March 27, 2020

Marketing in the time of coronavirus

Are startups offering their services for free during the coronavirus crisis out of altruism — or opportunism?

Amy Lewin

5 min read

In recent weeks, startups in Europe have been seemingly overcome by a wave of altruism. 

As the world as we know it goes on hold, companies have decided to offer their goods and services for free to help hard-pressed healthcare professionals and stressed-out newly-remote workers. 

But a cynic might say that many are attempting to capitalise on our house-bound state to sell us some more stuff we don’t really need.

Take YFood, the meal replacement startup: it’s offering medical staff in Germany care packages worth €100,000. Lucky doctors and nurses can end a long shift with “whole pallets of drinking meals”, which — we imagine — are precisely what they fancy right now.


“Especially in such difficult times we all have to stick together and also as a startup we want to make our contribution here,” said YFood chief executive Benjamin Kremer in a statement.

Then there’s Spoon Guru, a dietary requirements app, which has leapt to help Europeans by highlighting food that can help to boost their immune systems. “Spoon Guru has used its proprietary algorithms to quickly pivot in the wake of Covid-19 to create the Immunity Boost TAG,” said Markus Stripf, chief executive and cofounder, in a press release. 

It is, he adds, more or less the next best thing to eradicating the virus. “Although there isn’t a cure for coronavirus yet, what we can do is give our body the best possible chance of operating at its optimum level by making better-informed choices.”

And there’s Revolut, partnering with The Trussell Trust food bank network “to support emergency food needs around the UK during the coronavirus pandemic”. Revolut customers will be able to donate to the charity via the app to support vulnerable people around the country — while Revolut, which raised $500m in February, is generously waiving donation fees.

Perhaps we’re being unfair. Maybe nurses love meal-replacement drinks and people do indeed need advice on immunity-boosting food and the opportunity to donate to food banks via banking apps will prompt many people to do so. But so many of these coronavirus offers feel just a little more like opportunism than altruism. 

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Not all biz dev is alike

Thousands of startups are seeing coronavirus as a business development opportunity. But there is a big difference between those with products that can truly help — like robots that can disinfect hospitals or online learning tools — and those jumping on the bandwagon.

Digital doctor startups are experiencing an enormous boom and this could just be the catalyst the sector needs to truly take off. Doctors will realise that seeing patients via a video call isn’t so ineffective; patients will realise that they don’t need to take that trip to the surgery quite so often; regulators will realise that this technology isn’t quite so scary after all.

This is brilliant for business — but right now, it’s brilliant for customers too.

Doctor surgeries are closing around the continent, and healthcare support systems are overrun with enquiries as people are scared and in need of reliable, personalised healthcare information. Here, digital health companies have a big and urgent role to play. 

UiPath, the robotic processing automation company, has put software robots to work inputting data in a hospital in Ireland to save nurses hours each day on administrative tasks. Velmio, an Estonian digital health startup, has built a Covid-19 tracker app and plans to share the data with researchers. And Doctolib, the French doctor appointment booking platform, has made its teleconsultation service free to use.

This is what we need — and these companies are rising to the challenge. 

Remote workers need help too

Meanwhile, on a mission to keep the economy afloat are those companies enabling remote work. Zoom, as you may have heard, is the gold medal winner here. But aside from video-conferencing software, there are virtual conference tools like Hopin, which has seen more than a 1,000% rise in demand over the past month. There are companies like Workable, a hiring platform, which has made its video-interviewing add-on free for three months to help companies hire remotely. And Klaxoon, which is offering companies a three-month free trial of its remote collaboration tools, after seeing demand rise by 90%.


These startups’ investors are, of course, rubbing their hands with glee. Remote work will not go away and even when the world returns to some semblance of normality, these companies will be winners. They’ll benefit from increased familiarity with their tools and, if they play their cards right, keep hold of hordes of customers. 

No-one’s paying

Other companies are offering their services for free because, well, no-one’s paying. 

ViaVan, the mobility company, has made its on-demand ride-sharing service BerlKönig free to use for healthcare workers in Berlin — because barely anybody else can or is using it anyway. “We are proud to apply our technology and operational expertise to support essential mobility for critical healthcare workers in Berlin during these challenging times,” said ViaVan chief executive Chris Snyder.

Impala, a travel tech startup that raised a handy chunk of funding just last month, is giving its smaller hotel customers a payment break. (Because, presumably, they wouldn’t be able to pay anyway.) And Sweetguest, an Italian home-sharing app, is letting its rooms out for free to people who have been ordered to self-isolate (after seeing bookings fall off a cliff). 

The nice to haves

And then there are the nice to haves. Like parking space startup YourParkingSpace offering free spaces to healthcare workers in the UK. Or workplace mental health company Unmind making its app free for NHS staff. Or Zego, the insurance startup, which is offering its gig-worker customers free cover for 14 days if they need to self-isolate.

These are marketing ploys with good intent, offering real benefit to some customers — and they’re not pretending to be anything else.

So please, do help the healthcare workers, the supermarket shelf stackers and the cleaners, do assist the teachers and the parents who’ve become home schoolers overnight, and do support the founders whose businesses are struggling — but please, also think twice before sending out that press release. Make sure you are helping others more than yourself.

Amy Lewin

Amy Lewin is Sifted’s editor and cohost of Startup Europe — The Sifted Podcast , and writes Up Round, a weekly newsletter on VC. Follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn