Iron Pillar

Hindsight 2020

A year ago, as the WHO officially declared Covid-19 a pandemic, I wrote a “stream of consciousness” blog with the above title. Yes, it was a play of the number 2020 (and notion of perfect vision) with a few predictions for the upcoming year. I took the “the glass half full” approach to life, as I usually do. Now, with the hindsight of last year, I thought it prudent to write a sequel to that particular piece, analyzing and dissecting the unprecedented last 12 months. The world is still grappling with the virus and its multiple variants, vaccine nationalism seems to have set in, the notion of taking the vaccine itself seems to be dividing nations and the world – Ironically, those who want it can’t get it, and those who can get it are choosing not to do so. Amidst the global chaos, humanity is stumbling towards an eventual, hopefully fruitful, milestone of the so-called herd immunity. 

There were several predictions that I had made a year ago:

1.     The world will be united like never before, since we are all fighting a common enemy (albeit an enemy we cannot see); 

2.     Virus democratization will affect the rich and poor equally

3.     Work and Learn from home will be the new normal

4.     While the world will suffer, there will be many positives that emerge from the collective human experience during the pandemic

Based on the four key points above, I am batting .500, which is great for baseball players but leaves me disappointed. 

#1: I was mostly wrong. The world overall seems to have gotten more polarized and the gap between the “have’s and have not’s” has magnified significantly. The true extent of the damage, in terms of toll on mental health, and the massive education loss globally, especially for those in the lower social strata (btw, this is true as much in the US, as it is in other parts of the world) won’t be fully understood for years to come. Vaccine nationalism is taking over with certain developed nations on their way to being majority vaccinated, while some developing nations yet to receive a single shot. There were clearly points of collaboration among the scientific community to develop and approve vaccines in record time (with the Chinese scientist providing the genome sequence for the virus to the rest of the world to analyze which eventually led to multiple vaccines being approved). But there was also plenty of finger pointing and blaming (often politically motivated). Rather than convergence, there seems to be divergence in education, protocols and best practices in terms of dealing with the pandemic. The world is still in the grips of fully understanding the viral modalities, and creating a challenging balance between safety and economic revival. Layer on top people’s own beliefs in science, conspiracy theories, cognitive biases, social-media led misinformation and personal financial circumstances, and you’ve got a divisive mess on a global scale.

#2: This is definitely true. The virus attacks the rich as much as the poor. It has killed heads of state and the wealthy along with devastating the poor in countries with already failing healthcare infrastructure. Ironically, in places like India, while the number of infections have ebbed and flowed (currently on the rise again), the overall mortality rate is low. The only bit that I can attribute that phenomenon to is a combination of a young population, and the fact that the Indian immune system in general is put through the ringer a lot more than more pristine environments of developed nations. Growing up around pathogens for the Indian population has potentially led to higher innate immunity, and perhaps doesn’t give the virus a weak set of hosts to latch on to and create havoc. I was recently speaking with an entrepreneur in Uganda who happened to mention the exact same trend in many parts of Africa as well. But, the wealthy, even in developing nations, have been able to get ahead in the queue in terms of vaccinations, either in their own country, or by finding connections elsewhere. 

#3: There is no doubt that remote education and work have gotten massive tailwinds over the past year. And imho, that trend is here to stay. Having said that, human beings, as social animals, have definitely reached screen fatigue and are looking forward to “3D” interactions, whether in the classroom, at the office or at an entertainment venue. An interesting social experiment that I believe will play out is the desire for many in the workforce to not want to get out of their pajamas to travel to work. Many are now comfortable in a work from home environment that brings with it some leisurely perks – no need to dress up (I feel many will have forgotten how to); no need to sit in traffic; taking a mid-day nap if necessary, in one’s own bed, and snacking on home-cooked sourdough (which seemed to have become a phenomenon of sorts in the US). Families have moved from expensive cities like New York and San Francisco to rural towns, both for lower population density and a better quality of life. A hybrid future will be the norm, especially in the workplace, but it will be interesting to see the mix of in-person and remote, and the overall trend in the medium to long term. 

#4: This one is a bit of a corollary to #1. While the jury is still out, I am still very hopeful that it is the collective “goodness” of humanity that will shine through at the end, as books and case studies are written, and movies/documentaries made about life during and especially after the Covid-19 pandemic. Neighbors helping neighbors; those with resources helping those in need; entrepreneurs stepping up to the challenges and bringing connection (virtual proximity) during times of “social distancing”. In a strange way, right after the global shut down, the air got cleaner, and people could actually notice the natural beauty that had otherwise been covered in man-made pollution and soot. Animals roamed city streets because of no traffic. And human being actually paused to notice our surroundings for a change, rather than constantly running from one task to another. Yes, the world has suffered tremendously, and there has been significant loss of life and livelihood, but I am still hopeful that this “shock to the system” also makes us realize, as human beings, what is truly important and what is not. 

2020 has been a massive reality check for the world. But I did want to share my very positive story personally and professionally and how the last 12 months have shaped my life. On the personal front, I have realized more deeply than ever before that healthy lifestyle can be boiled down to simple doable tasks. I have been walking on average 20,000 steps/day. On a recent day, I didn’t realize that I had walked about 43,000 steps (17 miles). Usually, unless I absolutely have to be on video calls, I choose to take the calls while I briskly walk on trails or streets around my home. That, in conjunction with home cooked meals (rather than airplane or hotel food which were my typical options during a crazy pre-covid travel regimen), led to a weight loss of 15 pounds.  Being at home with the family meant quality time with my wife and three teenage kids (especially my college sophomore), much of which otherwise I would have spent on my travels. 

Professionally, 2020 has been nothing short of spectacular, as can be said more broadly about many tech startups and the public markets that are roaring. It truly is a juxtaposition of two different economies – one that has seen massive tailwinds and shattered records; and the other (especially in mom-and-pop shop retailers, travel, entertainment and the like) that has seen massive losses and shattered livelihoods. It is truly surreal, and something I struggle to make sense of, to be very honest.

At Iron Pillar, in the middle of the pandemic, we raised a $48M oversubscribed Top-Up Fund to double down on three winning companies from Fund I– FreshToHome, Servify and Uniphore. All three companies have raised meaningful rounds of capital over the past year and seen their businesses grow 3-4x. We have successfully invested in our first two companies from Fund II – CoreStack and Ushur, and have received rousing endorsement from our existing and new investors. The Iron Pillar team assembled a group of nearly 30 remarkable serial entrepreneurs, academics and CxO’s to form the Iron Pillar Network to help our pipeline and portfolio companies. We have added to our team across India and the Middle East. 

I will end the with some of the same words I used in the original article a year ago — There is no doubt that 2020 will be remembered as the year of global turmoil, when, due to the pandemic, billions of lives were turned upside down and many were lost in a relatively short period. Case studies will be conducted at leading schools and strategy firms around the world analyzing how certain countries responded well and were able to control the pandemic, while others could not or did not. Best practices will emerge, and hopefully the world will be better prepared when (not if) the next pandemic hits. From the startup and venture ecosystem standpoint, many technology companies have been significant covid-beneficiaries in obvious categories such as remote access, education, communication, commerce, communities etc. At the same time, startups that had to pivot or reinvent themselves, conserve cash and focus, will come out stronger on the other side. The overall result will be the emergence of “Covid-Boomers”, future Unicorns that emerged or found a real product-market fit during the Pandemic, similar to companies that were created or thrived during previous disruptions during the dot com bubble, or the global financial crisis. Only time will tell whether I am right on this one…

Now, with screen fatigue deeply set in, I am looking forward to in-person interactions, gatherings with friends and family, strategy sessions and white-board exercises with my colleagues and entrepreneurs. While life will never quite be the same, I am confident that we will come out on other other side of 2021 simply better, more empathetic, supportive, caring and thoughtful than ever before. That, in turn, will set up the world for unprecedented growth and a second coming of the “roaring 20’s”. With a name like “Jolly”, I have to be optimistic. There is no choice:)

About Mohanjit Jolly

Mohanjit Jolly

Partner at Iron Pillar bringing to the table more than 2 decades of investing and operation experience.