AXA Next on Shifts in the Startup World, and Fueling Innovation Virtually

By Kaitlin Milliken |  April 9, 2020

As containing COVID-19 became a global effort, companies around the world shifted to remote work. Meeting with startups, brainstorming sessions, and weekly check-ins could no longer be done face to face. 

Bastiaan de Goei, Head of AXA Next US.

During this transition, clear communication has become increasingly important.  “The key thing is to… [communicate] on the vision — to keep people informed about what’s happening, and also what the company is doing,” says Bastiaan de Goei, Head of AXA Next US. “[Tell people,] ‘This is how you can contribute.'” AXA Next US is the innovation branch of AXA, a more than 200-year-old insurance and financial services company based in Paris, with a presence in over 60 countries.

While some organizations have struggled with the sudden shift to remote work, the team at AXA Next already had experience running distributed teams, and was using many tools that support working from home.

While de Goei says his team’s priorities have largely stayed the same, he notes that the amount of internal and external communication has increased.  “We are focusing on how we can add value to…our operating companies as well as our network,” de Goei says. “Normally, we would engage with people over meetings or at conferences. [More so than before,] we are proactively reaching out to different players in our network and scheduling more meetups over phone and video conference.” 

AXA Next’s team team of six in San Francisco gradually began working from home starting in early March. However, the team completely transitioned to remote work about a month ago — just before San Francisco issued a shelter-in-place order that limited movement outside of the home to essential trips only. 

De Goei and Viviene Ly, Digital Development Manager at AXA Next US, shared their advice for running distributed teams during a conversation with InnoLead. They also discussed changes their team has already seen in the startup landscape. 

Shifts in the Startup World

de Goei says he is seeing more startups that are looking for near-term business opportunities to enhance their cash flow. Startups also seem more interested in investment from corporates, whereas in the past they might have preferred to take capital from a traditional venture capital firm. 

“There is definitely an uptick in organizations that have come to ask for potential funding rounds,” he says. “That’s everything that you would normally associate with the beginnings of a credit crisis… [But] I would say…we are not far enough in yet for this to have serious consequences…on the startup side.”

Most well-managed startups have a runway of six to 12 months, he says, so startups “from a pure credit and cash flow point of view…will probably be able to cope.” He adds that his prediction will change if the global health and economic situation persists. 

Increased Use of Telehealth 

Healthcare startups have refocused their efforts on the challenges posed by coronavirus, de Goei says. Telehealth services, for example, have gone from nice perk to necessity.

“We’ve seen startups like Teladoc, PlushCare, [and] Doctor On Demand…offer things such as free chatbot services, and free appointments with clinicians to triage unnecessary visits to already crowded medical facilities,” Ly says. “[This can] limit the risk of exposure and spread of the virus.” 

Telehealth was already a focus area for AXA, and the company continues to explore offerings that might meet customer needs. AXA has also incubated its own telehealth solution, Qare, that currently operates in France. 

Viviene Ly, Digital Development Manager at AXA Next US

Running Online Workshops 

During this period of online work, de Goei says teams across AXA Next are focused on keeping projects moving forward. The ideation stage can take place online using tools like Whiteboards from Microsoft, according to de Goei. Consumer testing also continues through online surveys. 

When running online workshops with colleagues, de Goei emphasized the importance of advanced preparation and agenda-setting. “Communicate what your expectations are, and have somebody who manages time and makes sure that everyone is on the same,” he says. “Those principles apply to any workshop…[and they] apply even stronger in an online environment.” 

De Goei also advises leaders to solicit contributions from all attendees. If not, attendees get distracted and disengage, he says. 

Staying Connected

Ly suggests that teams find creative ways to run meetings that foster a sense of connection. For example, instead of an ordinary weekly call, she shares a meal over video with one of her colleagues in Paris. “It’ll be breakfast time for me and dinner time for her,” Ly says. “[The virtual meal] gives us the time to not only catch up on work, but connect and socialize on a more personal level.” 

The team’s happy hour outings have also gone virtual. During these calls, de Goei says, teammates and their family members are able to check-in with familiar faces. 

The team also holds a daily morning check-in that helps maintain the office culture. “First thing every morning, [we] catch up with each other, align on our priorities for the day, and keep up-to-date on the various projects and initiatives we’re each working on,” Ly says. “It’s the one time of day we can all interact, have a cup of coffee with each other like we would in the office, and then get…that boost of morale we need to kick off the day on a positive note.”