Entrepreneurs, startups are tackling coronavirus isolation, loneliness
In a new series, CNBC Make It speaks to young entrepreneurs who are pivoting their businesses, or starting anew, to address some of the challenges raised by the coronavirus pandemic.
We’ve all been a lot more isolated lately, as many of us hunker down in our homes under some form of social restriction.
But while social distancing has been a challenge for many, others have turned the crisis into an opportunity.
Fighting physical distance
Even before the coronavirus outbreak, isolation was on the rise. In the era of connectivity and social apps, loneliness is ironically pervasive. Today, close to two-thirds (61%) of adults in the United States report feeling lonely — up from just over half (54%) in 2018.
That can have major implications for our health. Studies suggest people suffering from loneliness can be more susceptible to physical health issues, such as stroke, heart disease and early mortality.
One person who knows that better than most is 29-year-old Karen Dolva, co-founder of No Isolation.
Over the past five years, the Norwegian entrepreneur has been working to tackle loneliness, and the associated health issues that stem from it for children and the elderly, via a series of ‘warm’ technology products. These products, which aim to mimic physical interaction and ease communication, include a telepresence robot for children and a simplified tablet for the elderly.
But only now has the coronavirus brought home the extent of the problem, she said.
“We’ve definitely seen a change in the loneliness market. When we started, we were very much alone,” said Dolva.
In the final two weeks of March — as the virus took hold in Europe and led to widespread lockdowns — demand for No Isolation’s products skyrocketed and the company had to fast-track production to fulfill new orders.
“We thought we weren’t going to produce anything more during 2020,” said Dolva. “We had to turn around and find ways of producing more units. Box-fresh has never been more true!”
That has helped more elderly people stay connected with loved ones as they shelter at home. Since the outbreak, each tablet user receives over eight calls per week on average — up from nearly two in the months before. Dolva said that reflects the surge in people checking in and sharing videos with older family members.
“It’s quite cool to see how it’s working, because people are using it a lot,” said Dolva. “They’re getting an average of 17 photos per week. For these seniors, that’s like getting postcards.”
Managing mental health
Aside from the physical impact, isolation can also potentially trigger major psychological challenges.
Indeed, in March the World Health Organization (WHO) released guidelines for dealing with the mental health effects of coronavirus.
That’s something Calvin Benton, co-founder of U.K.-based Spill, has been trying to address. Since launching in 2018, the mental health platform has been providing workplaces with access to online therapy via the messaging tool Slack.
But with more people now working remotely, that service has become ever more important, says the 27-year-old entrepreneur.
“In the last two months, it’s kind of gone a bit insane. We’ve had more inbound request for Spill than we had in like the entire two years before that,” said Benton, who has had to build a workaround to sign up companies in less than 10 minutes.
And it’s not just demand from employers. As individuals face new anxieties around work and their health, employees have been using Spill’s services at four-times the usual rate, according to Benton.
“The thing that we’ve really seen is just the rise in the need for answers,” he said. “There’s so much uncertainty around what’s going to happen in the next few weeks and months, and I think what’s been quite cool is that our therapists can at least predict how the emotional side of this is going to go.”
That’s been good news for therapists, too, who have been able to supplement lost income from face-to-face appointments with digital alternatives. Meanwhile, Spill has rolled out public services — such as ‘ask a therapist’ on Instagram Stories and free therapy sessions for people who have been retrenched — to help others in need.
“We’ve known we’ve had this amazing thing, it’s just been like a big awareness campaign,” said Benton.
While isolation can take its toll physically and mentally for some, it is the boredom that is stifling for others.
That’s where Danielle Baskin, co-founder of QuarantineChat, an app that connects strangers via random daily phone calls, comes in.
The 31-year-old and her co-founder, Max Hawkins, built the service on top of their existing chat app Dialup in March, shortly after stay-at-home notices were implemented in the U.S. But the idea was inspired long before, during Baskin’s earlier experience quarantining with mononucleosis, otherwise known as glandular fever.
“I just thought ‘oh, it would be cool if I could connect with someone else who has mono right now,'” said Baskin. “So when coronavirus became a thing … I had this idea seeded in my mind from years before.”
And the app has taken off. Currently, QuarantineChat is responsible for 2,300 hours — or more than 95 days — worth of conversations each week across 183 countries.
“We thought it would be like a very simple way (for people to) cheer each other up, or there’d be these moments that sort of mimic talking to a barista or talking to your neighbor,” said Baskin. “But what happens is people are actually talking on the phone for a long time and becoming friends.”
Most of that growth has been organic, through word of mouth. But Baskin, an artist by profession, said she is now working on the app full-time, and is already looking at avenues for expansion.
“I work on this probably 18 hours a day,” said Baskin. “We’re now building a system within the app that if you like talking to someone you can reconnect with them later … that’s like the number one feature request that people have.”
Building a business during a pandemic is no easy feat. Apart from the financial and logistical difficulties, it’s difficult to know what the new environment we are moving into will look like, and what consumer appetite will be.
However, Eric Ries, author of bestselling business book The Lean Startup, told CNBC Make It now could be a good time to find solutions to the real problems people are facing.
“Most of the greatest companies you’ve heard of were born in crisis,” noted the Long-Term Stock Exchange founder.
Nevertheless, Ries said that businesses, especially emerging start-ups, should build around a long-term world view, rather than just responding to issues specific to this moment in time.
“We’re not going to be in this emergency state forever. Some of these businesses are going to see a huge surge of demand and then in the new normal, actually a drop off.”
“We really want to be thoughtful about what is the long-term framework that I can put (in place) that will allow the company to thrive even if things go back to semi-normal.”
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