How the pandemic reshaped an international project launch
Billon Group was a participant in Raiffeisen Bank International’s Elevator Lab. The programme turned into a moment of panic in late February as Europe started shuttering inside in response to COVID-19. Clients began deferring projects even as Demo Day rapidly approached, with Billon’s project – the first live tokenisation of euro – slated to be the showcase of the programme.
Billon shares five tips gleaned from this experience and reveals ways the pandemic reshaped the fintech’s vision of what a launch and an international collaboration could be:
Billon’s cooperation with Raiffeisen Bank International (RBI) started in late summer 2019. The Elevator Lab Partnership, RBI’s programme for fintech to test solutions, chose Billon and five others from hundreds of applicants.
Our goal was a live, working proof-of-concept of digital cash issued directly by the bank. This was a bold departure from stablecoin architectures where a third-party issues coins and the bank purchases those coins for use. We had done this before, in Poland, but never in Austria and with this level of visibility. So, we created a set of blockchain nodes with web management so pilot participants could, for the first time ever, issue and transfer digital tokens representing the euro.
The run-up to the March Demo Day was going great. The programme itself was managed exceptionally well. We attended weekly status meetings, participated in monthly “on-site days” in Vienna, and met RBI project sponsors for mentoring. And we exchanged information and experience with other Elevator Lab participants from the Balkans, Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Israel.
During January and February 2020, we met more often in Vienna, meeting various RBI departments, Raiffeisen Landesbanks (community banks from Austria) and network banks within the Raiffeisen group. We brainstormed a bright future of possibilities and use cases.
In the background, the virus spread. The pandemic presence had not been officially confirmed in Warsaw or Vienna, but there were few cases spotted in Northern Italy and Tirol.
Then, a few days before the planned event, the decision about the lockdown in Austria had been taken. Demo Day was cancelled. We were gutted. There would be no presentation to potential clients, investors, or the media. Our big launch was suddenly very much in question.
To the credit of Elevator Labs and Raiffeisen, they saved Demo Day, transforming it into a remote presentation to the Innovation Board via Microsoft Teams. While it could not be the big splashy event we had originally envisioned, we quickly shifted to a new goal – how to virtually win over the decision makers to position ourselves for future work.
We went fully remote on both sides. A variety of remote tools were used, from Google Docs to Microsoft Teams, to WhatsApp and Slack. And we developed a new, live remote demo to compensate for the inability to be face-to-face.
The remote, smaller Demo Day exceeded our expectations. While the attendance was limited and without media presence or a big announcement to the press, instead, it was a moment that truly solidified the sense of collaboration and chemistry between the Billon and RBI teams. Another positive outcome came two months later when Stefan Andjelic, Blockchain Hub lead at RBI, presented the use case at the 19 May Anon Summit for blockchain, allowing others to see the possibility to tokenise euros directly.
From a project insider perspective, I believe an important factor in the project’s success was culture. Both Billon and RBI are fortunate to already have established, remote-friendly cultures. Switching to fully online work was not a huge challenge in hindsight. We were already using many remote working tools in some form, so we only had to shift our mindset in how we used them. Where once we treated the tools supplements to face-to-face communications, soon we realised them as a key to remote productivity.
That led to new practices, such as more frequent and informal communication to make up for the loss of in-person chemistry. We adopted a new discipline of respectful and collaborative behaviours for formal online meetings. RBI, with its network of banks stretching across Europe from Russia to Croatia, was used to formal remote cooperation, and so they helped to lead the way for formal behaviors and we helped on informal, start-up behaviors. Looking back, we see it as a great success story and we deeply appreciate everyone involved from all the organisations.
Five tips for managing an international project during the pandemic
1. Remote tools: use them all
We have gravitated to Google Suite for document collaboration, WhatsApp and Hangouts for communication, and various project tracking tools, but also use MS Teams, Zoom, and other tools as needed for clients.
2. More meetings, not less
Status meetings are important. Even when you feel everything is under control, other project team members might have different opinions. It is useful to connect regularly (even if it’s just a short meeting) to ensure everyone is aligned.
3. Respect people’s time
No more face-to-face meeting behaviours where people slowly gather, and meetings start five minutes late (remember these?). Start on time and remember that your counterparts can have more meetings than usual during lockdown.
4. Don’t be afraid to truly collaborate
Rather than keeping both sides separate outside of meeting, do everything you can to open collaboration. Joint editing of agendas, agreed goals, and shared documents and minutes are far more collaborative today. And prepare minutes as soon as possible after the meeting.
5. Show your face – and keep a sense of humour
The pandemic has brought us into each other’s homes. Personal connection can replace in-person chemistry, and it is okay to show your face and situation (and then mute cameras to improve call quality). Not every person has the ideal quiet, well-equipped, dedicated home office. Many share spaces with flatmates, children or family. Be understanding when babies cry; dogs bark, and connections glitch – often at the most inopportune moments. With patience and a bit of humour we can all get through this together – and do some great work in the process.