In Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, protagonist Howard Roark is confronted by his college dean over his modernist architectural work, a striking departure from the conventional. “My dear fellow, who will let you [do this]?” he asks. To which Roark replies, “...who will stop me?” To every setback that 2020 has brought about, the young and the restless have offered an equally fitting reply.

The kids, indeed, are all right.

(This story appears in the 12 February, 2021 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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